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Organic Production (Organic Indications) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Organic Production (Organic Indications) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.

My Lords, this instrument ensured that current organic standards were in force for the end of the transition period. I should make it clear that the instrument does not make any changes to our policies; it is purely technical in nature. The Government strongly support organic standards, many of which were developed in the UK and adopted by the EU. The UK has world-recognised standards of food production and labelling, which we wish to see maintained.

There are 6,000 predominantly small and medium-sized UK organic businesses, which in 2019 contributed over £2.5 billion to the UK economy, including exports worth £250 million. These businesses are flourishing. Over the past year, as healthy and nutritious food has risen up the menu, organic sales have grown by 12.9%. This reflects a global trend for sustainable food, with countries such as the United States of America and Germany also seeing significant growth in organics.

The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which includes an annexe on the organics trade, provides a platform to build on this strong growth. British businesses will be able to continue to export organic products—whether organic Welsh lamb or key ingredients for organic food processing that happens in the EU such as milk for baby food destined for China—until 31 December 2023, while EU organic products, also including ingredients for the supply chain, will be able to continue to flow into GB.

We have removed the requirements for a certificate of inspection for organic products coming from the EU, EEA and Switzerland for six months until 1 July 2021. This means that ports and local authorities will have time to become familiar with the new manual importing system when checking organic products from other third countries. Meanwhile, consumers will continue to have access to a wide choice of organic food.

Together with the powers set out in the Agriculture Act, and while working closely with representatives from the sector and the devolved Administrations, we will seek to modernise how we regulate the production of organic food, animals and livestock. Our organic legislation sets out the requirements for organic production, processing, labelling and imports, as well as the control systems that must be in place to ensure that the requirements are met. It stipulates that organic food must be inspected and certified within the scope of a tightly regulated framework, and originate from businesses registered and approved by organic control bodies on the basis of rigorous annual inspections.

The instrument amended this legislation as it applies to the labelling of organic products. How organic products are labelled is an important part of organic certification, giving consumers confidence that they can trust that the organic products they buy in supermarkets and smaller retailers are organic. That is why this is a “made affirmative” instrument. We had to ensure that the UK’s organic labelling regulations were updated for the end of the transition period.

The specific amendments in the instrument removed the mandatory requirement for the EU organic logo to be featured on organic products sold in GB, and provided the legal framework for a new UK organic logo when it is developed. They amended the requirement to include an EU statement of agricultural origin, so that such statements reference the UK rather than the EU. For example, where the organic product has been farmed in the UK, organic operators should now use “UK agriculture” on the product’s packaging; or, where it has been partly farmed in a third country, including countries in the EU, and partly farmed in the UK, organic operators should use “UK/non-UK agriculture”.

The trade and co-operation agreement means that organic businesses now have the option to use the EU organic logo. If the EU logo is used, the relevant EU statement of agricultural origin must also be included, as required by the relevant EU rules. This logo is well recognised and will help grow UK organic exports to the EU.

The instrument contains devolved matters, so the devolved Administrations were closely engaged in its development and gave their consent for it to be made.

Although the instrument is relatively straightforward, the amendments were vital for the UK’s organic legislation and for what we all desire: for the organic sector to prosper under our future arrangements, at home and in this important export market. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is vital that we support the organic industry, given that it is critical to meeting our climate and ecological challenges while producing the food we need. It is to be applauded for using fewer pesticides, reducing soil erosion, and helping us to tackle biodiversity loss. I do not oppose—in many regards, I welcome—this statutory instrument, but I query why it has been tabled with urgency and therefore without a draft instrument being laid in advance.

I query that because the SI removes the mandatory EU logo being placed on UK organic produce, yet we have agreed an equivalence of standards with the rest of Europe until the end of 2023—which I am pleased about. I understand why we might wish to remove the mandatory element, but I am not sure why it has to be so urgent. Similarly, I cannot understand why it is urgent to make this SI, given that, when we had a meeting with the Minister and his team in advance of another SI, he kindly informed us that Defra had “no plans, at present” to bring forward a logo.

It is puzzling, because the Explanatory Memorandum itself sets out no rationale for the UK to introduce its own organic logo. When the EU introduced its logo, 10 years ago, it was absolutely clear. It had a strategy to increase the percentage of organic farming in the European Union and, given that there was a plethora of organic labels, it decided to create one EU logo and promote it vociferously to consumers. Indeed, this year, I understand that the EU is hoping to introduce a new organic farm action plan with a target of 25% of agricultural land in the EU being put into organic farming by 2030. It has set aside €40 million for the promotion of organic farming. On the last day before I stopped coming into the Lords because of the lockdown, I remember standing on Godalming station facing a massive poster for the promotion of EU organic apples. Yet here in the UK, we have no strategy to increase organic farming and there is no mention in the Explanatory Memorandum of any guaranteed funding for any logo that might result from it.

Equally, we have no design, yet we know that designing logos is controversial, given that it will relate to issues of land and identity and will require the consent of the devolved Administrations. Nor is there any mention of any commitment to consult the public, yet the public are the people who must understand any resulting logo. When we had an SI recently on the three new logos for geographical indications and foods that the Government produced, they had already consulted on the logos, including with the public, and the designs are available for all of us to see on the government website. Yet in this instance, it is somehow urgent to make a requirement that people in future use a logo, but we as parliamentarians have had no guarantees on who will be consulted on a controversial issue and no sight of said logos, when we had that for the three GI protected logos which were produced recently.

Similarly, I should like the Minister to reassure me that this is not a case of putting the cart before the horse, given the Government’s welcome commitment to introduce mandatory “method of production” labelling in future. They said that proposals for consultation would come forward fairly shortly, so why insist on doing this organic logo in advance? We could well end up with logo proliferation such as we see on a young person’s Scout sleeve.

In conclusion, as I said, I do not oppose this SI, but I very much hope that the Minister will be able to commit in his remarks that no logo will be produced in the absence of a strategy to increase organic farming or without a commitment to full public consultation and guaranteed funding to promote the logo and, through it, the valuable organic farm businesses that we need to support. Without those three things, this SI will not achieve what I hope all of us in the Grand Committee want, which is an increase in the percentage of farmed land in the UK given up to organic farming.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who speaks with such knowledge on these issues. I pay tribute to my noble friend and his department for what they have achieved for the free movement of organics. My understanding is that, at one stage, it looked as though there would not be uninterrupted, unfettered access to the UK market from the EU, and for our organic products over there. The fact that that has been recognised and redeemed is worthy of congratulation, because I am sure it would have taken some time to achieve.

For the most part, I support the contents of the limited instrument before us today, but I take note of what the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said about the degree of urgency. It would be helpful to know about that. I am slightly concerned that there will be two dates that organic producers have to be aware of. My noble friend said—and I am sure this is welcome—that there is a deferral until 1 July, which I presume extends to organic products from the EU, the EEA and Switzerland for the certification set out. Yet I understand that the trade and co-operation agreement has extended the mutual recognition of organic standards until the end of 2023. Does that mean that those organic products will have to be subject to these new import processes from 1 July 2021, and will the certification be in paper format? We have already encountered a number of difficulties at ports, in particular, and I fear that we will experience the same difficulties again. I do not know whether my understanding is correct there, but it would be very helpful to know whether that is the case.

I am slightly surprised that the Explanatory Memorandum says that no consultation has been undertaken—other than, I presume, the usual engagement that my noble friend and the department have with organic producers. It will be interesting to know how often they meet and what their reaction has been to the contents of the instrument.

This is undoubtedly a very important sector, for the reasons my noble friend gave, in terms of worth to the UK economy and the value of UK exports alone, so it would be helpful to know that access since 1 January from the UK to our export market in the EU has been smooth.

Finally, I note something raised by our honourable friend the Minister in the Commons who replied to the little debate on this instrument there. She alluded to what the Government hope to do through the Agriculture Act 2020:

“We will use the Agriculture Act 2020 to set an ambitious new course for the organic sector. We are working to ensure that organic goods can continue to move freely between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In terms of movement into Northern Ireland, through the Joint Committee agreement and the UK-EU TCA, we have secured easements to allow time for adjustments to take place.”—[Official Report, Commons, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 25/1/21; col. 8.]

To press my noble friend on that, is he expecting more regulations to flow under the Agriculture Act’s provisions? Presumably there will have to be regulations before the end of June, or will this automatically fall into place so that we do not need to revise any current regulation in place? I would be very interested to know the extent.

I entirely support an ambitious new course for the organic sector; it has done quite well and is a jewel in the crown. I am sure any support the department can give will be very welcome—personally, I think it has always been considered fairly niche. When might we expect thinking to become more concrete and see the regulations give effect to what the Government have in mind?

I thank my noble friend for introducing the regulations and for giving us the chance to scrutinise them.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering; I agree with a large proportion of what she said. I thank the Minister for his extensive introduction to this SI and for his time and that of his officials in providing a briefing on it.

Organic food production is at last increasing in the UK. At the start of the process of the Agriculture Act we were informed that the UK had the lowest rate of organic production of any of the EU countries engaged in organic farming. I am delighted that more producers are engaging with organics—there has been a 12% increase in the last year. There is, of course, great demand for organically produced Welsh lamb, although currently getting it through the customs regulations is a bit of a sticking point.

My noble friend Lady Parminter queried why the SI is being introduced so urgently. I share her concern.

When I read the SI, I was prematurely delighted that all organic produce was to be labelled as such, along with a UK organic logo, and that the place where the agricultural raw materials had been farmed would appear on the packaging. This would ensure that some of our iconic UK produce would be safeguarded and its authenticity proved. However, this was short lived; although the SI refers to a UK organic logo, this logo has not yet been produced but is being “developed”. The most obvious question, which I am sure the Minister is prepared for, is: how long will it take to get agreement from the organic producers on this logo? It is vital that the increasing sector has reassurance that its produce will be recognised. Even if the instrument provided for UK organic products to be so labelled, this is undermined by there being no specific, easily recognisable logo, as my noble friend Lady Parminter flagged.

The instrument states that the organic sector is worth £2.3 billion per annum to the UK economy and represents over 6,000 operators. The SI protects them to some extent, but it could go much further, including on consulting the public and the devolved Administrations.

Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum states:

“Organic food and feed must be inspected and certified within the scope of a regulated framework.”

The Minister has referred to this already, but can he say whether this will mean more or less paperwork for the producers? We have all seen the problems occurring at border points, with the correct paperwork not being readily available. It is important that these “teething problems”, as the Government put it, are sorted out quickly to the benefit of our producers trying to supply the markets they set up prior to Brexit.

I understand there has been consultation with the United Kingdom organic certifiers group. However, its response is not recorded. Can the Minister give an update on the view of the UKOCG?

The SI states that the impact has no changes on direct costs. I presume this relates only to labelling and that there are no changes to other paperwork. Can the Minister confirm this is the case?

I welcome the change the SI makes to ensure that UK organic produce properly labels its origin and that it is organically sourced, but I remain very concerned that the agreement on a certified organic logo is still under review. I would like the Minister to give a definitive date when this will be agreed and begin to be widely used. I fully support my noble friend Lady Parminter’s comments. This is an important issue, which should be progressed urgently.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and for the helpful briefing with officials beforehand. As he said, this is an important issue for the thriving organics sector in the UK and it is important that we do everything we can to support and grow the market, particularly in the EU. As the SI makes clear, this sector is worth £2.3 billion per annum to the UK economy, with exports worth £250 million a year. The UK undoubtedly has a respected reputation globally for the quality of its organic produce; it is vital that this is maintained.

As has been said, this SI was signed off on 31 December and appears before us on the “made affirmative” basis, as there was an immediate need at the end of the transition for continuity. We understand that argument, but I have a number of questions about the post-implementation of the SI.

On dates, we have seen several times in previous SIs a provision for a six-month transition before new customs and border control certifications come into effect, but this SI, at the end of paragraph 2.5 of the Explanatory Memorandum, refers to the UK recognising the EU and EEA as equivalent for the purposes of trade until 31 December 2021. Can the Minister explain why those dates differ from other applicable dates?

Also, in annexe 4 of the trade and co-operation agreement there are specific and separate arrangements for fostering trade in organic produce. It refers to the provision for labelling and equivalence being reassessed by each party by 31 December 2023. Could the Minister explain what is due to happen between 2021 and 2023? Is it intended that we would need a separate SI to provide that continuity for organic trade until December 2023?

Organic Farmers & Growers has signalled that, although the continuity until 2023 is welcome, it is only 36 months away and will leave many UK organic businesses unable to secure long-term supply contracts. Can the Minister say when the work to secure a long-term agreement will begin and when he thinks he will be able to give the growers the long-term certainty they need to access the markets?

Organic Farmers & Growers also raised concerns about the end of the UK trader scheme on 31 March, which facilitates the movement of goods from GB to Northern Ireland. It argues that it is not practical to produce daily certificates of inspection for every shipment. Can the Minister say whether it is intended that this scheme should be extended? Otherwise, many retailers will simply stop transporting organic goods to Northern Ireland.

As a number of noble Lords have said, it seems a missed opportunity that we do not yet have a UK organic logo agreed. While we understand the complexity of reaching agreement, it is hoped that this work can proceed at pace. However, we welcome the fact that the trade and co-operation agreement undertakes to protect the use of the EU’s organic logo and any UK logo when it is finally agreed. Indeed, continued use of the EU logo would enable UK producers to continue to use the well-recognised routes to market.

Meanwhile, could the Minister update us on any discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations on this issue? Have we had an indications as to whether they would be content to have one UK logo, or do they envisage having separate ones for each nation?

Whatever the outcome, I hope the Minister agrees that any solution should optimise our marketing and trade opportunities, and should therefore have widespread recognition and impact. This is particularly important in the context of the EU’s new €182 million fund to promote agri-foods outside the EU, much of which will focus on its Green Deal ambitions and the farm to fork initiative. Can the Minister say whether a similar UK fund is being considered to capitalise on our reputation for high standards and integrity, which are integral to our good farming practice? This should particularly benefit the organics sector. As other noble Lords said, if we do not move fast, we will get left behind in this area.

I do not have anything further to say. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate. If I do not fully pick up any matters of detail, I will, of course, write. I am grateful for the general welcome of the instrument. I should say in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who raised this first, that the SI was made under the emergency procedure to correct operability issues and to ensure that the current organic standards were in force at the end of the transition period. The emergency procedure allowed us to ensure that the legislation was in force on 1 January. We believe it is important to make sure that the amendments, which are, I agree, uncontroversial corrections to efficiencies, take effect promptly.

On that, the whole point of the instrument was to make the retained EU organic regime operable. It ensured that strict regulations for organics were maintained at the end of the transition period.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh raised dates. I will spend a little time on this because it is important. There are two key dates in the instrument. The first, 1 July 2021, relates to the six-month easement that we have introduced on the requirement for certificates of inspection for organic products coming into Great Britain from the EU, EEA and Switzerland. Imports from other third countries require a GB COI from 1 January 2021, which is a manual process until an electronic system is available. I will mention that in a moment. This six-month waiver was a pragmatic decision, which allowed EU businesses time to adjust to the new system and therefore reduced the risk of congestion at ports.

The second date, 31 December 2021, relates to the one-year extension to the UK’s recognition of the EU as equivalent for organics that we unilaterally provided. This was to ensure that organic products could continue to be imported into GB after 1 January this year without a trade deal in place. It has been included in this instrument and not in any previous instruments due to the sensitivities around the negotiations with the EU leading up to the end of the transition period.

The big “however” is that, of course, on 24 December we signed the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. We agreed mutual recognition for organics as an annexe in the “technical barriers to trade” section. This means that we can continue to trade organic food and feed with the EU as equivalent until 31 December 2023. Later this year we will bring in a new piece of legislation to update this recognition date. There was insufficient time to amend the instrument after the trade and co-operation agreement was signed.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised the UK organic certifiers group. We meet this group fortnightly and we previously discussed the instrument. It was very supportive of this legislative change. We regularly engage with key stakeholders because we want to make the organics legislation work for the UK organics sector.

The noble Baronesses raised the UK organics logo, with slightly different emphasis. Our consideration was that organic operators and consumers face a number of substantial changes, so we felt that it was not the right time to bring forward an early introduction of a new organic logo. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, rightly asked about consultation, which feeds into this point. In my view and that of the Government, it would be a mistake to introduce a UK organic logo just like that. It needs to have full and proper consultation across a very wide range of interested parties. In an earlier debate, we mentioned 6,000 SMEs. We need to do this properly for it to stand the test of time, and obviously we need to work with the devolved Administrations in the widest sense. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, we are very proud of our organic food, so when we come forward with a UK organic logo we need to make sure we have worked on this basis.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, also asked about paperwork. My heart sinks on paperwork, of course. We are in very strong dialogue with all interested parties as we seek to ensure that the changing arrangements work successfully for businesses. This instrument will not lead to a significant impact on organic businesses as it merely updates existing rules on labelling to reference the UK rather than the EU. Labelling is a crucial part of the certification and gives consumers confidence. Again, we will work with businesses, because it is very important that that is practical.

In terms of the inspections, again, this does not introduce any new policy, but we have put in place, and are extending to the end of 2021, temporary easements to the process of verifying organic products to support the organic sector. This is pragmatic during this terrible pandemic.

On the importance of trade between the UK and EU, like in many parts of the economy, the UK and the EU share a close trading partnership and relationship in organic products. EU organic ingredients are incredibly important for GB organic producers, such as those making organic yoghurt, so this is a key interest. UK organic produce is also hugely important for EU organic producers, which is why we need to work closely on this.

In terms of work on the Agriculture Act 2020, which the Minister, Victoria Prentis, and I both raised, and which my noble friend Lady McIntosh and others have mentioned, this Act sets out how farmers and land managers will be paid for public goods through the environmental land management scheme. Organic farmers will be well placed to benefit from the new system and the provision of environmental benefits and services, such as biodiversity and habitats. The ELMS will have a strong connection with organic production and we will be engaged in tests and trials as we bring forward its full rollout in 2024.

We are working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations on this instrument. Indeed, they attend the United Kingdom Organic Certifiers Group where we work very closely. We are meeting fortnightly with the devolved Administrations to ensure that all issues and development in this sector are well understood.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, raised a point about agricultural land, extending organic farming and the EU’s own ambition. We believe that this is a new chapter for UK agriculture and the Agriculture Act 2020 provides a strong reason for that. We currently support organic production through the Countryside Stewardship scheme.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about Northern Ireland. Where organic products are from GB, or originate in the EU but have been cleared for use in GB, an EU certificate of inspection is required to move the products to Northern Ireland. However, we have introduced an easement so that some organic products, including those moving to Northern Ireland retailers and their trusted suppliers, will not require a certificate of inspection until 1 April 2021. We are working closely with all interested parties to make sure that Northern Ireland traffic is smooth.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about the impact on businesses. This instrument maintains existing regulatory standards, so there is no direct financial impact on businesses from these instruments. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, raised the issue of what happens after 31 December 2023. We remain committed to securing a more permanent arrangement in the interim and will start discussions with the EU in due course. This is obviously a matter that is in progress and I am well seized of the points made by the noble Baronesses.

Regarding enforcement across all parts of the UK, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, supervision in GB is performed by organic control bodies appointed by Defra acting as the GB competent authority. There are currently six control bodies operating in GB. They are approved to certify GB organic operators. It is the same in Northern Ireland, with Defra acting as the NI competent authority and appointing organic control bodies to operate in the territory. This includes two from the Republic of Ireland.

I will look at Hansard to see if there are any other points that I may not have covered sufficiently because of technical detail. In the meantime, I beg to move.

Motion agreed

Sitting suspended.