|June 16, 2004:
The United States Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and
the European Union's European Commission are working on
an agreement that would take the world's two biggest organic
markets a step closer to harmonized trade in certified
The two sides have been discussing the deal since June
2002, and most recently met in Washington, D.C., on
May 25-27. Some observers believe the talks could draw
to a close sometime this summer.
Parties at the table are the FAS, the Agricultural
Marketing Service (AMS), the U.S. Trade Representative,
the State Department, and—on the European side—the
Agriculture Directorate-General and Trade Directorate-General.
Although the talks have gone forward with little media
attention, they represent a major milestone for organic
agriculture at the international level.
"In the event we can conclude something, this
would set a precedent; [it] would be the largest agreement
of its kind," says FAS international economist
Allison Thomas. Mark Manis, FAS international trade
specialist and a negotiator on the talks, agrees. "The
potential beauty of this deal is that it could be a
win-win situation," facilitating organic exports
in both directions across the Atlantic, but also increasing
the number of domestic organic products by improving
the availability of organic ingredients.
The key to the negotiations is to establish 'equivalence'
rather than 'compliance' between the U.S. National Organic
Standard and the EU organic standard, known as Regulation
2092/91. Compliance, which has been the basis for most
international trade in organic products so far, refers
to a situation in which one government determines that
the organic certification system in use in another country
meets the first country's organic standard (in other
words, is fully compliant).
Equivalence is the establishment of a broader ruling
that two governments' organic standards share the same
fundamental objectives, although they may differ in
how they meet those objectives.
Among the questions remaining to be resolved between the
U.S. and the EU is whether the final outcome will be a
bilateral agreement or a non-linked pair of unilateral
agreements—each arrangement would have advantages
and disadvantages. Also at issue is the use of antibiotics
for livestock. The U.S. organic standard stipulates that
if antibiotics are used to treat a sick animal, that animal
must be permanently removed from the herd, whereas the
EU organic rule specifies conditions for bringing the
animal back into the herd after treatment. "When
we began we had 35 different issues to be resolved,"
explains the FAS's Mark Manis. "Now we're down to
one issue, but it's a big issue because the U.S. rule
is very clear in this case. Antibiotics are not allowed
in U.S. organic systems."
Sheldon Weinberg, an organic business consultant and
a member of the World Board of the International Federation
of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), said in a
phone interview that he thinks the measure represents
a natural step in the development of organic markets
worldwide and that it should be a positive step for
the organic community.
In the early years of the development of national organic
standards, IFOAM argued for international compliance—a
world in which discrepancies among different countries'
organic standards would be gradually eliminated, producing
a single definition of organic. More recently, IFOAM
has advocated equivalence—the idea that national
organic rules may vary in details so long as they serve
the same underlying objectives.
The ultimate international goal then becomes 'harmonization,'
a situation in which equivalence has been established
across a large number of countries. Harmonization, Weinberg
pointed out, emphasizes what organic movements have
in common, rather than the ways in which they conflict.
How international trade in organics
According to USDA National Organic Program rules, there
are three routes by which imported agricultural products
may be legally sold, labeled or represented as organic
in the United States.
The first, and so far the most common, is for the imported
product to be certified organic by a certifying agent
accredited by the USDA. There are currently 93 certifying
agents accredited by the USDA, 39 of which are based
and/or incorporated in foreign countries. (There are
six USDA-accredited certifying agencies in Canada, six
in Germany, five in Italy, four in Argentina, three
in the Netherlands, two in Australia, two in Switzerland,
and one each in Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica,
France, Greece, Guatemala, Israel, Peru, Spain, and
Turkey.) Foreign certifiers apply to the USDA for accreditation
according to the same rules governing domestic applicants.
The other two routes by which agricultural imports
may be marketed as organic in the United States are
via a 'recognition of conformity assessment' or an 'equivalency
determination' by the USDA. A recognition of conformity
assessment accepts a foreign government's ability to
accredit certifying agents to the standards of the NOP.
An equivalency determination—like the one in progress
between the U.S. and the EU—establishes that a
foreign government's organic standard meets the objectives
of the NOP.
Both are undertaken at the request of foreign governments.
The NOP website states that the USDA has issued recognition
of conformity assessments for Denmark, New Zealand,
the United Kingdom, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec
and British Columbia. Conformity assessments are pending
for Israel and Spain. In addition to the EU, equivalency
determinations have reportedly been requested by India,
Japan, Australia, and Costa Rica.
Under the existing system, exports from the United
States into the European Union are subject to a multi-level
regulatory process as well. The EU operates under a
single organic standard (Council Regulation 2092/91),
but responsibility for implementation and enforcement
of that standard lies with individual EU member nations.
Importers of U.S. organic products into the EU must
obtain import authorizations from the applicable national
In addition, they must demonstrate that the products
are certified to a standard equivalent to CR 2092/91,
and show that the certifier has been accredited to EN
45011 or ISO 65 (two internationally-recognized guidelines
for agencies handling product certification). The USDA-AMS
is responsible for accrediting U.S. certifiers to ISO
65; its authority to do so has been officially recognized
by Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands,
the United Kingdom, and some German states.
Other international agreements governing trade in organic
agricultural products include one which allows most
plant-based U.S.-certified organic products into Japan;
and another which facilitates importation of certified
products from eight countries (Argentina, Czechoslovakia,
Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica,
and Switzerland) into the European Union. Future equivalency
determinations, according to Manis, "are definitely
on the horizon."
Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org, and
may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.