|They all forgot|
|Written by Gunnar Rundgren|
|Tuesday, 18 May 2010 01:00|
One of the main reasons organic sectors wanted governments to step in and regulate the sector was to get recognition, but an even more significant reason was to ensure fair competition. That is, fair competition with other organic producers - knowing that they play by the same rules – and even more importantly, fair competition between the organic and nonorganic sectors, so nonorganic producers are prevented from making organic claims in the marketplace.
However, as the sector and governments meander along the route of regulation, this latter objective is often forgotten. The organic sector, perhaps, assumes that it is implied in the regulation that something will be done about those making false claims in the marketplace. However, the reality might be a bit different. A combination of government’s desire to “control” the organic sector and the sector’s own inability to look beyond its internal disagreements has led to a situation where standards, certification, documentation, etc. are regulated in minute detail for those who voluntarily follow the rules of the game. Regulations often stipulate responsibilities to various government agencies and sanction for those, within the system, that do not follow the rules. But in many countries there is simply no assignment of responsibility for taking action in cases where someone outside the system claims their product to be organic. Even in the cases where a clear responsibility has been assigned, say to the food standards agency or the municipality, there are rarely any resources allocated for the job. Poorly resourced government agencies will hardly prioritise the cleaning up of false organic claims in the marketplace.
This problem in the regulatory situation is exacerbated by the fact that many countries use the EU Regulation as their model for legislation without a proper understanding of how EU legislation works (unfortunately this seems to hold true for some EU Member States as well). In the EU legal framework, the implementation and enforcement of the EU Regulation in the market rests with the Member State where the products are sold. So it is natural that the EU Regulation on organic does not specify which authority in each Member State is responsible for monitoring the marketplace, or what penalties will apply for fraudulent marketing.
In a few countries, governments have installed fairly comprehensive monitoring systems, and some large scale fraud cases have been detected and brought to justice. In most cases the scandals were detected by actors within the trade, often companies that lost business to a competitor who by selling conventional products as organic could undercut them in pricing. To some extent the problem has been made worse by the introduction of the regulations as they took away some of the hurdles for trade that existed earlier, indeed, some of the questions asked before regulation are never asked now. For example, before regulation in the EU it was common that people were asked to present certificates before selling their products as organic, and sometimes even transaction certificates for each trade occasion. And if the buyer was certified by one certification body and the supplier by another, additional questions might be asked. While that system was inefficient for the trade and perhaps also allowed some bullying, it did have some in-built checks and safeguards. Today those safeguards only remain for imports into the EU from the outside, but not for domestic trade, and most importantly not for trade between EU Member States, the trade that is most likely to be fraudulent.
There is no simple solution to this. Organic sector activists that complain to the government often get the response that the government expects the sector to take care of its own problem, that the government only provides the legal framework, but cannot monitor all that happens in the marketplace. And that is probably true; the sector ends up having to fix what they asked governments to fix in the first place. With a regulation in place the sector might have a bit more leverage than it would have without regulation. One wonders, however, if it would have been enough to let the organic market claim fall under fair trading regulations, as it does in New Zealand.
There are still some important issues that remain unresolved. For instance, why do organic farmers have to be certified to verify that they are not using certain inputs, it would seem more appropriate that those who do use them should be controlled and should pay for it. Similarly, control from society should be orientated to those that are selling organic products fraudulently rather than the myopic inspection of those that already play by the book.
The Organic Standard is owned and published by Grolink.