A transatlantic organic equivalence arrangement has been negotiated between representatives from the US Department of Agriculture and EU Agriculture and Regional Development department, allowing for more market access of organic products certified under both the EU and US organic standards. This means that although these sets of standards do contain certain variances, the US National Organic Program (NOP) will be recognized as organic in the EU and vice versa, the EU Organic Program will be acknowledged as organic in the US.
The agreement, which will be enforced beginning June 1, 2012, facilitates the opening up of both markets to organic exports by eliminating the secondary certification that is currently required in order for either entity to export organic products internationally. In addition, by removing the barrier of that duplicate certification process, certification costs are also anticipated to go down for producers and companies as a result of this program. The stated goals of the organic equivalence arrangement are to enhance organic programs, safeguard organic standards, advance trade of organic products and bolster cooperation between the two organic agencies.
USDA deputy secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, and EU agriculture commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, who made the formal announcement at BioFach Germany earlier this month, explain the reasoning behind this decision in a Guardian op-ed, "To help reduce paperwork and expenses, the arrangement is simple in its aim: it recognizes that the EU and the US have credible organic certification systems and that we share common perspectives about what constitutes the production of organic products."
Merrigan and Ciolos assert that this partnership will streamline the process for organic farmers and ranchers to be able to sell more product, while providing a chance for businesses associated with the organic industry such as shipping, packaging and marketing to prosper as well. Only products produced, processed or packaged within the jurisdictions of the US or EU are allowed to be traded under the arrangement and both regions have consented to sharing information regarding animal welfare issues and genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination avoidance methods.
Proponents of the agreement point to potential future job growth in the organic agricultural sector, backed by research on past organic sector job growth from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) which shows that conventional farming jobs grew by a mere one percent in 2010 while organic farming jobs increased by eight percent. Jobs aren't the only area where numbers have continued to go up, but rather the organic market share in general. The OTA declares the combined US and EU organic food market to be worth $50 billion, with 800 million organic consumers collectively in tow. OTA Executive Director, Christine Bushway, said in a press statement, “This monumental agreement will further create jobs in the already growing and healthy U.S. organic sector, spark additional market growth, and be mutually beneficial to farmers both in the United States and European Union as well as to consumers who choose organic products. Equivalence with the EU will be an historic game changer.”
No doubt there will be controversy over how the initiative might impact the local food movement, with a major concern being that while it could expand organic agriculture, it could potentially take attention away from the importance of buying local. Some on both sides of the Atlantic also wonder what it means in terms of maintaining the integrity of organic standards. As Dan Charles of NPR writes, "Many Europeans had the feeling that U.S. standards were probably too permissive for the benefit of big organic agribusiness. U.S. officials, for their part, didn't think the Europeans did enough verification to make sure farmers actually follow the rules."
But in the end, both EU and US officials were willing to overlook their differences and come to an agreement after making several visits to each other's over a period of a few years. Both performed on-site audits in advance of the agreement in order to guarantee that both certification standards, labeling processes, quality control metrics and regulations were harmonious with one another. The only two stipulations that remain are that antibiotics are not to be given to animals for products coming into the US and antibiotics are not to be used for controlling fire blight in apples and pears being imported to the EU.
Whatever the impact, this new international regulation is a clear sign that organic is here to stay. While the OTA states organic products only made up 3.7 percent of total US food sales in 2009, a colossal 78 percent of US families said they purchased organic foods in 2011. With organics finding their way into the majority of American households and sales numbers rising steadily, organic agriculture is the fastest growing agricultural sector in the US.
Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.