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New organic legislation with global effects

Since 1.1.2022, the new EU organic regulation must be applied. In Germany alone, more than 50,000 companies as well as inspection bodies and inspection authorities have to adapt to the new legal requirements. In Europe and worldwide, millions of farmers and actors along the entire value chain are directly or indirectly affected by the legal update. The German umbrella organisation for the organic food industry, BÖLW, has accompanied the long process of renewing EU-wide organic legislation and has now compiled a compact summary of the new regulations.

Sun flower from organic seeds (photo: Karin Heinze)

The long process of renewal

It took more than four years to revise the basic organic regulation, which came into force in 2018. Another three years were spent working out the detailed rules. Until the end of the year 2021, there was hard wrangling over the last passages of the new organic law - just as in previous years. The result: a new legal framework with many good, proven rules, positive further developments, some ambiguities and a few critical points. But now the stakeholders from the organic sector are largely satisfied. Peter Röhrig (Photo: BÖLW), Executive Director of the Federation of the Organic Food Industry (BÖLW) comments:

"The new organic law ensures environmentally friendly agriculture and gentle food production. Because the EU organic regulation remains true to its proven principles - and has evolved where it matters."

Organic regulation remains by far the strictest production standard

The new organic regulation remains true to its principles. In all areas where the food industry needs to become more sustainable across the board, organic legislation ensures this: in plant health and animal husbandry, to name just two important areas. The principle of process quality is continued - also in inspection. The modern process approach makes organic legislation not only unique, but also the strictest standard in agriculture and food production.

The system is characterised by certification from the field to the retailer, rules for imports and a comprehensive control system as well as a legal, protected organic label. Land-based, species-appropriate animal husbandry, organic fertilisation, the prohibition of synthetic chemical pesticides, mineral fertilisers and genetic engineering. The production of organic food based on the maxim: as much as necessary, as little as possible.

Organic seeds production in Italy (photo: Karin Heinze)

Process quality remains

There is joy that organic remains a process quality, which was controversial at the beginning of the revision, i.e. not only the high quality of the end product is in focus, but above all the entire production process from the field to the retail is regulated and controlled. In this way, organic law continues to ensure, along the entire value chain, for example, that animals are given free range, genetic engineering and synthetic chemical pesticides are taboo, and many other "basic values" of the organic sector.

New: Precautionary measures for all, scope extended

The following new features stand out: the new organic legislation has been extended to include "agriculture-related products" such as mate, beeswax or herbal preparations like medicinal teas. Former borderline cases are now clearly assigned to the organic basic law. The organic regulation prevents food waste with a sell-off rule: Raw materials such as cereals and packaged products such as muesli, which were produced according to the old law, may be sold or processed without limit, as may semi-finished products such as fruit purees. All within the limits of shelf life, of course.

There was much discussion about the rules on precautionary measures to avoid substances that are not eco-approved. New here: In addition to manufacturers, farmers, traders and importers must also prove to organic inspectors that they have implemented the precautionary measures. Of course, only the companies' own sphere of influence is affected - and thus neither what, for example, the neighbour or the supplier does, nor environmental contaminants such as dioxin, since they lie outside what the company itself can determine.

Organic climbing beans in biodynamic cultivation (photo: Karin Heinze)

Innovations in the new organic law in brief

> Scope extended: "agriculture-related products" such as beeswax or leather can now also be certified in organic quality.

> Processing: Nanochemicals are banned in organic food production. The rules for the use of flavourings have been tightened: they must now be less processed and more organic.

> Soil-based cultivation ensured: Organic plants must grow in the native soil, this now also applies to greenhouse cultivation.

> Seed rules strengthen the principle of "organic from the start": Rules for heterogeneous and organically bred material and a seed database ensure more organic seed and provide incentives for organic breeding.

Leak in flower for seeds. (photo by Karin Heinze)

> New rules in animal husbandry: There are many new regulations for organic poultry husbandry. Parent stock, brother cocks and pullets are regulated at European level for the first time. Completely new are regulations for deer and rabbits.

> Paradigm shift for imports: Whereas the principle of equivalence applied in the past, conformity will prevail in the future - the organic rules must be applied one-to-one.

> Control remains strict: Organic controls will continue to take place at least once a year, but will be more risk-oriented.

> Precautionary measures on all farms: Farmers, traders and importers must also prove that they take precautions against non-permitted substances.

Synthetic chemical pesticides and genetic engineering remain taboo

In plant cultivation, the new organic law consolidates the principle of soil-based cultivation and now also includes under-glass cultivation. In this context, it also regulates how potted plants, young plants, sprouts and chicory must be dealt with. Also new: a mandatory share of legumes in the crop rotation.

On the subject of seeds, the organic regulation strengthens the principle of "organic from the start", with rules for organically bred varieties and heterogeneous material. Incentives for more organically propagated seed will result from the fact that in future all EU states will have to keep a list of crops or species for which there are no longer any exemptions for conventional seed or propagating material - in Germany this has long been established.

As far as plant health is concerned, Öko remains true to the tried and tested natural substances. It has merely been re-sorted and the uncritical basic substances placed more prominently. The soil conditioner bentonite has been re-approved (in Germany). Still absolutely taboo in organic crop production: synthetic chemical pesticides such as glyphosate. And this applies to 100 % of all organic areas.

Organic apples (photo Karin Heinze

Organic food production: less is more

In organic production, the organic law sets the framework even more strongly on organic and less processed: With immediate effect, there is a ban on nano in organic food. Ion exchangers and absorber resins may only be used to a limited extent - this is the first time that uniform EU rules have been applied in this area as well.

Far-reaching is the restriction of conventional flavourings to natural flavour extracts and natural flavourings from the raw material that gives the product its name. An orange flavouring for organic products must therefore be made from oranges. Completely new are the requirements for organic flavourings. There are minor adjustments for additives and auxiliary substances as well as wine treatment agents, which, for example, lead to further organicisation in the case of yeasts. Basically, there will be restrictions on which conventional ingredients may be used in organic food from 2024 - in terms of quantity, a maximum of 5% of the product will continue to be permitted.

There are also changes in the retail sector. Shops that only trade in pre-packaged organic goods, such as kiosks, will continue to be exempt from certification. For shops that also trade in unpackaged organic food, upper limits will apply in future: From an annual turnover of 5,000 kg or 20,000 € with unpacked organic food, the trade is subject to inspection.

Organic inspection: strict, risk-oriented and at least once a year

Organic inspection will continue to take place at least once a year, but will be more risk-oriented. Farms with increased risks must continue to expect a higher number of additional and unannounced on-site inspections. Farms that are considered low-risk can be inspected remotely every second year.

Organic imports: same rules for all

As far as import rules are concerned, the new organic regulation marks a paradigm shift: Whereas the principle of equivalence applied in the past, conformity will prevail in the future. This means that in all third countries that are not on the list of recognised third countries or that have a trade agreement with the EU, the organic rules must be applied one-to-one - from North Asia to Tierra del Fuego. This will definitely challenge countries with very different climatic and other conditions.

Cleaning organic millet in India (photo Karin Heinze)

Dealing with traces of banned substances: further clarification needed

Although many critical points could already be eliminated in the course of the revision with a lot of joint effort, a few are still to be found in the new organic legislation. Further clarification with the federal states is needed, for example, on how to deal with trace evidence of unauthorised substances in organic products. These can be an indication of fraud, but far more often they can be attributed to environmental factors. The latter should not lead to the blocking of goods, as environmental contamination is beyond the control of organic farms. However, if every minimal finding leads to extensive investigations, the products are blocked. New: farms are both entitled and obliged to carry out the first test - and can decide whether the finding actually indicates a suspicion.

Organic law marks highest sustainability standard of the food industry

The new organic regulation must also be understood by the legislator as living law that must be adapted to new requirements and innovations. Here it is particularly important that those in government also support organic when it comes to the legal framework for organic and the interplay with specialised legislation. For 30% organic in Germany by 2030 and 25% organic in Europe by 2030, an innovation-friendly, reliable and practical framework is needed. The new organic legislation paves the way for sustainable agriculture and food production. The strict rules ensure a system that brings environmental, climate and animal protection to the fields, food production and trade in a very practical way.

Help to deal with the new regulations is given by IFOAM EU for its members

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