For All Generations: Making World Agriculture More Sustainable
Edited by Patrick Madden and Scott Chaplowe.
Publisher: Om Pub Consultants (June 25, 1997)
The Worldwide Expansion of Organic Farming: Its Potential Contribution to a Global Transition to Sustainable Agriculture
by Roger Blobaum
Expansion of organic fanning throughout the world, rapid growth of trade in certified organically grown products, and evolving consensus on international organic standards strongly suggest that organic agriculture will emerge as an important component of the global transition to sustainable agriculture called for at the Earth Summit in 1992. Agenda 21, the plan of action for the next century approved by more than 150 countries at this global conference, calls for moving away from capital-intensive and chemical-dependent industrialized agriculture and toward ecological farming methods more in harmony with nature (Rogers 1993). Specifically, Chapter 14, entitled “Meeting Agriculture’s Needs Without Destroying the Land,” calls for the development of national plans for sustainable agriculture and a global transition to resource-conserving and environmentally-sound food production systems.
Although “organic farming” is not mentioned specifically in any of the official documents adopted at the Earth Summit, it was a well-established agricultural sector in many countries before the conference was convened. It clearly met the criteria for sustainability discussed in Chapter 14, was gaining recognition from international bodies like the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the European Union, and was appearing on the policy and program agendas of a growing number of national governments.
There is no consensus definition of organic farming. The US Department of Agriculture has described it as “a production system that avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds, and other pest, (USDA 1980).On the basis of that definition, it seems obvious that every farm converted to organic makes a small but direct contribution to a global transition to sustainable agriculture.
This chapter will review the continuing development of organic agriculture worldwide and discuss its potential to contribute to a global transition to more sustainable farming methods. It also willidentify and discuss important emerging issues related to four areas of concern: 1) the developing struggle over organic agriculture’s definition and standards; 2) the likely impact on organic farmers of increased government and industry influence involvement; 3) the outlook for continuing consumer support, and 4) issues related to the expansion of global trade in organically grown products.
Global Expansion of Organic Agriculture
Expansion of the organic agriculture sector in the 1990s has been multi-dimensional. The newest and most rapid growth is in Third World countries where organic farming movements have prolif-erated and an export-driven commercial sector has been estab-lished. Sustained growth is reported in several industrialized coun-tries where a commercial organic sector is firmly established and where steady increases in land area under organic management are supported by domestic and export demand. A third rapid growth area is trade in organic products within regions like the European Community trade resulting from increased Third World access to markets in Europe and North America, and increased in more traditional channels dominated by such aggressive exporters as Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Official organic farming statistics are not available in many parts of the world and little reliable information of any kind is available for most developing nations. The data available through government reports and unofficial surveys are often reported in ways that make meaningful comparisons impossible. Included are data such as number of certified organic farms, number of hectares under organic management, percentage increases in organic sales, value of organic exports, and number of organic processors. The available data suggest significant expansion is underway.
Recent country-specific reports show steady organic sector growth in Europe and several important industrialized countries elsewhere. Good numbers are available for the 15 member countries of the European Community where organic farmers now receive direct financial support under the common legal framework Regulation 2078/92, known as the agri-environmental programme. Public records show how many farmers in each of these countries receive these government payments/ They are made for up to five years to farmers converting or continuing with organic farming.
These payments, patterned on a payment program initiated by the governments of Denmark, Sweden, and Germany in the late 1980s, provide a basic per-hectare subsidy. Subsidy payments usually are highest in the first year and taper off as the conversion is completed. The payments also are linked to the type of farming involved, with grasslands receiving the lowest subsidy and orchards and vineyards the highest. In Austria, for example, the subsidies range from about $230 per hectare for grassland to about $930 per hectare for orchards and vineyards.
- Land Under Organic Management in Europe. Land under organic management in Europe has increased from about 12,000 hectares in 1986 to 1,300,000 hectares in 1996, representing an annual increase of 24%. The number of organic farms has increased over the same period from 7,800 to 55,000 (Lampkin 1996). In Germany, the European country with the most organic production, the number of certified organic farms increased from 500 in 1980 to 6,068 in 1996. The number of certified organic farms in Austria has increased from 2,000 in 1991—when conversion assistance first became available—to 15,850 in 1996. Conversion aid is credited with a big increase in Switzerland (from 1,500 organic farms in 1989 to 3,932 in 1996). In Italy, where a new survey covers both certified producers and those in conversion, the number increased from 4,927 in 1994 to 7, 219 in 1995.
Several national governments also supplement the European Union (EU) payments. Under Ireland’s 1994 Rural Environment Protection Scheme, for example, the EU covers 75% of the subsidy paid to farmers, and the Irish government provides the balance. State supplements also are paid in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, while some countries in Central and East-em Europe have begun organic conversion subsidy programs.
Several European countries also have established organic conversion goals. Iceland, for example, has an official goal of 100% conversion. In Denmark, the minister of agriculture has announced an action plan with an immediate conversion goal of 10% of the country’s agricultural production to organic, and a long-term goal of total conversion. The goal set by the Swedish Parliament in 1995 is doubling organic agriculture’s market share to 10% by the year 2000. Several studies in Germany have examined the possibility of converting the entire country to organic.
The growth of organic agriculture in the United States, frequently reported in volume of sales of organically grown products, has increased at a rate of 22% per year since 1989. USDA reports that sales reached $2.5 billion in 1994, including a one-year 60% increase in export sales. A new Organic Farmer Marketing Association report estimates total sales will reach $4 billion in 1996 (Dines, 1996). Information submitted to USDA by 33 private and 11 state organic certification organizations in 1994 showed 4,050 farms were raising certified organic products on 1,120,000 acres. Certification of organic farms is not mandatory in most states, however, and the 1994 USDA report estimates the total number of organic farms may be as high as 20,000.
A large increase in the number of certified organic farms and certified processors in the United States is expected when the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act is fully implemented, certification by USDA-accredited organizations becomes mandatory for farmers and processors, and it becomes legal for the first time to market organically-produced meat and meat products. The Organic Farmer Marketing Association estimates that organic sales will increase 40% the first year the new standards are implemented. Part of this boost, it predicts, will come from combined sales of certified livestock products and certified organic livestock feed.
An international organic market survey shows significant growth in the number of farms being converted in Latin America (Haest 1995). Costa Rica appears to be the only country in the region with an official count of organic farms (1,500 in 1995). Argentina reports data only for production covered by state-accredited certifiers (23,000 hectares). Most governments in the region do not attempt to gather data. The information that is available comes primarily from US and European organizations that do most of the certifying. Another factor is that a growing number of small farmers, especially coffee producers, are in organic grower cooperatives and are not individually counted or certified. The Haest survey concludes that Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay are all “major producers” of certified organic products.
Further country-specific information on organic production is available from the report of a Latin American sustainable agriculture conference held in 1995 in Coro, Venezuela (WSAA 1995). It includes summaries of reports presented by representatives of ecological agriculture organizations in 18 nations in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Herve la Prairie, president of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), told the conference that growth in the region had been “explosive.” “In a mere two-year period,” he reported, “IFOAM’s Latin American membership jumped from only eight organizations to eighty.”
The summaries suggest that large numbers of ecological farmers, who are only a small step away from meeting international organic requirements but lack the third party certification needed for access to export markets, continue to serve local markets. “We have two different types of organic agriculture now,” one regional leader noted. “One is for food grown for export based on the norms of the certification company and the other is for food grown for local food security.”
In the Caribbean region, Cuba is the only country that has made a strong commitment to organic farming. The switch to organic began early in the 1990s when Cuba lost access to both food imports and to pesticides and fertilizer that had been supplied for many years by the Soviet Union. A report by an international scientific delegation that studied Cuban agriculture late in 1993 reported that Cuba “is undergoing what is essentially the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming that the world has ever known” (Rosset 1994). Although no Cuban production data is available, its commitment to organic farming has received global attention. The Cuban Organic Farming Association received the 1996 Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Prize awarded for the outstanding organic agriculture initiative in Latin America.
Even less organic fanning data is available from the former Soviet republics and countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The organic sector in most parts of the world has been established and promoted by small farmer organizations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Both NGOs and organic farming organizations are relatively new and inexperienced in these former Soviet-dominated agricultural countries. Strong interest can be seen, however, in the turnout for a recent organic agriculture conference in the Czech Republic. It attracted 14 ministers and vice ministers of Agriculture or Environmental Ministries from countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
Government Support for Organic Agriculture
Organic farming was unable to attract any important government attention or support prior to the early 1980s. A foundation was being laid in many industrialized countries, however, by growing consumer demand for food produced using environmentally sound methods, and overall public concern about food safety and environmental quality.
The first federal policy breakthrough in the United States came in 1980 with publication of “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming,” a study conducted by a team made up primarily of senior USDA scientists (USDA 1980). The study team produced, for the first time, an official definition of organic agriculture. Their report concluded that organic farmers were using “best management practices” to conserve soil, reduce water pollution, and conserve energy, and that they had developed unique and innovative methods of organic recycling and pest control. “Much can be learned,” the report concluded, “from a holistic research effort to investigate the organic system of farming, its mechanism, interactions, principles, and potential benefits to agriculture, both at home and abroad.”
Robert Bergland, who was Secretary of Agriculture at that time, endorsed the report, and USDA convened a series of regional public meetings where representatives of research and extension agencies discussed the recommendations. Bergland also appointed the study team coordinator to a newly-created USDA organic farming coordinator position. Unfortunately, the new national administration that took over in 1981 was hostile to organic agriculture, stopped distribution of the study team report, and fired the organic farming coordinator.
In Europe, the first major breakthrough came late in the 1980s when organic conversion subsidies were established by the governments of Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The European Community responded to public support for organic agriculture a short time later by developing community-wide organic standards, adopting a community-wide organic conversion payment plan, and establishing regulations covering imports of organically grown foods.
In 1989 a coalition of US organic farmer organizations, organic food businesses, national farm organizations and cooperatives, state departments of agriculture, and consumer and environmental and similar organizations, overcame USDA opposition and succeeded in getting the 1990 Organic Food Production Act written into general farm legislation (US Congress 1990). The federal law’s stated purpose was 1) establishing national standards governing the labeling of organically produced products, 2) assuring consumers that organically produced products met a consistent standard, and 3) facilitating interstate commerce in fresh and processed food that is organically produced.
USDA has since provided funding to help establish the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, support a National Organic Standards Board, establish criteria for organic farming inputs, and pay for state-specific organic marketing studies. The multi-billion dollar federal school lunch program also has been authorized to develop a pilot organic food purchasing program.
In addition to adopting organic conversion payment programs, most European countries also are funding organic research, extension, training, advisory, and marketing programs. In the Czech Republic, where organic agriculture has had strong government support, the Ministry of Agriculture was recently accredited to IFOAM standards as an organic certifier.
In Japan, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has established an Office for Sustainable Agriculture to promote plans designed to 1) improve agriculture’s role in preserving the environment, 2) promote development and extension of sustainable farming methods, and 3) promote recycling in the agricultural sector. Funds authorized for this initiative include support for organic farming promotion and research.
China’s National Environmental Protection Agency has been supporting the Organic Food Development Center of China in Nanjing since 1994. The center was set up 1994 at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences to promote organic farming and develop national organic standards. Its research program includes a study comparing organic and conventional agriculture.
Non-Governmental Support for Organic Agriculture
Most countries now have organic farming movements that are facilitated and promoted by international NGOs. Many also have some financial support from aid agencies and from foundations and other non-government donors.
The largest single source of non-governmental support is IFOAM, which was established in Europe in 1972 and has become the main global organization promoting organic agriculture. (See IFOAM profile in this book.) It is active in over 100 countries and has more than 570 members, mainly organic farming organizations and organic industry groups (IFOAM 1996). It provides global leadership in the development of organic production, processing, and trading standards, and actively promotes organic agriculture as “an ecologically, socially, and economically sound and sustainable method of food production.”
IFOAM began actively promoting trade in organic products in 1989 with a trade conference in Zurich, Switzerland, that attracted 120 participants and was described “as the start of an intensive and ongoing involvement of IFOAM beyond the farming and scientific level and into the market sector.” Two years later more than 300 participants from 30 countries attended its Trade in Organic Foods conference in Vienna. These conferences, now held in odd-numbered years, have been supplemented by smaller trade conferences on cotton and other textiles, coffee, tea, wine, and other organically grown products.
IFOAM also is the leading international organization developing organic standards. Certification organizations in the United States and many other countries in the 1970s and 1980s adapted these standards to their own country-specific conditions. The European Union also has patterned its standards on the IFOAM model. These standards are updated every even-numbered year at IFOAM’s General Assembly.
IFOAM also has established a Third World Working Group to stimulate and coordinate the development of organic movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This includes implementation of the recently funded Organic Agriculture 1999 Project, which is aimed at increasing the global market share of organic production to at least five percent by the year 2000. The Dutch government is among the donors for this $600,000 three-year initiative. Its components include data collection, development of a single global standards system, comparative studies of organic and conventional farming systems, harmonization of official inspection and certification systems, local market development, extension and training, and networking and lobbying.
A new non-government institution providing support for organic trade is the IFOAM Accreditation Program (LAP), which was established in 1994 to ensure equivalency of certification programs worldwide by allowing certifiers to be assessed in reference to IFOAM standards. The IFOAM Accreditation Program Board, made up of members from nine countries, conducts rigorous evaluations of documentation provided by certification programs and of reports filed by on-site evaluators. Certifiers accredited by the IAP program so far include KRAV (Sweden), National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (Australia), Biokultura Egysulet (Hungary), Farm Verified Organic (USA), Instituto Biodinamico (Brazil), Organic Crop Improvement Association (USA), Soil Association (UK), Organic Growers and Buyers Association (USA), and Ministry of Agriculture (Czech Republic). Other certifiers being evaluated are based in Italy, Germany, Argentina, Bolivia, New Zealand, and the United States. A related development is establishment of an international certifiers’ caucus and an international organization for organic inspectors.
International organic trade fairs and expositions sponsored by NGOs also are becoming increasingly important. Bio Fach, the international organic fair sponsored annually by IFOAM in Frankfurt, Germany, has grown from 197 exhibitors in 1990 to more than 1,000 in 1996. Biofair, an annual world trade fair for certified organic products launched in 1995 by the Chamber of Commerce in San Jose in Costa Rica, drew several hundred participants from 25 countries for its first exhibit and three-day forum. The First Organic World Exhibition, an event organized by IFOAM, was held in conjunction with its 1996 scientific conference in Copenhagen. US and foreign organic products companies also are becoming increasingly prominent at large natural foods exhibitions co-sponsored by the Organic Trade Association each year in Baltimore, Maryland, and Anaheim, California.
Consumer Support for Organic Agriculture
Consumers so far have provided needed political and marketplace support for organic agriculture in most countries where organically grown products are available. A number of polls and studies show consumers believe organic food is safer, that organic farming methods are environmentally friendly, and that health and environmental enhancement are linked to agriculture production methods (Lefferts and Blobaum 1992). The willingness of consumers to pay premiums for organic food is well established throughout the world, and the concept of using dollars spent for food to “vote” for an Earth-friendly food system is widely accepted.
Concerns related to food safety and the environment may extend to other food-related factors as well. A growing number of German consumers, for example, are choosing “conclusive products in food markets” (Vogtmann 1988). This term identifies food produced with environmentally sound and socially acceptable growing, processing, and packaging and, in some cases, storage methods. “Previously the motivation was simply to obtain healthful food; this has expanded into a more altruistic attitude wherein purchasing power supports production methods conducive to a healthy environment,” Vogtmann wrote. “A large proportion of consumers has become aware of the wider context of food production. To be acceptable, food must be healthfully produced, not only for oneself, but for the environment and the larger society as well.”
Consumer supported agriculture (CSA), a concept first started in Japan and then developed in Europe, is helping expand organic marketing locally and provide a direct link between organic farmers and consumers (see Chapter 6 on community supported agriculture.) Individual farms, known as CSAs, provide a group of consumers with a diverse supply of fresh, in-season, organic produce. The shareholders pay a subscription fee, usually in advance, which provides the farmer with operating money. In return, they receive weekly shares of the harvest. More than 600 CSAs are operating in the United States, many serving 100 urban families or more.
More than 1,000 consumer producer groups are operating in Japan. These arrangements, promoted by groups such as the Japan Organic Agriculture Association and the Mokichi Okada Association, are referred to as “tekei.” They stress organization at the neighborhood level and face-to-face communication between farmers and consumers.
Food safety concerns have helped build consumer demand for organic food in the United States and elsewhere. A national survey commissioned by the Rodale Press and released in 1994 found that 87% of all US shoppers would buy organically grown produce if it cost the same as conventional produce (Natural Foods Merchandiser 1994). It also found that one of every three Americans had changed eating habits or sought out organic produce in the past year and that 41% were willing to pay more. Of those who changed their eating habits, 72% say they did so specifically to seek out organically grown fruits and vegetables. This willingness to change, the survey concluded, is due to concern over reports regarding potentially harmful pesticide and chemical residues in food and doubts about the federal government’s willingness or ability to protect consumers from these contaminants.
A Gallup Poll commissioned by a British newspaper found that 87% of the respondents agreed that farmers are poisoning the land by using too many chemicals, 75% agreed with the statement that the government should discourage the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and 66% agreed that they would be willing to pay more for products grown in an environmentally friendly way (IFOAM 1992).
UN-Related Support for Organic Agriculture
Organic agriculture has been gaining important recognition and support within the United Nations system since the Earth Summit. The initial breakthrough came during this event when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released a new report that concludes that organic agriculture presents an attractive alternative to current non-sustainable practices in developing countries (UNDP 1992). It includes 20 case studies from 14 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The report acknowledges that “many outsiders perceive organic agriculture as a craze, not a method, in which all agrochemicals are dogmatically banned because of private and environmental health concerns (while) others believe that yields are much lower in organic agriculture or that the cost of labor is much higher. . . . In reality, organic agriculture is a consistent systems approach that is based on the perception that tomorrow’s ecology is more important than today’s economy, and is designed to stop degradation and re-establish natural balances,” the report concludes. “If conventional agriculture had been made to pay for the degradation and environmental damage it is causing, the move toward organic farming would have been made long ago.”
Organic agriculture also has been receiving significant attention in the international trade area. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, co-sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, is nearing completion of guidelines for the production, processing, labeling, and marketing of organically produced foods (Codex Alimentarius Commission 1996). These international guidelines, first proposed by the Australian government in 1991 and scheduled for final adoption in 1997, will be enforced by the World Trade Organization under procedures approved in the recent General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Some organic food trade issues also are being addressed by the Codex Committee on Food Import and Export Certification and Inspection Systems.
Organic Farmer Challenges and Concerns
Although there is every indication that organic farming has become a permanent and rapidly expanding sector of agriculture with significant public support and some government assistance as well, the organic sector has some serious problems and concerns. There is evidence of a “fault line” within the organic agriculture movement that has the potential to exacerbate ideological disagreements and undermine the cooperation that has characterized it from the beginning. Whether these problems will have a serious adverse impact on the movement’s momentum remains to be seen.
The main focus of these problems is the relationship of organic farmers — and the consumers who support them — to others in this rapidly expanding sector. Farmers who developed organic agriculture at the grassroots and have viewed it as both an environmentally sound way to farm and an agricultural reform movement express increasing concern that they are losing control over its definition, development, and direction. They contend that government regulation, the involvement of mainstream businesses and global traders, and attempts to open the door to biotechnology threaten organic agriculture’s consumer support base and its overall integrity.
Right of Definition
The right to define organic is probably the most basic and visible issue. In a presentation at an international organic forum, Gunner Rundgren (1995), a Swedish organic farmer and business owner, called this the most problematic aspect of increased government regulation. “The organic production standards are now developed by civil servants with no specific engagement or account-
ability toward the producers who initially were the ones who developed everything. The challenge lies not primarily in opposing the regulations but rather in the development of quality systems that make regu-
lations redundant or at least not the center of interest.”
A Third World perspective was presented at the same forum by Jorge Aguilar Reyna (1995), leader of a Mexico-producers organization. He expressed concern that “the concepts of organic production will be prostituted and lose the values
that gave it life, coming to be seen as an eccentric concept and one more fashion; and in this manner to continue promoting, under such guise, commercial models that favor developed nations and Third World elites at the expense of the impoverishment of small producers.”
Most organic producers, especially those selling in local markets, are determined to keep standards high and protect the integrity of the organic production and marketing systems. They view any erosion of consumer confidence as a serious threat to their economic future.
Michael Sligh, a South Carolina organic farmer who serves as chairman of USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, expressed his concern about this in 1995 at a national organic legal conference. He said the organic industry would be making a major mistake if it merely sets up a parallel system to the conventional production and marketing system, and warned that the organic sector must not allow itself “to become what we set out to be an alternative to.”
These concerns extend to the suspicion that governments will engage in collusion with industry “outsiders” to expand the organic market share by lowering standards. The manager of IFOAM’s Accreditation Program cited the possibility of “ever lower regulatory standards being manipulated by those outside the industry” and suggested that an industry built on credibility with consumers cannot afford to lose control (Commins 1995). “With government intervention the door has been opened to other influences and the perception of the consumer is unlikely to be a dominant force,” he told an international forum. “Issues such as genetic engineering, livestock protection standards, and positive environmental production standards are fundamental to the consumer perception of organics. Lower standards and weak certification may make it easier to produce, but they also can lead to an erosion of the consumer base.”
Production Claim vs. Values Claim
It seems well established legally and officially that organic is a production claim and not a content claim or a values claim. The IFOAM standards, the standards outlined in the US Organic Foods Production Act, and the proposed Codex standards all reflect this distinction. Attempts to determine whether food is organic by subjecting it to scientific residue and other tests has consistently been rejected. The main focus is on organic as an alternative environmentally-friendly farming system.
Although some studies have documented small nutritional differences between produce grown organically and produce grown conventionally, these findings have not been reflected in legal definitions adopted so far. The idea that organic food is more nutritious or healthful, or even safer, has helped make it attractive to consumers. But these claims have been officially rejected and are not allowed on labels or in advertising.
The struggle continues, however, to have organic defined in a way that gives it characteristics well beyond those related to farming practices. Bill Duesing (1996), a Connecticut organic farmer, suggests that legal definitions that cover proper soil care and avoidance of toxic and synthetic chemicals fail to reflect such important organic characteristics as scale, locality, control, knowledge, nutrition, social justice, participation, grower/eater relationships, and the connections with schools and communities. “These desirable food system characteristics are threatened as the definition of organic farming and food is narrowed to a set of standards which deal with growing and processing methods exclusively, and are acceptable to the food industry and government,” he contends. “It seems that in many ways organic food is slipping right into some of the worst patterns of the conventional, globally-destructive food system.”
The recent development and adoption of organic processing standards has focused new attention on these issues. Joan Gussow, a nutrition educator and member of the US National Organic Standards Board, discusses the fact that “organic” originally carried with it an implicit environmental, social, economic, and nutritional wholesomeness. “But when “organic” is legally defined solely in relation to a set of growing and processing methods,” she argues, “the term no longer comes with a conscience.” (See Chapter 8 of this book.)
Gussow raises the issue of whether the official push to “internationalize” organic will make it possible to certify as organic such highly processed foods as the “sweetly mushy snack classic” known as the Twinkie. She concludes that organic Twinkies, and similar junk foods, may well pass the legal organic definition tests proposed so far. Gussow’s overall conclusion sums up the issues involved in the question of whether the legal definition of organic should encompass the concept of “conscience” and reflect “the values that care for Nature implies”:
Our present food system provides us with no information about whether or not the items it offers for sale have been sustainably produced — that is, whether they were produced with due attention not just to profit but to ecological responsibility and social justice. “Organic” should have helped us do that . . . When a certified organic Twinkie or its equivalent turns up in the supermarket, it will be a signal that “organic” no longer carries such assurances. Such an outcome ought to be passionately denounced.
A related issue that has been debated since organically grown products from Third World countries began entering world markets is biocolonialism, which deals with such issues as ethical ethical trade, safe working conditions, and fair prices for organic farmers (Pedersen 1991). The IFOAM General Assembly, meeting in Brazil in 1992, voted to develop “suitable policies to ensure social justice along with development of organic agriculture worldwide.” IFOAM implemented this decision two years later by adopting social rights and fair trade guidelines aimed at “enabling agricultural producers and processors to maintain a living according to the UN human rights, to cover their basic needs and obtain an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment” (IFOAM 1995). The 1996 IFOAM General Assembly decided that the social rights language would retain guideline status for two more years, that certifiers should experiment with their implementation, and that another vote on upgrading the language to the status of standards would be taken in 1998.
Market Expansion Impacts
Rapid growth of the organic sector to achieve the critical mass necessary to break out of the “niche” and into mainstream marketing is needed for organic agriculture to make a significant contribution to the global transition to sustainable agriculture. But some studies suggest that growth that is too rapid can wipe out the premiums that have helped make organic farming profitable — a necessary condition for financial sustainability.
Consumers have accepted certified organically grown food as a value-added product that justifies price premiums. In some countries, they also have provided political support for government conversion payments. Except in a few instances where farmers get additional income through use of a “transition” label, they do not receive premiums during the three-year conversion period when biological processes are being established and yields usually are reduced. The process of conversion also involves 1) the restructuring of the entire farm business, 2) may require purchase of different equipment, 3) may require reduced livestock stocking rates and rotations, with fewer acres in cash crops, and 4) additional expense to cover recordkeeping, inspection, and other certification-related costs.
Nicolas Lampkin, a leading authority on financial support policies for organic farming, concludes there is a need to achieve a balance between encouraging expansion of the organic sector and promoting excessive growth that leads to market disruption and the possible disillusionment and withdrawal of organic producers (Lampkin and Padel 1994). “By recognizing the contribution that existing organic producers can make, and directing support into related areas such as extension, research and training, and market development and certification, many of the negative side effects of financial support payments can be avoided,” he concluded. “In this way the full potential of organic farming’s contribution to agricultural and environmental policy objectives can be achieved.”
A related challenge, particularly in countries where a commercial organic sector is well established, is increasing consumer demand enough to move beyond a “niche” level into mainstream markets. A recent national campaign in Denmark has demonstrated that this can be done without lowering standards or eliminating premiums (Michelsen 1996). Organic farmers, Denmark’s1 largest supermarket chain, and the government joined forces tc” boost consumer demand enough to achieve a breakthrough ir1 sales of organic products in conventional markets. Michelser1 reported that a comparison of the development of the organic market in Denmark with other countries suggests that both conversion subsidies and the support of consumers in the marketplace are indispensable in developing organic agriculture into more than a marginal or sectarian position. Denmark’s organic farmers, he concluded, have successfully adapted “to workings of the conventional food market, which is so important to their economic survival, without abandoning their critical attitude toward conventional agriculture.”
Summary and Conclusions
Although the amount of land under organic management is small’ organic agriculture is becoming established worldwide as an im” portant consumer-supported and export-driven food and farming sector. It is characterized by sustained growth in industrialized countries where a commercial organic sector is well established’ and by rapid growth in selected countries where conversion pay” ments and other government support programs are provider-There is some evidence that the organic sector in some countries can break out of its “niche” market status and penetrate mainstream markets without lowering standards or giving up premiums. However, a rapid expansion of supply could undermine organic price premiums. Rapid expansion is taking place in many Third World countries, especially those in Latin America, and the development of international standards and a global accreditation program is helping to open markets in Europe and North America to these producers. Global trade in certified organic products is being encouraged by initiatives undertaken by United Nations agencies, including development by the Codex Alimentarius Commission of international standards. The organic movement has strong support from an international umbrella organization that has standard-setting, accreditation, and promotion programs and more than 500 farmer, certifier, and other member organizations in more than 100 countries. A number of troublesome issues, including concerns over biocolonialism and the right to define organic, create continuing problems within the organic community. It seems clear that organic agriculture is beginning to make an important contribution to the global transition to sustainable agriculture called for in 1992 and that it has the official recognition, consumer support, and momentum to do even more in the future.
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