14 NOVEMBER 2022 | 11.00 – 13.30 CET

Webinar “The Sustainable Use: Organic Agriculture & EU Food Production”

The EU Focus Group in cooperation with the Czech Presidency of the European Union organised a workshop on 14 November 2022 to analyse the state of the Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) and its impact on organic agriculture and EU food protection. The diverse audience included members of the European Commission, European Parliament, national governments, NGOs, and the industry.

The European Commission’s Way Forward seeks a drastic reduction of 50% of conventional pesticide volumes and an objective of 25% of organic farming by 2030. In the context of a major geopolitical crisis with serious concerns about food security, and with rising prices preventing all from having access to quality food, both goals need to be revisited. The webinar problematised the pertinent questions of how to boost organic agriculture, and with what efficient biocontrol solutions.

Pascal Michaux, Managing Partner of the EU Focus Group, outlined in its opening statement the need for farmers to have the proper tools, to develop organic agriculture and this includes plant protection product. The active substances need to be considered/assessed with due care, to ensure a clear communication with the society and farming community. Substances like copper, Spinosad or microbials are essential in biocontrol.

Jiří Šír, Deputy Minister of Agriculture of the Czech Republic, stressed in his keynote speech that the sustainability of food systems is a priority of the Czech Presidency. Binding national targets for reducing the use of pesticides and the complete ban in sensitive areas are just two important sources of disagreement amongst Member States, but also the Commission’s Impact Assessment that does not quantify the impact on different Member States. Mr Šír was persuasive about adjusting the legislative proposals to the current geopolitical situation with the war in Ukraine to ensure food security and the competitiveness of our farmers. His Ministry is committed to promoting alternative non-chemical methods, precision farming, and new genomic techniques in a pragmatic and constructive way to help farmers meet the objectives of all the strategies.

The first panel discussed the current paradigm change in EU food production. Mihail Dumitru, Deputy Director-General of DG Agriculture, highlighted how the climate urgency calls for alternative forms of food production crystallised in the Green Deal, the Farm-to-Fork and Biodiversity strategies. In his view, the 2009 SUR should be reviewed under the lenses of agroecology, precision farming, and biological active substances. The Commission takes the feedback seriously, especially as regards the methodology for setting national targets and sensitive areas. Mr Dumitru put in context the legislative packages with the Common Agricultural Policy and Horizon Europe and advanced a comprehensive analysis of the food security drivers. He also called for a comprehensive Action Plan on organic farming that studies the entire value chain from production to the final consumer.

Jitka Götzová, Director at the Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic, stressed the importance of non-chemical plant protection products for the 17% of the Czech production that is organic. Ms Götzová spoke up for safety in food production beyond food security, showing strong interest in implementing smart farming and GTS while keeping Czech farmers competitive.

The French perspective was brought up by Daniel Sauvaitre, Secretary General of Interfel, who pointed out that the French organic food demand decreased in 2022 due to inflation, environmental factors, as well as preferences for local production. Mr Sauvaitre stressed that growers are in need of adequate tools at a time where new pests and diseases are arising, with the example of French apple production and the need for adequate products such as copper or sulphur. Conservatism in EU risk assessment should not prevent organic farmers from having access to key biologicals. He argued that food sovereignty, as French priority, cannot be achieved without available solutions for farmers.

The focus of the second panel was natural solutions and their contribution to a more sustainable farming. Martin Hlaváček, MEP Renew and Member of AGRI Committee, considered important to find enablers to support farmers to produce in a sustainable way. He identified four pillars to reduce the most hazardous products: provide availability of diverse plant varieties with genomic advances; scale up precision application of any active substance with technology; provide availability of less harmful organic substitutes with different metrics for environmental and health evaluations; and a market evaluation of the more sustainable products that adjusts product value to prices. For Mr Hlaváček, the European Commission is missing the opportunity to treat SUR as an element of a larger and holistic legislative package like Fit for 55.

For Andreas Huber, Corteva EMEA Field Sciences Leader, natural products can contribute to increase organic food production. Mr Huber presented the successful story of Spinosad, a natural insecticide produced by a soil fungus discovered two decades ago that is currently used in more than 200 crops across the EU. He also stressed the commitment of the industry with microbial biologicals or microbial biostimulants that would optimise the use of fertilisers. Mr Huber reiterated that organic farmers also require solutions against pests and plant diseases to maintain the levels of food production, which is why Corteva signed an industry-wide commitment to invest €4bn in the development of biological solutions for growers by 2030.

The lack of a clear definition of natural substances constitutes a challenge for Pavel Minar, Director at Ukzuz. He mentioned that the definition of non-chemical products under SUR is a novel one, including other kinds of products such as biological control agents that can act as plant protection products but also for other uses. That is the case of microorganisms, biostimulants (related to fertilisers) or semiochemicals (such as pheromones used for monitoring). Mr Minar called for integrating ecological farming systems in the SUR by excluding from the definition of chemical active substances some inorganics that are allowed in organic agriculture. Furthermore, Mr Minar suggested that a series of mechanisms should be in place: financial support for integrated food production and organic food production, specific data requirements for natural products, natural product experts and trainers for farmers, etc.

Eric Gall, Deputy Director at IFOAM Organics Europe, presented organic agriculture as a public policy tool with the French example that governmental support to develop organic farming was the best way to incentive French conventional farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. He raised his voice to concretise the statement that more production is needed by linking it to its long-term viability, for organic farming focuses on minimising inputs external to the agricultural productions. Mr Gall expressed disagreement with the volume-based harmonised risk indicator in the SUR proposal for discriminating natural substances that are used in organic farming. He therefore suggested alternative measurements such as area or application rate per hectare and welcomed a conceptual distinction between synthetic and natural substances.

To conclude the discussion, Pascal Michaux, stressed that placing adequate solutions for farmers is needed for both conventional and organic agriculture. Mr Michaux also highlighted that a risk approach, and not a hazard-based one, is more adequate for natural substances so that organic farmers have access to indispensable biologicals. In particular, specific attention should be paid to the national geographic specificities and agronomic differences across the EU. Natural substances can increase sustainable food production at affordable prices.

Did you miss our webinar? Check out the recording posted here.