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About the Foundation

Organic farming labels

Although organic labels are seen as a guarantee of product quality, they are often criticised. The wide variety of labels means they can be hard to understand, and not all producers can afford the costs of certification, especially in developing countries. In addition, importing organic products under bilateral agreements misleadingly puts products that meet different specifications on an equal footing.
AL033-04 label bio europeen et allemand 2016
© Getty Images / Photothek / Thomas Trutschel - European organic agriculture label (left) and the German label as a complement (right), Berlin, Germany, 2016

The limitations of organic certification

Since the 1970s, organic products have been increasingly appealing to consumers, especially in Europe and the US. In order to prevent any abuse of this booming ‘organic’ market, there was a need for a standard, certification and control of organic farming, to guarantee that the actual products lived up to the claims made. Private organisations promoting organic farming designed production standards and certification procedures based on minimum standards drawn up by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). In the 1980-1990s, the authorities established ordinances at governmental level in Switzerland as well as at a European level, to support conventional producers as they converted to organic farming. Launched in 1993, the European law on organic production applied first to crops and then to livestock farming and aquaculture, as well as textile manufacturing, fodder plants and finally cosmetics at the end of the 1990s. At the same time, it inspired the development of regulations in other countries, such as in Japan, Canada and the US, as well as the drafting of guidelines for organic agriculture by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which set the new benchmark for national ordinances and international exchanges.

Faced with the increasing number of labels, most western countries sought to reduce the costs of product control in order to promote international trade. They signed bilateral agreements that introduced a system of equivalence between labels and thereby ensured mutual recognition of the production and certification procedures for organic farming in the exporting country.

AL033-04 Label biologique suisse 90pourcents matieres suisses
© Bio Suisse - Le Bourgeon, Bio Suisse label

​While organic product labelling is a guarantee of quality for consumers, it has faced three main criticisms. Firstly, an authorised organisation has to certify the products before producers can market and export them under an ‘organic’ label. This procedure incurs costs that many farmers in the world, and especially in developing countries, cannot afford. To help them export their products, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) create and award organic labels that meet a fixed and verified list of specifications. At the same time, some producers have set up their own 'organic' label with a participatory control system to promote local trade in organic products. This system involves consumers and other local producers in order to guarantee product quality.

AL033-04 Fromage pepper Jack label USDA organic
© Shutterstock / Keith Homan - Pepper Jack cheese with the American USDA Organic label, United States, 2 November 2016

The second criticism concerns imports of organic products under bilateral trade agreements. For example, when a product of organic farming in the United States is imported into the European Union, manufacturers can use both the European organic label and the American logo. This way of proceeding misleadingly puts products that meet different specifications on an equal footing. Consumers can only tell an American organic product from its European ‘equivalent’ by checking its place of origin printed on the packaging. The use of antibiotics in organic production is a good example of the limitations of equivalence here. There are no European organic meat products on the other side of the Atlantic because, unlike the EU, the US prohibits the use of antibiotics on organic farms. On the other hand, some conditions are less stringent than in the EU (no requirement for permanent access to an outdoor area, minimisation of transport time, etc.). On the contrary, in the US, farmers can treat diseased apples and pears with antibiotics as a last resort. In Europe, however, this is not the case, which is why no American organic apples are available on European stalls.

Lastly, the final criticism relates to what the general public knows about product labelling. Consumers rarely have access to specifications, and the coexistence on the market of diverse labels that meet more or less restrictive requirements only serves to increase confusion.