Organic agreement leaves meat and dairy farmers in the muck

EU organic vegetables will soon be welcome in the US, but Americans say Europe’s organic dairy and meat standards are not up to par

The new organic standards agreement between the EU and the US paves the way for Denmark's organic vegetable, fruit, grain and seed producers to break into the lucrative US market. But organic dairy and meat farmers are left behind for now.

Thanks to the trade agreement ratified on Wednesday last week in Nuremburg, Germany, vegetable farmers and producers of organic vegetable-based foods will no longer have the hassle and expense of applying for separate organic certifications to sell their goods in the US and the EU – a requirement that discouraged most growers from peddling their wares across the Atlantic. Starting June 1, however, a single organic certification will do for both markets.

That's good news for Danish vegetable growers and it also means that more organic products from the US could soon show up on Danish grocery shelves. But due to an ongoing disagreement over the definition of organic meat and dairy products, Denmark's agricultural ace will be left out of play.

The opportunities for organic farmers on both sides of the pond are great, as Europe and the US are the world's two largest markets for organics – foods grown or produced without synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers, which have not been irradiated or treated with chemical additives, and which contain no genetically modified genes. Europeans spent about 320 billion kroner on organic foods in 2010, while Americans spent 115 billion kroner – and both markets are growing fast.

Unfortunately, however, the door does not swing equally both ways under the new organic trade agreement, say organic policy experts from the agriculture and food council Landbrug & Fødevarer.

“The agreement is generally a good idea, but it should be an agreement without exceptions and right now it includes exceptions that open the EU up more to organic producers from the US than it opens the US up to European producers. So, this is not an attractive agreement for the EU producers,” Landbrug & Fødevarer's team leader for the organics sector, Kirsten Lund Jensen, told The Copenhagen Post.

Jensen noted that Denmark's organic dairy and pork farmers would get little out of the new deal, and animal husbandry is the area where Denmark excels in agriculture.

On the other hand, Jensen added, Danish seed producers – especially those that grow the organic grass and clover seeds needed by organic ranchers – could get a big boost from the deal, as their produce would be highly sought after in the US.

“For Danish seed growers, this is a great opportunity – and seeds are something we do very well in Denmark in organics. But there’s not much in this agreement for the animal farmers,” Jensen said.

She explained that despite years of negotiations, organic experts from the US and the EU were still unable to agree on what constitutes organic meat and dairy products.

US organic rules do not permit the use of antibiotics to treat animals used for the production of organic meat and dairy products. In the EU, however, meat and dairy can still be labelled organic if the animals involved have been treated with antibiotics – both for existing illnesses and for prevention of possible illness. This difference of opinion about methods of organic husbandry has kept US and EU authorities from meeting all the way on the new organic agreement.

“We think it's better for the animal if we use these medications. But we're also very aware that there are issues with antibiotics and we're trying to diminish their use. There are things in the American organic husbandry rules that are not up to EU level, but we chose to make the alignment anyway,” Jensen added.

That means that meat and dairy products with the US organic label will be recognised in the EU, but not vice versa.

Uffe Bie, the organic farmers’ elected representative to Landbrug & Fødevarer, himself an organic dairy farmer, pointed out the need for further negotiations to even the playing field.

“We see the day’s results as a step in the right direction. But we also have to be realistic that we are still far from reaching our goal of completely harmonised standards. There are still critical barriers that need work in the coming years,” he added.

As the US-EU organic trade agreement must be renegotiated each year, breaking down those barriers to achieve full harmonisation will be on the agenda of Danish and EU agricultural leaders throughout the year in anticipation of 2013.