Organic or not organic: the sector is bound by a number of rules, and where there are rules, there’s room for debate. For years, there's been a heated discussion about whether a natural substrate in covered production should be allowed under the European organic label, for example. This is the case in Scandinavia, Canada and the US, but it’s not allowed in many European member countries. At the same time, new, self-proclaimed alternatives are presented. Flemish grower Jos Derwael, for example, claims that the production of conventional, residue-free pears is even more progressive in a number of ways than what’s prescribed by organic production guidelines. What should the sector now expect, exactly?
PuraNatura’s greenhouse vegetables, which are grown on a natural substrate, cannot be sold as organic in a large part of Europe. That is a thorn in the side of Peter Jens, CEO of Stichting PuraNatura. In 2011, he wrote an open letter to then Dutch state secretary Henk Bleker, in which he championed for the redefinition of substrate production in the hope of having the production method more widely recognised in Europe. As an argument he said the farmers behind the foundation “contribute to the Dutch trade balance with the export of certified USDA 100% Organic products, they decrease environmental pressure on Dutch soils, make large-scale production more sustainable, and are increasing North American food safety by not using animal fertilisers.” His request was not given much attention, and he was resigned to seeing how other European countries were considered for an organically certified substrate production in the following years.
Applying double standards
Many think that double standards have been applied. The fact that countries with territory above the 56th latitude, such as in Scandinavia, are allowed to grow in separate beds with substrate, as an exception, literally doesn’t fall on fertile ground in the eyes of practically the entire European organic sector. And it recently became apparent that the organic greenhouse production in Spain, in which garden soil is placed on rock-beds – which could be called organic – is also a controversial issue. As within the conventional production, Spanish organic growers can grow enarenado, which is a landscaped production layer consisting of clay, sand and animal fertiliser. Mid-2017, this even led to parliamentary questions by outgoing state secretary Martijn van Dam in the Netherlands.
Organic and residue-free not the same
Another discussion keeping many minds occupied is the rise of residue-free varieties and their relation to organic growing principles. For example, Carrefour, BelOrta and New Green presented the first residue-free pear on the fields of Flemish grower Jos Derwael late August. This pear can be bought from Carrefour in Belgium. The grower concurs that residue-free and organic productions are structurally different from one another, but he prefers the residue-free production over the organic one, “because the use of heavy metals such as copper and sulphur is permitted in the latter.” Flemish organic sector organisation BioForum Vlaanderen put up a defence by saying the term residue-free is misleading, because the term implies that no pesticides are used during the production. “But upon inquiry it appears that the production does use chemical-synthetic pesticides,” the organisation says in its response. “At best, the residue-free pears are sprayed less. Applying substances occurs earlier in the production process, so that residues are no longer detectable by the end of the process.”
“Impossible to feed the world with organic”
Peter Klapwijk, former manager Development & Strategy for GreenQ, is active as production consultant in his current position via consultancy 2Harvest. He is also of the opinion that organic and residue-free are very much different. Although he – in contrast to Jos Derwael – doesn’t consider residue-free production a modern from of organic production, he strongly doubts the organic sector is one the right path. “You can’t feed the world with organic production,” he says.
“Residue-free production is good, but it’s too far removed from organic to be stamped as such. But I honestly don’t understand why interest groups respond so fiercely against organic production on substrate. I understand that the organic sector objects to artificial fertiliser production from petroleum, mines and mountainsides, but no additives are used in the production of substrate. When you make sure to get fertiliser from products that grow, you can really make a difference,” Peter says.
“The organic sector is letting a number of opportunities go unused,” he continues. “It’s high time to start modernising. With natural, self-reproducing fertilisers you could have a perpetual motion machine. With this substrate production you could realise efficiency improvements up to 30 per cent compared to standard organic production in soil. After all, we’re all working towards a healthy product, saving Mother Earth and feeding the world, and as efficiently as possible. You could stick to principles, but emission-wise and regarding water and energy use, you’d be working in an incorrect manner. I believe in the organic principles, but the way the sector is currently characterising itself is almost fundamental.” He is bothered that the sector sticks to the old principles. “It would be good to adjust to the times. Some purists say substrate production should never get the label ‘organic,’ because products haven’t been grown in soil, as they’ve always been. It’s not as if we still go around in a horse and carriage either,” he jokes. “With substrate production you could make a larger percentage of organic product available at a lower price,” Peter says. “And wouldn’t that benefit us all?”
Different political fields of influence
Why is the agricultural policy in countries such as Canada and the US susceptible to organic production on substrate? Peter: “The same discussion is happening there, but the penny simply dropped the other way. It’s all to do with the political fields of influence. Once that happens, it becomes very difficult for the other party to convince people otherwise.”
However, he does see openings in the debate. “When governments also start seeing the importance – after all, that’s the level at which the issue should be approached – there will definitely be room for changes as well. The social developments needed to wake up the administrative levels are already happening. The market is showing more and more interest. We value the quality of food, and we understand the impact of food on our health and the environment better. People are realising that substrate production is more than just an alternative. There’s much interest among producers and supermarkets, in any case. In this discussion, it’s not about what you think, but about what makes the difference based on calculations and arguments. Perhaps we should choose to attack.”