One of sustainable farming’s old warhorses spent the better part of the last three years fighting to keep pesticides in organic produce.
German Green MEP Martin Häusling, 56, leads the European Parliament’s negotiating team in a legislative battle over the very identity of what it means to be organic. Years of grueling talks over that hotly disputed organics dossier nearly collapsed last week.
Häusling’s unwavering vision for the future of organic food, and his unwillingness to compromise, has likely sealed the fate of abortive legislative reform.
The debate hinges on a popular misconception about what “organic” really means. Producers who use the label profit handsomely from consumers who think it means “chemical-free.” That’s not what the label actually mandates in the EU.
For organic farmers like Häusling — and under European law — the label means a series of standards and practices resulting in a more sustainable method of agricultural production. Organic products frequently contain pesticide residues.
The European Commission wants to change that with a plan to bring the industry in line with what consumers really think organic food is — and limit pesticide residues.
In response, Häusling said that any measure limiting pesticide levels in organic products would hamstring green-minded farmers and ultimately prove harmful to the environment. “Reducing organic to a production without pesticides — that’s only one part of organic,” Häusling said. “What angers me is the fact that the Commission just picked this one criterion and made it the decisive one.”
Häusling’s opposition to the Commission has pushed the talks to the brink of collapse.
The Maltese presidency of the Council of the European Union canceled the latest negotiating round, scheduled for last Wednesday, after a majority of governments rejected a proposed compromise.
Häusling said last week that the reforms would fail if they are not wrapped up by the end of the month. “I don’t see any other possibility with us carrying on with this [afterward],” he said.
If the talks do collapse, few in the organic farm industry will complain. Jan Plagge, the president of Germany’s largest organic association Bioland, said that German farmers in fact routinely criticize Häusling for not fighting the Commission hard enough.
“When Häusling took up the mandate, the expectation was for him stop the process,” he said.
Europe’s ravenous appetite for organic food is only about a decade old. The market nearly tripled between 2005 and 2015, jumping from a €12-billion-a-year industry to one worth some €30 billion annually.
Brussels introduced its first tranche of rules in 2008, but the industry’s meteoric rise sent policymakers back to the drawing board. Fearing the regulations were unfit for the exploding industry and that fraudsters could exploit gaps, the Commission floated a change in 2014 intended to prevent a massive loss of consumer trust in the sector.
Everyone agreed that several issues needed fixing, and fast. For example, the EU accepts organic imports from countries with vastly different rules, such as the U.S. or India, and leaves quality checks up to foreign authorities — a set-up ripe for scandal.
Things got complicated when Brussels proposed controls in Europe that would bring organic labeling into line with what consumers came to believe it stood for. “We have to defend the integrity of the organic label,” European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan told POLITICO last year.
The Commission’s more contentious proposals include forcing organic crops to be grown using only organic seeds (of which there is a shortage) and — most controversially — decertifying products containing pesticide traces above a certain limit.
Mainstream organic producers bridled. They had only just grown accustomed to EU regulation, and now Brussels was proposing a fundamental rethink likely to raise their overheads.
“The big message is that we didn’t ask for this reform,” said Christopher Atkinson, the head of standards at U.K. organic certifier the Soil Association. Rather than simply tightening up legislative sloppiness, what Brussels was proposing threatened to be “disruptive to organic food and farming in the EU,” he added.
‘Organic farmer of the first guard’
Häusling’s place at the center of the debate gave him what will likely be the greatest political influence he will ever yield.
He is a soft-spoken, unassuming and rumpled farmer from rural Germany. His mop of untidy silver hair and collection of somber blazers project a professorial air.
Born in Hesse, he said that he “was politicized” when he entered local politics in 1981 for the German Green party, convinced that energy and environmental policy needed radical change long before green issues became as mainstream as they are today.
He took over his parents’ farm and, determined to make his personal lifestyle match his politics, converted it to organic in 1988. “I’m an organic farmer of the first guard,” he said. “There weren’t even 20 organic farmers in all of Hesse. Organic farming was a total niche.”
Kellerwaldhof, Häusling’s farm, is a picturesque place nestled near woodlands. It boasts cows, pigs and even Shetland ponies — though the lion’s share of revenue comes from organic cheese and milk production. Most of its power is supplied by wood or solar energy.
Häusling, who was elected to Parliament in 2009, said his son and his son’s girlfriend now run the farm, while his wife is still deeply involved in its day-to-day business.
For Häusling — and the majority of farmers in the industry — organic farming is less about protecting the consumer than preserving the planet.
“If you look at where a lot of environmental problems stem from, the root cause is often agriculture,” said Häusling, pointing out that modern agriculture produces much of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Converting to organic will help safeguard water, soil and other natural resources — a lot,” he added.
The Commission’s proposal to limit pesticide levels on organic produce would cripple the industry, he said. Though organic farms face strict limits on what chemicals they can use they often sit next to conventional plots, meaning traces of pesticides are impossible to prevent.
“If I did what the Commission proposed, then I’d put all the costs onto the sector that doesn’t really use chemicals,” he said. “That’s a distortion and an unfairness that will push the organic industry back into a niche.”
No love lost
Powerful countries such as Germany vehemently opposed the Commission’s pesticides plan. Others such as Italy are deeply committed to it. Parliament, meanwhile, under Häusling, declared pesticide limits to be an undebatable red line.
The Commission said in December 2014 that if negotiators did not reach agreement within six months it would withdraw the proposal. And yet the talks trundled along, longer than any other legislative negotiation in recent memory, eclipsing even the length of 2013 talks to reform the EU’s byzantine Common Agricultural Policy.
The impasse, said Soil Associations’ Christopher Atkinson, came down to incompatible definitions of organic. “It’s like trying to reach a compromise between deciding whether you drive on the left-hand side of the road or the right-hand side of the road,” he said.
Many blame Häusling for the gridlock, with several sources saying his inexperience and strong convictions have tried patience and slowed progress to a halt.
“It’s very bad form as a fellow MEP to criticize him, but I find it quite hard not to,” said Julie Girling, a Conservative MEP and one of Häusling’s so-called shadows from another parliamentary group, who is now calling for the reform to be scrapped. “I have never been involved in anything as shambolic.”
Tim Heddema, a Dutch diplomat who participated in the talks, said Häusling was woefully underprepared for the largely technical talks. He added that Häusling is notoriously difficult to meet in person, which contributes to the huge delays.
When Heddema did manage to sit down with Häusling’s team, Heddema said that they would waste time with “philosophical discussions” about the nature of organic food rather than delving into nitty-gritty legislative details — but then turn around and challenge minor points during the talks.
“Parliament made every detail political,” he said. “There wasn’t much love lost.”
Häusling pushed back at suggestions that he was lax about putting in negotiating legwork, though he allowed that time constraints and fewer staff at the European Parliament made it impossible to meet everyone.
Other sources who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity said everyone was exhausted and fed up with the file. Another said that Häusling and his small staff worked “ridiculous hours” on the dossier.
All the negotiators, including Häusling, are adamant that they do want to arrive at a solution, however unlikely one is. But increasingly, industry veterans and policymakers say the organic talks will slide into oblivion, leaving existing rules that open organics to fraud in place.
Jakob Hanke contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misstated the European Commission’s position on controls for organic farms. The Commission’s original proposals mandated risk-based controls on organic farms.