UNFSS at BioFach, February 2015, Nuremberg

The UNFSS Working Group on Enhancing Interoperability of Sustainability Standards takes special interest in scaling up equivalence among sustainability schemes. Equivalence is especially crucial in the organic sector, where governments regulate organic standards and trade, and can erect barriers to trade when applying these regulations to imports. Currently there are 13 bilateral equivalence arrangements among regulating countries. UNFSS took the opportunity at BioFach, the world’s largest international organic trade fair and Congress, to facilitate presentation and discussion among government regulators and private sector experts on the current state and future direction for equivalence arrangements.

At a BioFach Congress session moderated by the UNFSS, officials from Canada, the European Union, Switzerland and the United States reported on the functioning of the arrangements, concurring that they are working well, although requiring significant resources to develop and maintain them. It was acknowledged that although the countries with equivalence arrangements account for some 90% of the worldwide organic market, 30% of organic production, mostly for trade, is in developing countries not covered by equivalence agreements and this poses barriers for their producers and traders. A case example from a Brazilian sugar company was presented to illustrate the challenges of this situation.

Following the public session, UNFSS facilitated an “invited” workshop of the government officials and selected organic sector experts, which focused on the opportunity for the regulating governments to cooperate on a plurilateral basis to manage and scale up equivalence arrangements. The workshop was based on a UNFSS discussion paper, “Plurilateral Regulatory Cooperation on Organic Agriculture and Trade,” and further underpinned by another UNFSS discussion paper on “Public-Private Collaboration on Policy, Standards, Regulation and Trade Facilitation for Organic Agriculture”, which will soon be published on the UNFSS website. The paper on regulatory cooperation raised ideas for functional cooperation in areas such as harmonizing technical regulations, harmonizing the equivalence arrangements themselves, joint monitoring activities for the arrangements, joint review and assessment for recognition of other countries, and pooled resources for technical assistance to developing countries. The paper concluded with a call to determine if there is a coalition of trading partners willing to move toward plurilateral cooperation.

Workshop participants noted that the equivalence arrangements are in the early stages, and that there is opportunity to jointly learn from them, improve them, for example by addressing their redundancies, and use them as a platform to address challenges that transcend the arrangements, such as the global supply problem as well as emerging common markets such as ASEAN. It was agreed that governments should take the lead, get together as governments and propose practical, do-able, and transparent actions inside the scope of current mandates. These could include sharing best practices, improving traceability in the arrangements, conducting joint peer reviews and supervision, and harmonizing the scope of the arrangements. It was suggested that regulatory authorities could at first meet informally and arrange to speak in their personal capacity, thus avoiding diplomatic complexity and constraints. The UNFSS stated its readiness to facilitate and continue further discussions on the concerned issues.

A full report of the BioFach events is available below:

UNFSS Report Biofach 2015

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.

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