REVIEW: Organic Farming: Policies and prospects
Learning from the EU
A summary of Europe's organic farming policy climate

Reviewed by Laura Sayre


Organic Farming: Policies and prospects

Stephen Dabbert, Anna Maria Häring, and Raffaele Zanoli Zed Books, 2004; ISBN 1-84277-327-5; 169 pp; $22.50

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August 31, 2004: Organic Farming: Policies and prospects is basically a report in book form: a relatively short, readable text rounded out with a glossary, lots of tables and charts, and an appendix of organizations working on organic farming issues in European Union countries. This is not a criticism, however—it's nice to get reports in book form occasionally, especially on a subject like organic ag policy, which is shifting so rapidly that experts in the field rarely have the opportunity to digest their data and observations and get them into a form accessible to those beyond the range of government printing offices.

The three authors of this report are definitely experts: Stephen Dabbert is dean of the faculty of agriculture at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, and an advisor to the EU Commission on organic farming issues; Anna Maria Häring wrote a Ph.D. thesis on EU agricultural policy and organic farming and is now a researcher at the Institute of Farm Economics at the University of Hohenheim; Raffaele Zanoli is a professor of Agro-Food Marketing at the Polytechnic University of Marche, Italy, and leader of European organic farming research efforts.

In broad outline, the trio's message is an obvious one: as the United States and other countries around the world endeavor to increase their numbers of organic farmers and acres under organic management, they would do well to pay attention to lessons emerging from the European Union. The 1992 Common Agricultural Policy reforms included a series of so-called 'agri-environmental' measures which channeled support to organic farming, and while implementation and funding levels varied by country, in some cases government subsidies for conversions to organic were substantial. Over a decade later, questions are forming: has government support for conversions translated into more organic farmers? will those newly converted farms remain organic when and if subsidies are withdrawn? how have incentive programs impacted organic price premiums? how are supply of and demand for different organic farm products distributed across the EU member states?

Of course, the patterns of organic food and farming in the EU depend on many factors besides state support. Some of these which the authors discuss include labeling schemes and public recognition of organic labels; characteristics of the food distribution chain, such as major supermarket chains' interest in stocking organic food items; food scares, such as the BSE outbreaks of recent years; and broader geographical factors such as farmland quality and prevailing farm size. Dabbert, Häring and Zanoli cite a number of studies showing that within European countries, organic farming has been most successful in "disadvantaged rural areas," meaning areas with lower land values, more pasturing and less intensive arable production (13).

Nevertheless, a series of tables and graphs indicate that European states' policy efforts on behalf of organic farming have translated into gains both in the percentage of agricultural land farmed organically and in the percent of farms certified organic. In countries like Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as well as at the EU level (and in strong contrast to the United States), as the authors put it, "Policy makers seem quite keen to consider organic farming as a policy instrument, especially when targeting" environmental issues, management of marginal lands, falling farmer incomes, commodity surpluses, and the withering effects of global free trade (92).

A key question for farmers and policy makers alike is whether conversion and/or ongoing subsidies for organic farming will push supply past demand, leading to a loss of organic premiums. This happened in Denmark, where "in 2001 approximately 50 per cent of organically produced milk was marketed as conventional milk," but not in Italy, where support for organic farmers was accompanied by strong development of organic export markets.

A related issue is how support programs for organic farming may be affected by world trade negotiations. The authors describe how Agenda 2000, the next round of reforms to the EU Common Agricultural Policy, continued the 1992 trend toward agri-environmentalism, but at the same time—in obedience to World Trade Organization rules—froze CAP spending at 1999 levels, meaning that there will be less money to go around and therefore in all likelihood less money to support organic farming. On the other hand, the WTO has accepted the Codex Alimentarius Guidelines for Organic Food as "a legitimate means of recognizing product quality rather than a technical barrier to trade," which is a crucial step because it puts subsidies for organic farming in the 'green box' (allowed) with respect to global trade negotiations (110).

Factors influencing the future growth of organics in the EU, according to this book, range from better promotion of the EU-wide organic label to consumer confidence and overall economic prosperity levels. The recent (or at the time the authors were writing, expected) enlargement of the EU is likely to have a mixed effect, the authors suggest. "The existence of a wide spectrum of low-input farms in these [accession] countries might lead to a considerable number of farms opting for conversion: this may increase market pressure within the EU and dampen the interest of farmers in Western Europe in organic farming" (105).

For anyone wishing to get a better grasp on the European organic farming policy scene, this book will serve as a useful, accessible survey; the references section will direct you to further, more in-depth sources.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for The New Farm.