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Brief Organic History

(Source: Article by Nuria Alonso in the international magazine of IFOAM No.36)

 

The spread of organic ideas started in the 1920s and 1930s with the publication of books by the pioneers from Europe and the USA. Those publications expounded more an ideology and a way of life than technical guidelines for producing food organically.

The time for standards came later, preceded by a period on which the organic producers started to organize their first associations and in several countries of Europe, the US and Australia developed a voluntary system of inspection.

The first organic label was probably Demeter, the biodynamic label. After that, the British Soil Association published its first standards in 1967.

The modern, more structured system of inspections, in situ as known nowadays, started in the 1970s. During this period the development of organic certification in some states of the US, mainly in California, was particularly relevant. These initiatives by existing groups of organic farmers led to the development certification bodies such as the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). By the 1980s other European organizations, such as KRAV in Sweden and Skal in the Netherlands, had started to develop their standards and certification programmes.

The organizations founded during those decades were usually and still are dedicated to several other activities related to organic production in addition to certification.

By and large, governmental legislation started in the 1980s; California and Oregon, with state legislation dating back to the 1970s, being the notable exceptions. This development was in response to governments recognizing the emerging importance of organic markets and wanting to organize and regulate that kind of production. In Europe, 3 countries - Denmark, France and Spain - had national legislation in place within that decade.

A very significant step was the implementation of the EU Regulation 2092/91, which took place in Europe in 1991. This Regulation, which covered all EU Member States, meant that more countries than ever before, including some that had shown little interest in organic production became governed by an organic regulation. 13 years later the Regulation is still in force. Throughout that time a total of 25 amendments and new standards, proposed by the Committee that represents all the EU Member States and approved by the EU Commission have been incorporated, so that now it has grown into a much more extensive document than the original one in 1991.

In 2000 Japan published its Organic Regulation (JAS) and the final regulation for organic food in the US, the National Organic Program (NOP), came into force in October 2002. Several other countries throughout the world now have a national legislation that regulates their organic production, and many others are putting the necessary resources into developing legislation.

Until recently, countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe did not have an internal market for organic produce. Any certified organic production in these countries was to supply the international markets of the richer countries of Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. These organic enterprises were managed according to the standards of the importing countries, and were mainly certified by certification bodies from the countries where the Organic Movement started.

But things are changing, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe. In Latin America the situation has developed from the first national organic legislation being implemented in Argentina in 1992, to the current scenario, where several countries have recently published, are drafting, or are discussing the drafting of national standards. At the same time some accredited local certification bodies are also emerging. In Eastern Europe several countries joined the EU on 1 May 2004, and big developments are expected regarding their organic production and legislation.

At the international and global level, the role played by IFOAM should be recognized. Founded as in International Federation for Organic Agriculture Movements in 1972, it has published basic organic standards since 1980. These standards, continuously updated and enlarged, are used as a reference, a common point and a guideline for the development of many new and different organic standards throughout the world. The IFOAM Basic Standards (IBS) have thus provided the basis of standards and regulations in regions of the world with very different climates, cultures and agriculture practices. Parallel to this project, was the development of Codex Alimentarius (or food code), which was drawn up under the joint FAO/WHO food standards programme. The purpose of the Codex Alimentarius was to act as a guideline on the production, processing, labeling and marketing of organically produced food. They were finally adopted in 1999.


Role of Standards in Organic Trade

The current net of organic standards available worldwide has a fundamental influence over the market of organic products. Nowadays private standards belonging to individual certification bodies, are very common, but every decade governmental standards are becoming more relevant. Generally speaking, an organic organization is allowed to keep their own standards if they are in compliance with their country’s national regulations. In the case of the EU Member countries private standards must be compliant with the EU Regulation 2092/91. An exception is the US, where since the implementation of the USDA programme (NOP), private organic bodies in the country are not allowed to use their own standards or any others that differ to the NOP, except for meeting exportation requirements.

What happens in practice is that the main importing countries are the ones that impose their rules in the international organic market. Therefore, the world’s three dominant regulations, the EU Regulation, NOP in the USA and JAS in Japan, have the largest number of organic producers that must conform to them. In addition, the stronger private standards have an added influence on many producers within both their own countries and importing countries.

Closely related to the standards that organic producers must conform to is another important marketing element; that of the seal or logo used. As with the situation with standards, there are governmental seals and private ones. In France, the most recognizable and influential symbol is the national government seal called AB. In Germany the national Biosiegel is well accepted. However, in many other European countries it is a private symbol that is the most influential and in many cases is what consumers associate with the word ‘organic’ when looking at a food label.

The different standards at national or private level and the different seals enrich the concept of ‘organic’ with their differences, but sometimes represent a barrier for trade. The organic sector is continuously searching for greater harmonization. The importance of this issue was illustrated at the IFOAM Conference on ‘International Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture’, held in Nuremberg, Germany in February 2002. There was much discussion and it was clear that all sectors involved need to make every effort if any degree of harmonization is to be achieved.



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