The seminar ‘Who will stop the equivalence nonsense for organic imports’ presented by Albrecht Benzing of private German organic certification services company CERES at BioFach 2013, was a great contribution to recent debate over issues arising from organic equivalency agreements. Here are some condensed highlights.

Mr. Benzing said organic equivalency agreements between countries are basically a good thing. Two governments come together and agree that they consider minor differences between standards as acceptable, and less important than promoting the market development.

“The point is basically equivalency being defined not by governments, but by the private certification bodies (CBs) themselves,” he said. “CBs are under the pressure from clients, this has always been there. In the past, this pressure has lead to cutting corners when interpreting the standard. But in the newsystem, when we are under pressure from clients, we can not only cut corners, but simply change the rules and say ‘ok, poor farmer cannot use sufficient livestock manure to maintain soil fertility, so we will from now on consider use of fertilizer XY as equivalent’.

“We are obliged to present a Policy on what an organic equivalency interpretation should be (actually the Commission calls it an ‘equivalent standard’) as part of our application to the EU Commission, without that we would not have been approved.

“Comparing with other such ‘equivalent standards’, there are no guidelines what ‘equivalency’ means, how such a standard should look like, and what are the criteria and procedures for approving it, so everybody has their own definition, which leads to chaos, no transparency and a race to the bottom.

“Until recently, we have been the ones in charge of monitoring the implementation of a given standard (the EU Regulation on organic farming). Now we, the private CBs, are supposed to not only monitor the implementation of the rules, but to make the rules ourselves – which is nonsense.”

Mr. Benzing said that in the past there were two options for organic imports: A third country list (less than 10% of organic imports) and import authorization (more than 90% of organic imports).

Under the latter, a producer in a third country is certified by accredited body; initial application to market in the EU organic products from Third Countries according to Article 11 (6) Regulation (EEC) No, 2092/91; competent authority in EU country reviews and files and authorizes marketing of organic products; and organic products can be imported and marketed in the EU.

However, before 2008, only very few experts actually understood the difference between ‘compliance’ and ‘equivalence’. These terms were considered synonyms.

After 2008, there were three options for organic imports: A list of equivalent third countries (driven by the EU Commission); import authorizations (phased out by 2014); and a list of authorized certification bodies with their respective ‘equivalent standards’ (newly established main mechanism for imports). Currently, what is happening is that a Certification Body (CB) sets up ‘equivalent standards’ for organic production in third countries; Accreditation Body (AB) approves ‘equivalent standard’; AB conduct witness audits; CB applies to EU Commission; Commission conducts formal review and approves CB with its ‘equivalent standards’; and CB is listed in Reg (EC) 508/2012.

Mr. Benzing said neither the criteria nor the procedures for approving a standard as equivalent are consistent or transparent. While some CBs submitted “standards” of a few pages, which were immediately approved by the respective AB, other CBs even after three years and submitting numerous versions of their 100 page standards, are still battling for having these standards approved.

The East African organic standard as an example, has a one year conversion period for land under organic management instead of three years. Some certifiers don’t require a new conversion period after applying chemically treated seeds on a field; another is the use of non-organically produced honey or sugar in feed.

According to Mr. Benzing, a race to the bottom is being driven by pressure from clients; competition between certifiers; lack of competence; conflicts of interest; and competition between accreditors. Under new EU Regulations, “there is no separation of powers between legislators and certification/standards”.

In conclusion, he said issues of concern are the definition of equivalent that is vague and arbitrary, the procedure for approving equivalent standards is inconsistent; accreditors are not necessarily qualified for assessing equivalence of a standard; there is increased pressure on certification bodies; and a loss of credibility and transparency.

“The USDA NOP standard is worth looking at as an organic food regulation as it has several aspects which are more consistent than this strange system set up by the EU. As a first step towards a more consistent and credible system, the EU Commission should be the one to set the equivalent standard – not the certifiers”, Mr. Benzing said.