In this wide-ranging interview for Natural Products Global, Eduardo Cuoco, director of IFOAM EU – Europe’s lead organic advocacy group – talks about the organisation’s top priorities in the coming years: from CAP reform (injecting urgency into the debate on climate and the environment) and implementation of the new EU Organic Regulation, to exploring ways of developing organic “beyond the regulation”. And he tells us about IFOAM EU’s high profile participation at next month’s Organic Food Iberia event in Madrid, and the promising picture for further expansion of organic food and farming in Spain and Portugal.

Natural Products Global: What do you see as the top priorities for IFOAM EU in the coming two or three years?

Eduardo Cuoco: IFOAM EU seeks to ensure that the EU legal framework is favourable for increased organic production. We advocate for it to recognise organic’s benefits for the environment, farmers and society, provide it with the necessary support and remove obstacles to its development. For example, this could be done by preventing the release of GMOs into the food chain. IFOAM EU is involved in several EU research projects that directly contribute to the development of the sector. Among others, IFOAM EU works towards increasing the availability of organic inputs, such as seeds

IFOAM EU will continue working on the implementing rules of the new organic regulation so that when it enters into force in 2021 it is fit to the reality of organic production. The revision of the CAP beyond 2020 is another top priority in 2019 and 2020. We will continue advocating for a strong and ambitious CAP that rewards farmers for contributing to the climate, the environment and animal welfare. The CAP represents 40% of the EU budget and has a huge influence on the evolution of European agriculture and the level of support that governments and regions will be able to grant organic producers. In the light of climate change, IFOAM EU further aims at making sure that agriculture does its share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Organic makes agricultural systems more resilient and better adapted to the impact of climate change. We will continue working to ensure that the benefits of organic farming are recognised.

NPG: What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges for the organic movement in the short to medium term.

Eduardo Cuoco: One of the movement’s biggest challenges and opportunities is to develop organic beyond the organic regulation. How can we integrate the newest developments in precision agriculture and circular economy, like recycled and reused nutrients, into organic systems without lowering our standards and principles? The continued efforts to learn, research and combine traditional knowledge and innovation is an ongoing process. It is inherent to the organic movement and requires the attention and dedication of the whole organic food and farming sector.

“One of the movement’s biggest challenges and opportunities is to develop organic beyond the organic regulation. How can we integrate the newest developments in precision agriculture and circular economy like recycled and reused nutrients into organic systems without lowering our standards and principles?”

Farmland covers almost half of the EU’s territory, and agriculture has a huge impact on the quality of our soil, water, air and biodiversity. Industrial agriculture is the main driver for the global loss of biodiversity, for the depletion of our soils and water sources. Food production accounts for one third of greenhouse gas emissions. As the organic movement we should put the impact of food and farming on the environment and ecosystems services higher on the political agenda. Policy-makers on EU and national level need to understand and feel the urgency of acting now, which is currently not the case. EU policy-makers should use the CAP’s budget to create public goods, protect the environment, strengthen rural communities and preserve their cultural value.

NPG: IFOAM EU has consistently called for a stronger environmental underpinning of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and a clearer recognition of the multiple environmental benefits of organic farming. How confident are you that this message is being heard?

Eduardo Cuoco: Since its creation, IFOAM EU has been advocating for a CAP that moves away from subsidising harmful farming practices towards targeted payments. These would allow farmers to reduce their impact on the environment and make their farms economically viable.

The Commission’s CAP proposal of 2018 brings important innovations, which IFOAM EU wants to build upon. The most significant change is the replacement of the ineffective “greening” payments by the novel eco-schemes. Eco-schemes are a tool that can support sustainable practices, such as organic farming under pillar 1 of the CAP. For reference, pillar 1 accounts for three quarters of the CAP’s budget. Another important element of the 2018 proposal is the new results-based structure with a stronger focus on environmental and social priorities. IFOAM EU is calling for 70% of the next CAP budget to be dedicated to environmental and climate action. We want financial support for farmers who contribute to public goods, such as the preservation of ecosystems services and natural resources. That is why IFOAM EU supports the new results-based approach proposed by the Commission.

However, the Commission’s 2018 proposal also grants more flexibility to Member States. The new CAP will therefore only deliver for farmers and the environment if a higher level of ambition is decided upon at EU level. In line with this, IFOAM EU is asking for a significant share of the CAP budget to be earmarked for environmental action, for example through eco-schemes (in pillar 1 of the CAP) and agri-environmental measures (in pillar 2). Unfortunately, national governments currently negotiating in the EU Council of Ministers tend to defend the status quo. This is very short-sighted. If the CAP does not evolve to take the environment and societal expectations around organic farming and animal welfare into account, it risks being seriously scaled down or even disappear in the future. To ensure a more ambitious CAP, IFOAM EU will continue working with decision-makers, particularly with the new European Parliament and the European Commission. We will also support Member States with their CAP Strategic Plans by preparing a guide together with researchers on how to design eco-schemes.

NPG: Technology is a central theme of this year’s European Organic Congress. Can you summarize the opportunities that ‘smart farming’ presents for organic?   

Eduardo Cuoco: Smart farming is a broad concept that refers to various technologies, such as artificial intelligence, drones and sensors in precision farming, apps, blockchain and many more. It presents both challenges and opportunities for the organic sector. On the one hand, smart farming can provide a more complete picture of various ecosystem processes on farm level. This will allow the farmer to take timely decisions in case of a disease outbreak and indicate an optimal harvesting moment. Robotics equipped with artificial intelligence can potentially reduce, if not eliminate, tedious tasks such as weeding, thus freeing time for other tasks. Sensors and GPS trackers can provide an in-depth insight into the state of the soil in various parcels and facilitate remote monitoring of animals. On the other hand, these technologies can pose challenges for the farmer. These can range from high investment costs and skill requirements for operating the technology to data management and privacy issues. Furthermore, the implementation and use of new technologies might be accompanied by a loss of traditional knowledge.

At the European Organic Congress 2019 in Bucharest we will discuss the costs and benefits of these emerging technologies in more detail. Join the Congressand explore how the organic sector can make the best use of them.

NPG: With a growing number of sustainability and ethical labels competing for attention, how does organic ensure its voice is heard loudly and clearly at the policy-making level? 

Eduardo Cuoco: IFOAM EU has become the reference point for policy-makers on everything related to organic food and farming. We achieved this by providing continuous high-quality advice to the European institutions. Ten years ago, the European Commission was exploring the idea of extending the EU Ecolabel (now used on soaps, cleaning liquids etc.) to food and beverages. IFOAM EU successfully advocated against this. Two labels on food and beverages would confuse consumers and might undermine the great work that the European Commission has done protecting the EU organic logo.

NPG: We talk in the organic industry about ‘reconnecting’ people with food, and where it comes from. But sometimes it feels that the different parts of our own industry would benefit from being better connected to each other. Is that fair comment?

Eduardo Cuoco: IFOAM EU believes in bringing different sectors of the supply chain together. With more than 200 members our work spans the entire organic food chain and beyond: from farmers and processors, retailers, certifiers, consultants, traders and researchers to environmental and consumer advocacy bodies. We have different interest groups: the Interest Group of Organic Farmers (IGOF), the Interest Group of Organic Processor and Traders (IGOP), the Interest Group of Organic Retailers (IGOR) and cross-cutting Interest Group on Certification and Integrity (IGOC). IFOAM EU’s Board includes one member representing each sectoral interest group. They serve as liaisons with the different stakeholders of the supply chain and related interest group. Furthermore, IFOAM EU established 10 working groups (expert groups and task forces). They consist of our members and are involved in the development of our position. To incentivise the actors of the European organic movement to better connect to each other, IFOAM EU organises several events, such as theEuropean Organic Congress, the Organic Processing Conference and “IFOAM EU meets business”. IFOAM EU regularly organises exchanges and meetings between different stakeholders like joint meetings of farmers and processors to increase cooperation and exchange best practices.

NPG: Concerns are being raised in some quarters that increasing corporate ownership of pioneer organic brands and businesses will lead to an erosion of organic principles. Is that something you are concerned about at IFOAM EU?

Eduardo Cuoco: The organic movement must be open to newcomers yet remain in control of its own development and stay connected to the principles of organic farming. IFOAM EU is fully engaged in this discussion. Internal debates that we have had over the last 10 years have led to more structured discussions about one year ago. We want to find a solution that inspires confidence in the whole organic sector about IFOAM EU’s relationship with these “organic newcomers”.

“The organic movement must be open to newcomers yet remain in control of its own development and stay connected to the principles of organic farming. IFOAM EU is fully engaged in this discussion.”

In 2018, we organised the first edition of “IFOAM EU meets business”. This serves as a platform of exchange among IFOAM EU members and conventional companies interested in organic. We will continue organising this kind of event to strengthen exchange and foster discussions on important issues like the organic principles. This market development can also represent an opportunity to reach IFOAM EU’s vision of 50% of Europe’s agricultural land under organic production by 2030.

NPG: In just five weeks’ time, the inaugural Organic Food Iberia event – at which IFOAM EU will be having a high profile in involvement – will take place in Madrid. How important is the launch of this major new European organic showcase?

Eduardo Cuoco: Spain is the European country with the largest area of organic agricultural land in 2017. Since 2014, organic agricultural land in Spain has increased by 300,000 hectares to around 2 million hectares in 2017. With more than 37,000 producers and 4,200 processors, Spain represents an important market for organic produce. Its market grew by more than 16% between 2016 and 2017 and now ranks among the top ten worldwide. Spain’s neighbouring country Portugal also shows an increased interest in organic farming, strengthening the case for launching Organic Food Iberia even more.

“Spain is a powerhouse of organic production in Europe, and Organic Food Iberia is a timely initiative that will contribute to linking the different actors of the organic supply chain and to developing the local organic markets of Spain and Portugal”

Spain is a powerhouse of organic production in Europe, and Organic Food Iberia is a timely initiative that will contribute to linking the different actors of the organic supply chain and to developing the local organic markets of Spain and Portugal. I hope that the event will incentivise the Spanish and Portuguese governments to recognise the benefits of organic farming for the economy and the environment, and further support its development. I am confident that Organic Food Iberia will facilitate the cooperation among our members in the Iberian Peninsula and create momentum for increased IFOAM EU membership in these countries, so we further strengthen the European organic movement.

NPG: How will IFOAM EU be contributing to Organic Food Iberia?

Eduardo Cuoco: I will participate in the opening ceremony and with the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), I will present the latest developments in organic food and farming worldwide. Together with two of our members, Ecovalia and AgroBio, we will organise a meeting for IFOAM EU members. During this meeting we will discuss hot topics, such as the current reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the implementation of the new EU organic regulation.

NPG:  Spain’s organic market has been growing strongly over the last 2-3 years, particularly the domestic market, which had been trailing other parts of Europe. What do you think is behind these very exciting developments? 

Eduardo Cuoco: The organic market in Spain has been growing steadily over the last years. It has been following the example of other Southern European countries, such as Italy and its main neighbouring market France. The improved availability of organic products is due to both an increased number of specialized organic retailers and bigger supermarkets selling organic products. This provides consumers with more opportunities to buy organic. At the same time, they receive information about organic food and farming and its benefits via several media channels. During the economic crisis, it was the fidelity of organic consumers in Spain that kept the domestic sales of organic products from a sharp decrease. To the contrary, sales increased, though at a slower pace than today. With the positive economic development prospects for Spain, a further growth of the organic sector is foreseen.

NPG: Spain already is the country in Europe with the largest amount of farmland under organic systems. How can other countries learn from Spain’s bold initiatives in organic, and very significant commercial success?  

Eduardo Cuoco: Spain has a long-standing tradition in agricultural production, which is why it has a strong agricultural sector. Spanish farmers are also searching for alternative ways of cropping and managing their livestock to remain competitive. Organic production systems are perceived as a solution to some of the problems the Spanish food and farming sector faces, such as the challenge of adapting to climate change. It also brings increased profitability to farmers. This in turn motivates more and more conventional farmers to convert to organic production.

NPG:  Spain and Portugal each enjoy good levels of government and institutional support for organic. How important is that in our overall effort to expand organic production and, in IFOAM EU’s words, put organic on every plate?

Eduardo Cuoco: The development of a sector in a country depends on a variety of different components.  Governmental support clearly is one of them. Good governance ensures an appropriate legislative framework and supports investments in organic. Public procurement is one tool for reaching the goal of putting organic on every table. To assure the long-term prospects of the organic sector, investments in specialised education and information systems in schools, colleges and universities is crucial. These investments should be implemented by governments to ensure a solid development of the organic sector in the futur

• Eduardo Cuoco will be speaking at 12.30-13.30 in the Organic Theatre at Organic Food Iberia on 6 June.

Organic Food Iberia, co-located with Eco Living Iberia, takes place at IFEMA, Madrid on 6-7 June 2019