Britain’s biggest organic certifier says it is preparing contingencies for a Brexit “worst-case scenario” in which the UK organic sector could be shut out of its biggest export market.
In interview with Natural Products Global, Soil Association Certification chief executive Martin Sawyer says that it is the UK’s post-Brexit trading arrangements with the European Union that are “ironically the most challenging to plan for”.
UK organic industry leaders are still optimistic that current arrangements, defined by the EU Organic Regulation, will continue during a transitional period after Britain formally leaves the EU in March 2019. This would provide continuity of trade while the Regulation was brought across into UK law.
Sawyer says the the UK industry expects that this sort of transition model would be more or less seamless, allowing “things to run pretty normally”. The challenge is if the transition doesn’t occur. “That effectively changes the status of the UK and the whole organic regulatory space. We would effectively have to step outside and apply for third country status.”
And this it the point at which a further problem arrives. To be able to apply for third country status (and be recognised as operating equivalent organic production rules and control systems) an applicant cannot be an existing EU member state. Applications for a so-called ‘1235’ typically take 6-9 months, but can take as long as 14 months. “Technically at that moment, unless arrangements can be pre-prepared between the UK and the Commission, the UK would not be able to export organic product into Europe. The next round of 1235 reviews would not place until Oct 2019, which would throw you forward to late 2020. It’s silly, but it’s significant.”
“Technically at that moment, unless arrangements can be pre-prepared between the UK and the Commission, the UK would not be able to export organic product into Europe”
Aiming to avoid this predicament, the UK organic industry has written collectively to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove to “put on the record” the industry’s deep concern about the impact that a trading ‘gap’ would have on the organic food and farming sector.
“We would be hoping for discussions between the UK and the commission to result in a very fast-tracked solution. We certification bodies are not going to be in a position without government and Defra support to achieve that.”
While Sawyer says that most of the work that Soil Association Certification and others are doing in this area is “simple contingency” – he likens the situation to the Millennium Bug and the need to be fully prepared for something that in all probability won’t happen – he says it is important to be prepared for all eventualities. “Our licensees, like all good business practices, are trying to consider the scenarios and plan accordingly. And they’re all looking to us for that level of certainty to demonstrate that we’re preparing the ground for them.”
Another key focus is on the US and North American market, where the current equivalency arrangements that allow the UK organic sector to export to the USA are based on an EU-US agreement – and which the UK might potentially have to renegotiate. Here SACert is “looking at getting people NOP (National Organic Program) certified quickly, just in case the situation gets serious”. Sawyer says that SACert has also been working on an alternative route into the US and North American market using the COR (Canadian Organic Regime) system. Less onerous and quicker than the NOP scheme, COR is seen as a smarter option for some licensees and SACert is “progressing COR for them as a contingency”.
” … we can reassure industry that the sector is working together, and that we engaging in discussion at the highest level of government and in Defra”
Sawyer’s message is part reassurance, part wake-up call. “In terms of the regulatory picture and the certification requirements, we can reassure industry that the sector is working together, and that we engaging in discussions at the highest level of government and in Defra.
“But we need Defra’s top team to demonstrate that they absolutely understand the issues for our industry, and the timescales. This sector is incredibly vulnerable to uncertainty, so we need a positive and clear solution as quickly as possible.”
- This article is based on excerpts from a longer interview that will be published shortly