The UK and EU have issues with its organic farming that threaten to eat itself. Who’s to blame and why? European standards are driving reductions in residue limits which will have major impacts on Canadian farming, so it is important to understand what is going on in Europe.
As reported in the last issue of CAAR Communicator, the European Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed delivers opinions on draft measures that the Commission intends to adopt.
This group has a substantial impact on setting residue levels for certain types of crops, and has proposed changes to clethodim MRLs.
The European Union represents a significant market for Canada’s Canola, soybean and pulse growers. In 2020, Canada exported $1.5 billion of oilseeds and $723 million soybeans to the EU. Ninety percent of Canola and pulses grown in Canada are exported.
This article attempts to provide an understanding of what is driving the Europeans to adopt such changes. Understanding the background, may help Canadians better prepare for the future.
More people are turning to organically-grown foods and products, with data from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and IFOAM-Organics International showing estimated global sales in 2017 to be $137-billion.
In the UK, the organic sector was found to be worth £2.79-billion (~CDN $4.85-billion) in 2020, while the Canada Organic Trade Association says Canadian revenues in the organic market were $6.9-billion. Regardless of country, organic foods are expensive to grow.
Despite that, there is a robust outlook on the organic economy, including the adoption of the European Organic Action Plan. It’s no surprise that the organic farming industry has grown by leaps and bounds from organic farm to fork.
Following the global financial crisis of 2008/09, organic food sales in the UK have been on the rise—even though the amount of organically farmed land has shrunk. The number of producers and processors of organic food products also fell, as did the actual number of head of organic pigs, cattle and sheep.
A 2015 report from the European Environment Agency noted that UK organic farming had stalled in growth, showing that in the year 2000, 3.3 percent of the land was being farmed organically, unchanged as of 2015. The report noted that 6,072 farmers and certified processors were in business in 2015 versus 7,567 in 2009.
Meanwhile, Austria and Spain saw increases in organic farming between 2000-2015 with 18.5 percent and 7.5 percent growth, respectively.
Compare this with figures showing that organic sales in the UK rose in 2014 over the previous year by four percent.
The numbers suggest that either UK organic producers were giving up, or more European organic products were being sold in its stead.
Climate Change Concerns
A 2019 study in Nature Communications called out organic farming, saying it was worse for climate change, noting that it only cuts GHG emissions if you ignore that it requires more arable land—a lot more—to produce the same amount of food yield as traditional farms.
Because more land requires the clearing of additional grasslands or forests, the difference between clearing and growing would cause the release of more GHG emissions, the study asserted.
Researchers at Cranfield University in the UK wondered what would happen if England and Wales moved all-in from conventional farming to organic farming techniques. They determined that GHG emissions from livestock would decrease by five percent, and that growing crops would drop emissions by 20 percent per unit of production.
Conversely, the switch to an all-organically farmed situation would cause a drop in overall yields by 40 percent—causing the countries to have to import food to feed it. If you want to take that one step farther, the carbon footprint of transporting those additional foods would only add to the GHG emissions, providing financial solace only to the foreign organic trader.
Part of the issue with organic farming, is that along with lower crop yields relative to the same acreage used by traditional farming techniques, organic farming uses manure that releases methane, and longer crop rotations that have been found to increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil. But yes, fewer GHG emissions are produced by avoiding the use of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers.
The study determined that a switch to 100 percent organic farming would require an additional 1.5x more land to cover the yield shortcomings, which would add up to nearly 5x more farmland used over-seas than England and Wales currently rely on for food.
What tips the scale away from organic farming, is the yield issue.
Is Europe's F2F Plan Sustainable?
The European model of Farm to Fork certainly thinks green, but what shade of green is it?
The Farm to Fork Strategy is at the heart of the European Green Deal—a goal to be the first climate-neutral continent.
The Farm to Fork policy seeks: large increases in food production; creation of more organic farming; a greater reduction of synthetic pesticide use—but does not offer specific solutions that address organic farming’s productivity issues or how to handle crop pests under the stringent rules of organic farming.
Regarding organic food products, the Farm to Fork policy appears to want to move Europe away from the travails of traditional farming to the greener pastures of organic farming.
An article published August 26, 2020 by the Genetic Literacy Project took issue with this European agriculture policy, and said it would “not only increase hunger, (it would) undermine the climate change environmental goals as well.”
The article rightly stated that only after WWII did better agricultural technologies emerge, such as GMO—"the genetic manipulation of plants to create advanced hybrid crops, modern chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer, that everyone in Europe—and not just the upper class—had enough to eat.”
However, both GMO and CRISPR gene editing of seeds—something that could increase food production while reducing chemical dependence—are ignored because of its contrary stance with the Farm to Fork policy.
The article also opined that the Farm to Fork policy was shaped by “strong lobbying” within Europe’s organic farming industry but did not provide evidence to back up the statement.
According to the Export Development Canada 2020 organic report, Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA) stated that regulations in other countries “could constrain Canadian producers from reaching their full potential in key growth markets.”
COTA said the current Canadian framework gives an advantage to foreign organic producers owing to “regulatory imbalances”, and that international entities such as the USDA National Organic Program and the European Union organic program will “benefit from Canada’s acceptance of their laxer regulatory constraints by certifying and selling organic commodities, bearing organic logo, to Canadian consumers.”
The European influence on the organic food sector is having a negative effect on other non-participatory countries, and upon itself. Moving forward, a re-examination of the Farm to Fork policy goals and provision of solid details on how to achieve it is necessary.
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