Organic Articles: Setting The Standard

The Organic Consultancy

Setting The Standard

by Simon Wright

Simon Wright of The Organic Consultancy leads you through the maze of organic standards and explains why it all looks so complicated. This article originally appeared in organiclife magazine for October/November 2001.

How We Got Here

In the August/September edition of organiclife we looked at organic labelling and the bewildering profusion of organic symbols that appear on organic food and drink sold in the UK. Behind every organic symbol there is a set of organic standards and they are all different. Trying to understand the differences between the different organic standards is proving very difficult for the organic sector and nigh on impossible for organic consumers. How has such a complicated situation come about?

Organic legislation started in Europe in 1991 with EU Regulation 2092/91, which we translated into national legislation as the UK Organic Products Regulation the following year. This legislation specified how organic food was to be produced, processed and packaged to qualify for the description ‘organic’. Organic farming was defined as a way of growing crops that avoids the routine use of artificial pesticides or fertilisers: instead organic farmers grow their crops naturally, using crop rotation and other traditional techniques to keep the goodness in the soil. Unfortunately this legislation only covered crop products (fruit, vegetables, cereals) and it wasn’t until August 1999 that the initial EU organic regulations were extended to cover livestock production (meat, eggs, poultry and dairy products).

Between the years 1992 and 1999 the various European governments took widely differing approaches to how organic livestock production should be regulated and this difference persists today. In addition within each European country the different certifying bodies also adopted different positions. The end result was the wide variety of standards on organic livestock across Europe that we have today. Whilst this is undoubtedly confusing for all concerned it is worth emphasising that every certifying body in Europe must work to standards that at minimum meet the EU organic legislation. So you can be reassured that all organic products offer significant advantages over their non-organic versions. More difficult is understanding whether some organic standards are “better” than others. Let’s start in the UK.

The UK Big Three

The three biggest certifying bodies in the UK are The Soil Association, Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) and The Organic Food Federation (OFF). The Soil Association is the biggest, certifying over 4000 farmers and processing companies. Organic Farmers & Growers certify around 1500 enterprises, Organic Food Federation around 400. Philosophically the Soil Association is also different to the other two. Standards Director Francis Blake is clear that the Soil Association’s standards are in a state of continual upward development in order to “recommend best practice rather than just meet the minimum legal requirements”. Examples of where Soil Association standards exceed the legal minimum include more comprehensive standards on conservation, stronger measures to prevent contamination of organics by GM, more rigorous standards for organic pig production, smaller flocks for organic chickens and clearer labelling. Julian Wade at OFF refers to this as “gold plating” and feels that UK certifiers should only operate to the lower EU standards. Tim Green at OF&G also claims gold-plating but at a national level, with the problem being the UK governments relatively strict interpretation of EU organic legislation via UKROFS (the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards) .

Mainland Europe

Problems have resulted from certifiers outside the UK operating what many would see as overly-relaxed interpretations of the EU legislation. An example here is the conversion period. Before a farmer can start producing organically the land must undergo a monitored conversion period during which time no artificial pesticides or fertilisers are applied. In the UK this period is two years. Julian Wade tells of “organic” wheat from the Ukraine where the conversion period was much less than this because the wheat was being grown on “virgin land”. The Dutch certifying agency SKAL involved regarded this as acceptable, but it is unlikely that any UK certifier would have. Another contentious areas is that in the UK all organic animals must be born on the farm, whilst elsewhere animals can be from conventional origin and merely spend the final part of their lives on an organic farm. In the UK free range the requirements on free range poultry are interpreted more strictly than in most other EU countries.

Organic Fraud?

The rapid growth of the organic sector in the last few years has also brought the potential for large amounts of money to be made by unscrupulous producers and traders selling non-organic products as organic. The recent edition of “The Money Programme’ focussed on frauds involving organic grain that wasn’t. Currently traders who buy and sell organic products do not have to be registered with an organic certifying body. The Soil Association are campaigning to have everyone along the organic supply chain certified, including agents, wholesalers and distributors. Modern scanning and laserprinting technology has made the forging of organic certificates possible and many certifiers would like to see all certificates to be security waterprinted to combat this.

The Role Of IFOAM

Francis Blake suggests that another way of reducing fraud would be for certifiers and governments to work more closely with IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements. IFOAM works closely with certifying bodies around the world to ensure they operate to the same standards. The Soil Association have devoted much time and effort to having their standards approved by IFOAM and they are currently the only UK certifier to have achieved this, although OF&G are in the process of having their standards approved by IFOAM. If every certifier raised their standards so as to become approved by IFOAM we would then have basis for a truly international standard for organic production. So IFOAM must be a good thing? Not necessarily says Julian Wade “We don’t need another hoop to jump through. IFOAM may have an application in certain parts of the world but not here in Europe”.

Enter The Supermarkets

In the UK supermarkets have enormous power to determine how the organic sector develops and what standards are adopted. So far they have been broadly supportive of maintaining existing organic standards but they have not sought to engage with the standards-setting process. This is beginning to change as the more thoughtful supermarkets begin to understand the organic market better. Consumer research confirms that the organic sector is integrity driven – consumers must be able to trust that products they buy as organic will reach the standards they expect. Sainsbury’s have decided that organic standards is too important an issue to leave to EU legislation, governments or even to certification bodies. For example organic egg producers who wish to supply Sainsbury’s must agree to comply with an eight point plan which ensures that the chickens involved will be reared with a strict commitment to good welfare practices. Robert Duxbury, Sainsbury’s Technical Manager for Organic Foods, envisages taking an even more active role in setting organic standards in the future. “In the same way that we seek to sell only the best quality organic food we are now aiming to achieve highest integrity in organic certification”. Robert is also responsible for committing Sainsbury’s to only work with IFOAM-approved certifiers for its own label organic products from January 1st 2003 – an ambitious programme aimed at delivering high levels of organic standards across the entire Sainsburys’s organic range. Where Sainsbury’s lead will other supermarkets follow?

Filling In The Gaps

Despite the plethora of regulation and legislation there are still some gaps. There is currently no European or UK legislation that covers the production of organic fish, so individual certifying bodies such as the Soil Association in the UK and Naturland in Germany are developing their own. However without a basic EU standard to work from the standards developed by these certifying bodies can result in many differences. We are also beginning to see the development of organic clothing, organic beauty products and organic restaurants. None of these are covered by the EU or UK national legislation and so in each case the Soil Association is developing its own standards.

Where Next?

Francis Blake feels that “organic standards need to evolve in order to get closer to true organic princples – we are still some way off”. He would like to see organic standards putting more emphasis on food quality and providing more information to consumers – for example the country of origin of all significant ingredients in a product. Francis also sees wider issues such as fairtrade, Food Miles and energy use becoming enshrined in the Soil Association’s standards. Tim Green at OF&G disagrees. “Standards will evolve over time but in the global market in which we operate it is difficult to see the advantage of rushing ahead with standards development if it puts UK producers at a disadvantage against foreign producers”. But do consumers expect organic standards to continue to evolve? No-one knows as the research has not yet been done. However as conventional agriculture clears up its act organic standards may have to become more stringent in order to keep “clear blue water” between organic and non-organic.

In America after years of disagreement and intense lobbying the US Government finally published its own National Organic Programme (NOP) legislation last December. On the whole the NOP appears to have been well-received by organic consumers and certifiers throughout the USA. However the legislation prevents certifiers from telling consumers via product labelling that they have set their own standards at a “higher” level than those set by the NOP. This was done because the US Department of Agriculture were worried that a plethora of different organic certification standards would confuse the consumer. In the UK Patrick Holden the Director of the Soil Association is lobbying to reduce the number of certifying bodies to prevent “dilution of standards and confusion to the consumer”. Renate Kunast, Germany’s radical Minister of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture is planning to introduce a single eco label which is applied to all German organic products that meet EU organic standards.

What all three of these initiatives have in common is they assume that the organic consumer is confused by the multiplicity of organic standards that currently exist and that this confusion will only be reduced by bringing the various organic standards together. The challenge for the organic sector is to manage this “convergence”, that is to bring all the different organic standards together without dumbing down to the point where consumer confidence in organics is lost. The threat to organic certifying bodies is that if they cannot voluntarily agree a common organic standard then governments are likely to step in and do it for them.

For Further Information

If you want to become better informed about organic standards you can contact the certifying bodies mentioned in this article. Tell them organiclife sent you!

  • The Soil Association (tel 0117 9290661)
  • Organic Farmers and Growers (tel 01743 462762)
  • Organic Food Federation (tel 01760 720444)
  • UKROFS (tel 020 7328 6000)