‘Historic’ Trade Agreement to Boost Organic Industry

By Beacon Staff

Europeans could be eating a lot more organic wheat harvested in Montana beginning this summer.

An “historic” trade agreement between the U.S. and European Union announced on Feb. 15 will unify the certification standards needed for organically produced goods, making it easier for the two largest organic producers in the world to do business.

The deal goes into effect June 1 and is expected to substantially increase organic sales within the first few years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rising organic sectors in both the U. S. and Europe are currently valued at more than $50 billion combined.

State and federal officials are praising the new agriculture deal as a significant boost to the organic marketplace, both for large- and small-scale operations.

“It’s big news and very good news for organic agriculture as a whole and for organic agriculture in Montana,” said Doug Crabtree, the organic certification program manager for the state’s Department of Agriculture.

The new agreement lifts a trade barrier that required two separate sets of certifications. Now anything certified as organic by the USDA will be recognized as such in Europe.

“We’ve had a steady growth in the number of people who want to grow things organically. This state has been a leader in organic farming,” said Ron Zellar, information specialist for the state’s agriculture department.

“If it makes it easier for some folks to get the certification they need to ship to other countries, that’s always a good thing.”

Crabtree believes the new agreement will likely lead to an increased trade of Montana-made processed products, like breads and flours, or other locally grown items that could be used as ingredients overseas.

“We’ll probably see some direct increase in bulk commodities, but more so it will likely be the downstream effect of more products being made with Montana organic products,” Crabtree said.

Agriculture is the largest industry in Montana, generating more than $2.4 billion annually. The state has been the leading producer of organically produced wheat and grains in the country by acreage since the national standards were finalized and implemented in 2002, Crabtree said. There are more than 200 organically certified operations in the state.

After 2002, Montana saw a boom in the agriculture sector from organic farming and the number of operations increased steadily, Crabtree said. The national recession stalled growth in recent years, but Crabtree believes the new trade deal will help rejuvenate organic farming across the state.

“I think this (agreement) will be something that could strengthen the market and get us back on the growth trajectory,” he said. “This (agreement) can only help.”

Previously, growers and companies that wanted to trade overseas had to earn separate certifications from the both U.S. and European. The differences between the two standards were minor but resulted in a double set of fees and inspections. Now, goods that meet the terms of the partnership can be traded and labeled as certified organic produce, meat, cereal, or wine.

The most notable exception involves the use of antibiotics. USDA organic regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics except to control invasive bacterial infections in organic apple and pear orchards. The European Union regulations allow antibiotics only to treat infected animals. For all products traded under the new partnership, certifying agents must verify that antibiotics were not used for any reason.

Crabtree predicted the new unifying standards would reduce costs by between $250 and $500 for operations that were already shipping overseas and being double certified.

More importantly, he said, “for those who have not been producing and exporting organic goods due to expense and hassle, (the new agreement) will open doors to get into that arena.”

In 2010, the U.S. organic market grew nearly 8 percent to nearly $28.6 billion. Organic exports reached approximately $1.8 billion in 2010, and that number is expected to grow 8 percent annually over the next several years, according to the USDA.

The latest deal embodies one of the USDA’s priorities of promoting international organic trade while strengthening a vital industry.

“I want to start by emphasizing that a vibrant American economy depends on a prosperous rural America,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry after the trade agreement was signed in Germany.

“Rural America supplies food for our country and the world.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.