The latest organic sales and statistics for organic product sales released earlier this year show continued growth in agricultural growers and land use. And a much stronger increase in annual sales over the previous year: the EU, up almost 11 percent in 2017; the UK up 5.3 percent in 2018 (domestic sales); France, up 15.7 percent in 2018; North America, up 6.3 percent in 2018 (domestic sales), and Australia, up 15 percent in 2018.

However, according to recent market reports the certified organic label seems under attack from a proliferation of new ethical and social labels including the new USA regenerative organic label that adds claims on a better eco-social impact; ‘organic hydroponics’ recently approved by the USDA and widely promoted and taken up by the foodservice; more ‘natural’ and vegan labels and brands that come with a healthy ‘halo’ and sometimes misleading labelling; and a steady growth of organic supermarket house brands that may put pressure on other organic brands to lower prices. 

Niki Ford, chief executive officer Australian Organic Ltd, a not-for-profit organic industry group in Australia; the USA’s Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association’s executive director Laura Batcha, and the Brussels-based IFOAM EU group director Eduardo Cuoco, answered a few questions related to these challenges. IFOAM – Organics International endorsed Mr Cuoco’s statement. Responses have been abridged because of space limitations in the OWN printed edition.

"The biggest challenge for Australian certified organic production is “fake organics”

Niki Ford, Australian Organic Ltd.

Q1 Do you believe the organic concept is being diluted, despite strong growth reported globally?

NF I can only comment on the Australian Organic market and what is occurring here from a domestic and export perspective is very positive. Domestic growth is up 15 percent which demonstrates that more Australians are choosing certified organic products. Australia’s National Organic and Bio-Dynamic Standard are world-renowned as being a very high standard regarding animal welfare, production methods and allowable ingredients.

Q2 Is the organic concept and organic certification under threat from the examples shown or from other factors?

NF The biggest challenge for Australian certified organic production is “fake organics”. Australia is the last developed country to not have domestically enforced regulations around the use of the word organic. Consumers are fooled every day by products using the word organic in the brand name or marketing, and the consumer watchdog is not keeping up with submissions on very clear offenders.

Australian Organic Ltd has been lobbying for the past six months at both federal and state-level to request government take the organic industry seriously and legislate this term so all consumers can be sure what they are getting is what they are paying for.

Q3 An estimated 45 to 60 percent of total global organic product sales comes from packaged food & beverages; are growing sales of the supermarkets and private labels a threat?

NF The major supermarkets and their private retail labels are providing a platform for more organic consumers to enter the market. What would previously only be offered in a traditional health food shop is now available for every consumer within the walls of their local supermarket.  There are growing opportunities for businesses within Australia to partner with the largest and having more products on the shelf raises the profile of the organic industry to a very accessible level.

Q4 Is there more that organic associations and advocates can do to promote the sustainability, animal welfare, chemical and GMO-free nature of organics for instance?

NF I think there is always more that the industry can do to promote these topics as they all fall under organic certification requirements. From an Australia Organic Ltd perspective, we have an ongoing discussion with consumers and industry through monthly newsletters to members and content on our website.

September is Australian Organic Awareness Month (AOAM). You will see the campaign logo and point of sale material in all health stores, independent supermarkets and the three largest major supermarkets. AOAM is designed to drive awareness of the difference between certified organic products and “fake organics”.

"No risk for dilution of organic standards"

Eduardo Cuoco IFOAM EU Director

EC (Q1) The European Union (EU) and the US are the biggest markets for organic products. Together, they account for 84 percent of this market. The European standards are very clearly defined in the European Organic Regulation (EC) No 834/2007. In the EU, there will be a new organic regulation that will apply from 2021. It will be as strict as the current one, and there is no risk for dilution of organic standards. For example, the new regulation will strengthen the concept of soil-bound cultivation, and hydroponics will continue to be banned in the EU.

EC(Q2) The organic movement is striving to lead the transformation of our agriculture systems towards sustainability and the preservation of our natural resources. All the initiatives that genuinely decrease the impact of food production on our planet are welcome, whether they can be certified organic or not. Organic agriculture works according to four principles: health, ecology, fairness and care. These principles are the roots from which organic agriculture grows and develops. These interconnected ethical principles express the contribution that organic agriculture can make to the world, and they guide our development of positions, programs and standards.

The European market for organic is very diverse. The European Organic Regulation applies to the entire market in the EU, and other EU regulations cover ethical and social standards. However, in several countries, groups of producers and processors have set private standards that go even beyond the requirements of the organic regulation. Private standards and labels are and have always been the frontrunners of the development of organic standards. Their logos are very well recognized by consumers in many EU countries and present an addition to the EU organic logo.

Private standards have the power to improve further the organic standards set by the EU and result in an updated and even better organic regulation on EU level. Additionally, private standards cover issues that are not covered by the EU organic regulation, like packaging and social aspects.

EC(Q3) The organic sector continues to grow, with organic retail sales in the EU-28 having reached 34.3 billion EUR in 2017. The rapid growth of the organic market has led to changes, including the entry of conventional companies in many parts of the world.

The organic movement must be open to such newcomers yet remain in control of its development and stay connected to the principles of organic farming. In practice, the organic movement needs to ensure that organic producers and operators all along the production chain are fairly remunerated and that conventional retailers will not put undue pressure on prices that could risk leading to a race to the bottom. Moreover, organic principles encourage the sourcing of seasonal products, as much locally produced as possible.

This market development can also represent an opportunity to reach IFOAM EU’s vision of 50 percent of Europe’s agricultural land under production according to organic and agroecological principles by 2030.

EC (Q4) Organics already provide proven benefits for the different aspects of the environment like increased soil carbon sequestration, cleaner water, more abundant biodiversity. The organic sector has and will continue to be honest and transparent. Like everything in life, there is always room to improve. This also applies to the non-organic sector and newcomers to the organic sector – both should follow this transparent communication.

Policymakers also have a key role to play to ensure that the conditions are in place for the development of organic agriculture and agroecology. Both synthetic pesticides and GMOs are banned from organic production. The organic movement has been very active in the fight against chemicals and GMOs.

However, as long as the majority of farmers have the right to use chemicals and GMOs, there will always be a risk of contamination of the environment and the organic food chain. Dangerous chemicals and risky technologies should be phased out to decrease the environmental burden of pollution, at the benefit of all farmers and society.

What is crucial to increase the sustainability of organic is research and innovation. Innovation is at the heart of the European Union’s strategy for achieving smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Organic food and farming can contribute to meeting these EU objectives as they provide sustainable products, for which the market is expanding rapidly.

IFOAM EU built a broad and strong coalition by joining forces with civil society organizations, researchers, farmers and companies. Together they established TP Organics, the technology platform for organic food and farming, which identifies innovation goals for organic and promotes these towards policymakers.

‘Nothing to hide, everything to offer’

Laura Batcha CEO and Executive Director OTA

LBQ1 Our organic sector is one of the bright spots in the challenged US farm economy. Today, we have over 27,000 certified organic operations nationwide serving a US$52-plus billion market. Organic production practices, meanwhile, provide sustainable methods that can serve as a model for other farmers and protect the environment and farm workers.

In an era of record-low trust in government and corporations, the organic industry is refreshingly on the side of consumers and farmers and works in a transparent way to lobby for good. We want the public to know what we are about and what we need to thrive. During our Organic Week activities earlier this year in DC, we invited top social influencers to join us and pull back the curtain on our advocacy on Capitol Hill.

LB Q2 Organic practices are gaining attention in the US and worldwide as offering solutions to address climate change and providing healthy soils to produce nutritious food. Increasingly, practices that are allowed but also prohibited in organic production are starting to be recognized as important to the health and wellbeing of our planet and people.

LBQ3 Meanwhile, organic fruits and vegetables are the leading category of US organic food sales—a trend that continues as more and more consumers choose organic for their families. All outlets that sell organic products bearing the USDA Organic seal or using certified organic ingredients are welcome in the marketplace—whether major brands, or house brands and private labels. There is room in the organic market, as demand for US certified organic products continues to grow. Organic products are not by their nature meant to be luxury items, but rather necessary goods that help with our planet’s overall wellbeing.

LBQ4 As a trade association, the Organic Trade Association seeks continuous improvements in organic standards to be defined in the law and regulations to maintain the value and trust in the USDA Organic seal in the marketplace.

We believe that organic practices are beneficial to foster. Organic is a unique public-private partnership, a voluntary program overseen by third-party private certifiers with the added force of government oversight that has created the most rigorous and transparent set of food standards in the world.

Organic farmers and businesses are one of the few industries that want the government to ensure that standards and regulations governing them are robust and stringent. Organic depends on its clear differences. And as a trade association, we are determined to carry on that legacy.