Interview with Miguel Ángel de Porras Acuña, Co-director of FiBL Europe, Brussels Office

Miguel Ángel de Porras Acuña, the Co-director of FiBL Europe, Brussels Office, gives us some insights on the work of FiBL, its collaboration with the EU in support of ACP countries and his thinking about the recent Court of Auditors findings on the control system for organic products.


Could you tell us about the work of FiBL?  

FiBL (or Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in German) is an independent, non-profit research institute with the aim of advancing scientific knowledge applicable to organic and sustainable agriculture. We were founded in Switzerland in 1973, and now have almost 300 researchers across five European countries. Our scientists work in a multidisciplinary context, covering all areas relating to agriculture and food systems; from soil science to rural sociology, livestock science to environmental economics.   

From its founding, FiBL has focused on interdisciplinary research; working together with farmers and other stakeholders to develop scientific knowledge. This has placed FiBL at the forefront of agricultural research, and it has become one of the most active research institutes in the field of food security and sustainable agriculture under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme.  

Some of our current research activities include sustainability assessments of agricultural holdings, alternatives to contentious inputs, dual production livestock systems, consumer approaches to organic foods, and alternative organic seed and animal breeding. FiBL also has a department of international cooperation, with many projects in low-income countries, particularly ACP. Researchers presented the findings of some of their flagship projects (SYSCOM and PROECOAFRICA) at a recent workshop in Brussels entitled “The Contribution of Organic Agriculture to the SDGs” which was supported by the European Commission and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.   

We also publish the World of Organic Agriculture; an influential statistical yearbook which presents the most comprehensive data collection available on the organic agricultural sector in 181 countries worldwide 

 In addition to its research activities, FiBL’s expertise means it is able to provide consultancy and other products which support the organic sector.  FiBL has developed successful projects such as the European Input ListOrganicXseeds and BioC, which aim to support different stakeholders in the sector to better implement the principles of the EU organic agriculture regulations.  

What are they key priorities for organic production in the EU which have an impact for the ACP countries (or developing countries)? 

In terms of production, the EU is a global leader, with 12.8 million hectares and more than 300.000 operators. The European regulatory framework has always set the standard globally, and in the past year the EU approved the new organic farming regulation (Regulation (EU) 2018/848) which will bring significant changes to the organic imports system. Once the regulation enters into force, imports of organic products to the EU from third countries will be based on two models: “equivalence” or “compliance”. For the countries considered “equivalent” through their trade agreements with the EU, their organic certificates will be treated the same as those issued in an EU country. For the countries without this kind of agreement the “compliance” system will apply, meaning that the EU organic rules will apply for the products imported to the EU. 

The EU represents more than one third of the global organic market, and this regulatory change will have a major impact on the inspection systems of many non-EU countries and international organic supply chains. As this will also be a big change for organic farmers in small countries exporting to the EU, a transition period has been established to give time to non-EU countries to integrate the organic sector in their trade negotiation in order to minimise the impact 

In addition to this regulation, there are many other EU regulations which impact upon the future development of the organic sector in ACP countries. For example, the strict application of the pesticides regulatory framework to bio protection products is often blocking or delaying the trade of products which can be used inorganic production, which can address production problems in ACP countries. On the other hand, the EU supports many projects which foster the development of technologies which could support the transition to a more sustainable model in the EU as well as low-income countries.  

You are the co-director of the Brussels Office. What are the main areas of work and what programs do you develop with the EU? 

FiBL Europe is the newest office in the FiBL family. We are a small team of currently 5 people working on a relatively big portfolio of activities: we coordinate internal projects, such as the abovementioned European Input List and OrganicXseeds; we also support the project coordination of some of our scientists’ research projects, mostly Horizon 2020; and we also provide consultancy services to different customers.  

In addition, we develop activities to facilitate the dissemination of scientific knowledge produced by our researchers, here in Brussels as well as in other EU countries. We cooperate very closely with the EU institutions, principally the European Commission, the Council, the European Parliament and other institutions present in Brussels. Furthermore, our office represents a “one stop shop” for a wide range of stakeholders present in Brussels looking to engage with our experienced research institution. Being present in Brussels is key for the further development of our activities. We also work together with our partners in the organic sector, such as IFOAM EU and TPOrganics in supporting the future development of scientific knowledge in the organic sector. 

Furthermore, we are working with our international cooperation department to increase the impact of FiBL research in low-income countries in the Brussels international cooperation environment. In this sense we cooperate in several EU projects and we expect to increase our dissemination activities in this specific field.  

 Comment on the Court of Auditors findings? 

In the past week the European Court of Auditors publish their special report “The control system for organic products has improved, but some challenges remain”. This report is the follow up on the last report issued by the institution on the organic sector in 2012 and focuses on three main areas: production in the EU, imports and traceabilityThe results of the report are generally positive for the organic control system; there has been a clear improvement in most of the issues marked for follow-up in the 2012 report, particularly inspection of EU production.  

The remaining challenges are mostly on the topic of traceability and the imports system of organic products. As regards of traceability, we are glad to see that the above mentioned FiBL database, BioC, is already solving some of the shortcomings identified by ECA by providing access to the operator certificates. In this way, organic importers can have transparent access to suppliers’ certifications. As regards organic imports, the system has significantly improved but challenges remain due to the complexity of international supply chains and the varying legal enforcement in different national contexts. However this current system will be considerably modified by the new organic regulation. 

In general, I see this report as positive step, Member States and the European Commission are addressing the challenges of improving the inspection system of organic agriculture. Agri-food supply chains in the EU are complex, especially international supply chains. We have to take into account that organic farming products represent a growing, but still small fraction of food production and trade in the EUThe ECA report states that Member States, inspection bodies and all stakeholders are increasingly cooperating, which increases the effectiveness and efficiency of the system. Despite this small market share, we can say that organic products are the most regulated food products in the EU, from production through to consumption.