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BIOEAST Conference

Macro-regional consultation to develop national action plans for organic farming.

On 15 June 2021 the BIOEAST Initiative’s Agroecology and Sustainable Yields Thematic Working Group held an online conference for the eleven countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics, with one particularly notable participant being Diego Canga Fano, DG AGRI's principal advisor on the Organic Action Plan. The aims of the conference were to present in detail the new EU Organic Action Plan, published in March 2021, to the BIOEAST countries, and to encourage member states to inspire one another by sharing their own best practices, thus supporting the development of organic action plans at a national level.

The event was opened by Barna Kovács, the secretary general of the BIOEAST Initiative, who emphasized the strategic importance for the macro-region of transitioning to sustainable agriculture, a process in which organic agriculture and the preparation of national-level action plans have a crucial role to play.

Diego Canga Fano reinforced this point, stating that in order to achieve the ambitious European target of 25% of agricultural land under organic cultivation, each country must set a target figure aligned with the EU target, and this, together with the means of achieving it, must be set out in a national organic action plan. The new European Organic Action Plan differs significantly from the previous one, as it is much more comprehensive, ambitious, market-oriented, and covers the whole food chain. In addition, it attaches great importance to organic research and development, as Horizon Europe, the EU's research and innovation framework program, allocates 30% of its budget  to projects relevant to organic farming. The action plan for organic farming also aims to stimulate demand for organic products, increase consumer trust, motivate organic conversion, support organic food value chains, and further strengthen the contribution of organic farming to sustainability.

Source: ÖMKi

A number of funding sources are available to facilitate the implementation of these measures. Diego Canga Fano emphasized that one particularly important tool in the hand of the member states is the harmonization of the state’s organic action plans with the measures of the national CAP strategies. He likewise recommended a more conscious utilization of Horizon Europe research funds and EU agricultural grants for the promotion of organic products. The restructuring of food taxes may also be a means within the sovereign power of member states to significantly improve the market access and profitability of organic produce.

The presentation showed that the European Commission takes the preparation of national organic action plans very seriously. As early as June this year, an official letter was sent to the agriculture ministers of the 27 member states on how they plan to draw up action plans and what key areas they intend to address. Each country is also expected to appoint an ‘Organic  Ambassador’ to report back on the implementation of member states’ action plans at EU-level consultations. In addition to twice-yearly evaluations, the Commission will monitor the results of the national action plans by requesting progress reports. Diego Canga Fano also added that, if necessary, each member state would be evaluated individually with regard to the organic situation and the state’s targets for the promotion of organic agriculture.

Next, Korinna Varga, the coordinator of the BIOEAST Agroecology Thematic Working Group, gave a presentation on one of the central tasks of the working group, the macro-regional agroecological research and innovation strategy. The strategy, which is still being prepared, is based on six main research areas that play a role in putting agriculture on a sustainable footing: 1) sustainable soil management, 2) chemical pesticide-free agricultural practices, 3) the sustainable use of genetic resources and  agricultural diversification, 4) animal health and welfare, 5) agricultural digitization and knowledge sharing, and 6) short supply chains and rural development. Within these six thematic areas, key organic research priorities include boosting the organic seed sector, monitoring the impact of organic farming on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and developing circular business models that support local food systems.

Miguel de Porras, the director of FiBL Europe, continued the series of presentations with a scientific analysis of how the ‘Farm to Fork’ agricultural strategy can achieve the EU’s goal of converting  25% of agricultural land to organic . Miguel de Porras stressed that simply relying on technology and increasing technological innovations in agriculture will not be enough. There must also be a significant change in the attitudes and thinking of the actors involved. Policies need to be coherent and comprehensive, and it must not be down solely to farmers and researchers: the public and private sectors also need to take responsibility for the transition to sustainability. In addition, particular emphasis should be placed on education and training in organic farming, with the aim of mobilizing all actors in the value chain.

Silviu Diaconu, the head of purchasing at Carrefour, and Liliana Ciobanu, head of certification at Ecocert, presented the “We Grow Romania Bio” program, which uniquely helps to sell organic products in Romania. The program, initiated and funded by Carrefour, supports the transition of farmers to organic farming and the promotion of their products within the store, not only when it comes to already-certified organic produce, but also during the transition period. Ecocert also helps farmers obtain international organic certification, the cost of which is carried by Carrefour. To date, more than 200 farmers have participated in the program, contributing to a 5% increase in Romania's organically farmed areas.

Miriam Slobodnikova then gave a talk on the potential of green public procurement for the supply of organic products in Slovakia, where fresh organic fruit and vegetables are particularly popular. Slovakia developed a separate Green Public Procurement Action Plan for 2016-2020, which sought to ensure that 50% of public procurement went through green public procurement, a figure they now want to increase to 70% by 2030.

Following this presentation, participants from Slovenia and Estonia gave further examples of the preparation and implementation of national organic action plans. Maja Zibert, an expert at the Slovenian Ministry of Agriculture, noted in particular that Slovenia plans to increase the proportion of organic areas from the current 11% to 20% by 2027. Priorities for the organic action plan, which was prepared in coordination with key organic stakeholders, include increased organic processing capacity, the use of green public procurement, education and knowledge sharing, and maximizing the contribution of organic farming to climate change mitigation.

Elen Peetsman, a researcher at the Estonian University of Life Sciences, presented an evaluation of Estonia’s Organic Action Plan from the previous cycle. Outstandingly among BIOEAST countries, as of 2021 Estonia has increased the proportion of its organic areas to 23%, but increasing the competitiveness of the sector and promoting the consumption of local organic products has proved less successful. There is no separate organic advisory system in the country to support farmers. Thus, these will be the crucial measures in the next action plan, which is currently being prepared, along with support for processing, organic research and innovation, education, and the increased use of organic products in catering.

The conference concluded with a closed thematic working group meeting, where policy experts from member states discussed the strengths of, and challenges facing their national organic sectors, as well as possible focus areas and funding opportunities for organic farming action plans. The outcome of the conference and meeting will also be the subject of a BIOEAST-level reflection paper laying out joint action points to support the eleven countries in developing their organic action plans.

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