Organic Agriculture: Proven But Needs Political Support


By Hira Jhamtani (Third World Network Associate, Indonesia)

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) should give more priority to organic agriculture. This was the strong message from the International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, organized by the FAO at its headquarters in Rome, Italy on 3-5 May 2007.

The Conference recommended that FAO strengthen its Organic Agriculture unit and promote organic agriculture to national policy makers as a tool for achieving food security. It also asked the FAO to facilitate the establishment of an organic agriculture research unit within the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) system. More than 660,000 samples of plant germplasm, mostly from developing countries, are in collections of the CGIAR centres that conduct agricultural research and provide germplasm to national public and private sector researchers. In October 1994, these centres signed agreements with the FAO placing the collections of plant germplasm under the auspices of the FAO in trust for the whole world.

The Conference was held in collaboration with international partners: World Watch Institute, WWF, FiBL, IFOAM, Third World Network, RAFI-USA, CIHEAM and the Associazone Italiana Agrioltura Biologica. About 350 participants from more than 80 countries attended, including representatives from 66 FAO member countries, three UN agencies, five inter-governmental institutions, 15 international NGOs, 30 national NGOs, 24 research institutions, 31 universities, 8 private companies and 9 farmer associations.

The objective of the meeting was to identify organic agriculture’s potential and limits in addressing the food security challenge, including conditions required for its success through the analysis of existing information in different agro-ecological areas of the world.

The environmental pollution and food safety worries from chemical agriculture are now recognized. The promises of modern biotechnology are still full of uncertainties with regard to the long term ecological and health risks, and socio-economic impacts especially for developing countries.

Therefore the data and case studies that were presented at the Conference were very encouraging.  The relationship between biodiversity and ecological agriculture, and the valuable traditional knowledge of small-scale farmers across the developing world were clearly recognized. [Editors’ Note: The Convention on Biological Diversity has a work programme on “Conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biological diversity, and the FAO is an important implementing organization for that programme.)

The Conference discussed four issues related to food security: food availability, food access, food stability and food utilization.

On the issue of food availability, the methodology for comparing yields between organic and conventional monoculture production systems was discussed. In many studies the yield of only one single crop is measured and compared as opposed to multiple farm output. This puts information about output for organic agriculture in a less favourable light, and there is a tendency to conclude that organic agriculture will provide less yield. There was also insufficient documented information from developing countries.

Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, from the FAO inter-departmental Working Group on Organic Agriculture provided a synthesis of opportunities and challenges of organic agriculture in terms of its potential contribution to food security. She reported that organic agriculture is practiced commercially in 120 countries, representing 31 million hectares of certified croplands and pastures, 62 million hectares of certified wild lands and a market of US$40 billion in 2006 (about 2 percent of food retail in developed countries).  Non-certified organic systems based on indigenous systems are difficult to quantify but are practiced by several million farmers that may represent at least an equivalent share in subsistence agriculture in developing countries.

She described organic agriculture as a “neo-traditional food system” as it merges science and traditional farming practices. It has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security through improved household nutrient intake, contribution to transitional food emergency situations and contribution to healthy diets. It also serves as a national employer through employment generation in rural areas and can provide global environmental services, while currently being challenged to help mitigate climate change. For all this to be realized, public intervention is necessary to preserve a level playing field.

The need for a “level playing field” for organic agriculture practices (compared to conventional agriculture) was echoed by many speakers during the last panel, chaired by Mr. Alexander Mueller, the FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources Management and Environment.  

Dr. Tewolde Berhan Egziabher, the Director-General of the Environmental Protection Agency of Ethiopia said that for nearly a century agriculture research has been focused on industrialized and chemical agriculture. He was absolutely sure that if the same focus is given to ecological agriculture, the yield would be as good as from chemical based agriculture. The studies on yield often do not take into account the pressure to follow chemical agriculture and the frightening land and soil degradation that would threaten food production within 50 years to come.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, an ecological activist from India said that in fact within five years the world would see increased food insecurity because of the market distortion of chemical based agriculture. This market distortion is also responsible for the fact that organic food, which is produced with lower costs, is priced higher, when in fact organic food should be cheaper. Subsidies for chemical agriculture is taking its toll on natural resources and the world may be facing food insecurity soon, perhaps within five years, she said.  

Some panelists also criticized FAO for being biased towards industrialized agriculture. The Brazilian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr. Flavio Perri, said his country is not happy with FAO because in the new structure, the rural development unit has disappeared.  Mr. Muller said he would convey to the FAO governing body, the message that rural development must be mainstreamed into all units, instead of just being in one unit at the FAO.

Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues also said that FAO needs to do research on agricultural biodiversity and conduct policy advocacy to shift the agricultural paradigm. It needs to establish indicators for government policies that are friendly for indigenous peoples and small scale farmers, particularly in terms of cultural and land rights. Organic agriculture can contribute to food security if it is linked to cultural and land rights of local and indigenous communities, she stressed.

By far, the strongest criticism was expressed by Dr. Mwatima Juma, IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) country officer in Tanzania, directed at FAO and also at western donor countries. She said that the entry point for organic agriculture in Africa has been by exporters. The FAO has brainwashed policy makers into thinking of agriculture more for export commodities rather than local food production leading to the loss of indigenous knowledge. She said this must change with priority given to food production for local populations.

Dr. Juma further said the sailing boat of conventional agriculture is now coming again in the form of fertilizer subsidies, with the support of big money. She asked why western countries are willing to spend money for fertilizer subsidies (referring to the “Fertilizer Summit” in Africa) but are not willing to support organic agriculture activities. Activities for export were often supported in the past, and organic product exports are being supported now. But there is little support for research and development for local food production such as cassava. Finally, she said the FAO as the world custodian for agriculture, must tell the policy makers to shift their mindset about agriculture particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. Patrick Holden from the Soil Association (UK) said that FAO’s political vision should include organic agriculture in all issues. Of particular importance, he said, is the re-education of extension workers so they can help farmers with organic agriculture. Training and education of youth and children is crucial since there is a need for a paradigm shift because, Holden said, with the current conventional system, the world will not only face a food crisis, but also a spiritual and lifestyle crisis.

Mainstreaming organic agriculture would also mean transforming the CGIAR system. FAO’s Nadia Scialabba recommended the promotion of organic agriculture research through the CGIAR system and twinning arrangements between different national institutions. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz suggested a further step: to transform the CGIAR system so that the centres will mainstream research on organic agriculture, with the help of FAO. Indeed, the institutional, policy and research agenda needs to be transformed to support organic agriculture in order to contribute to food security.

At the end of the panel discussion, Mr. Mueller summarized the conclusions of the conference stating that organic agriculture can:

* Contribute to food security as shown by the case studies from developing countries compiled, some of which were also presented during the conference. Organic agriculture is a food production system that can improve the welfare of poor people but its success depends on political will of governments.
* Face the current challenges of climate change as it uses less fossil fuel based input and energy use.

* Face the challenge of water scarcity as it improves the moisture content in the system.

* Lead to diverse food production thus able to improve nutrition, but depends on education programs for raising people’s knowledge.

* Potentially generate employment and local industries, thus helping rural development.

* Potentially protect genetic resources and use them sustainably while also protecting local cultures.

Other conclusions were:

* There is a need to improve research and extension programmes to support organic agriculture as this is a knowledge and labour intensive system. The role of international networks is thus very important;

* Organic agriculture needs a level playing field in terms of international trade (compared to the massive government subsidies for chemical agriculture in industrialized countries that result in artificially low prices for those products);

* There is the question of whether there is a new challenge for food security. Several speakers remind the Conference participants of the challenge that in 5-15 years even the now food secure areas might experience food insecurity if we continue to practice the current system of agriculture, mainly due to deteriorating natural resources and climate change. This poses a question of what does food security mean to the FAO.

The Conference report and recommendations were submitted to the 33rd session of the Committee on World Food Security at the FAO that met from 7-11 May 2007, with the following result: “The Secretariat informed the Committee on the main outcome and recommendations of the International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, 3-5 May 2007, Rome. The objective of the meeting was to identify organic agriculture’s potential and limits in addressing the food security challenge, including conditions required for its success through the analysis of existing information in different agro-ecological areas of the world. Some Members emphasized the importance of including organic agriculture as an element in National Programmes on Food Security. Other members appreciated the insights into organic agriculture provided to the CFS by the Conference but felt that further analysis was needed.”  (CFS: 33rd- Draft Final Report para. 33).

The papers, case studies and report of the Conference are available at

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