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when and if subsidies are withdrawn?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
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
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
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
Laura Sayre is senior writer for The New Farm.