Presentation at the Upper Midwest Organic Conference: Organic Farming Has Gone Global | 2001

An Overview of International Developments

Presented at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, March 16, 2001

This is the third year I have had an opportunity to talk about global organic trends at this conference. I am especially pleased to discuss them today because, for the most part, what is happening is positive and encouraging.

The conference program notes that, for better or for worse, organic farmers in the Upper Midwest are part of a worldwide organic movement. Although many feel global issues are important only if they are producing for export markets, it becomes more clear each year that all of us are impacted by global organic trends.

The bottom line is that the organic movement globally has momentum and is gaining strength, that organic in many countries is becoming mainstream, and that we have become part of something really big. We need to reflect on how far we have come and on a future filled with opportunity.

During my involvement in the international organic movement over the last 10 years, one of my concerns has been the reluctance of the U.S. organic community to fully engage in this global effort. We tend to look inward and, as one of my foreign colleagues likes to point out, we often leave the impression we are the nerve center of the organic universe. That unfortunately is not a widely held view.

It is often said that the real challenge of lobbying Congress is not to get them to do something for you. It is to keep them from doing something to you. That same situation applies in the global organic arena. We need to be alert to the fact that international bodies and national governments are setting international organic guidelines, getting positioned to enforce them through the World Trade Organization, establishing principles and procedures for certification of organic producers and processors, shaping and enforcing restrictions on imports and exports, and influencing the development of organic agriculture in the Third World.

We also need to remind ourselves that the Monsantos, the Tysons, and the Cargiils we know so well here also are global. The push for adoption of biotechnology in developing countries is intense and hog factories and caged layer operations are being promoted throughout the world. In many of these places, the organic movement provides the only real challenge to this kind of agricultural industrialization.

Although important, I do not believe expanding trade in organic products or trying to influence national and international regulatory bodies is the most important reason for being involved in the global organic movement. I believe it is about growing global interest in reforming the way we farm, about agricultural sustainability, and about saving the Earth.

The organic movement has become the largest ecological movement of our time in terms of both land area impacted and in the number of farmers and consumers working together to build systems that produce food with ecologically sound methods. We are part of a dynamic and fast growing sector of agriculture that is winning the support and loyalty of consumers and gaining public recognition as a model of agricultural sustainability. In the international political and agricultural world today, organic at last is gaining both respect and attention.

Global Shift in Official Attitude Toward Organic Farming

The big shift in how organic is viewed around the world began with the Earth Summit in 1992. Official acknowledgement of the adverse impacts of industrialized agriculture came for the first time in a series of documents signed by more than 150 countries. These consensus documents challenged the claim that industrialized farming is the agriculture of the future, concluded that adoption of sustainable agriculture is no longer optional but imperative, and warned that the issue is not whether but when.

The main Earth Summit document dealing with agriculture, which is entitled Agenda 14, calls on governments to move away from capital-intensive and chemical-dependent industrialized agriculture and toward ecological farming practices that are sustainable. This document concludes that modem agriculture and the environment, in many ways and in many parts of the world, are on a collision course. It has become increasingly clear that two paths are laid out before us and that all of us in food and agriculture, whether we like it or not, are called on to make a choice.

Although the Earth Summit documents clearly pointed in the general direction of an ecological farming path, the word “organic” does not appear in a single one of its many documents. However an important organic development did take place. The United Nations Development Program, the first international agency to acknowledge that organic even existed, surprised summit participants by releasing a favorable report on organic farming. It featured 20 organic case studies from 14 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and concluded that organic agriculture presents an attractive alternative to current non-sustainable systems in developing countries.

After that the once-icy attitude of international agencies toward organic began to thaw. And, more recently, I think it is fair to say, we have seen a gradual warming trend. I want to touch on several developments to illustrate this:

  • Codex Alimentarius, the global food standards agency sponsored by the World Health Organization and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has adopted international guidelines for the production, processing, labeling, and marketing of organically grown foods. This work was carried out over a period of several years by an organic working group sponsored by the Codex Committee on Food labeling. Codex has provided the only international forum where country delegates and members of the organic community have been able to meet regularly, debate organic standards, and reach consensus.
  • The most significant change has come in the FAO, a feed-the-world type agency within the UN system that in the past has enthusiastically promoted industrialized agriculture in the Third World. Recently, in a surprising turnaround, the FAO wrote organic farming into its strategic plan for the next 15 years. Representatives of 22 countries plus the European Union spoke in favor of organic farming at the meeting in Rome where this plan was adopted.

Last month the FAO took another big step in issuing a 21-page program that lays out an impressive 5-year program on organic agriculture and a plan for raising the money to pay for it. The opening sentence of the program document states why the agency has decided to get moving: “The rapidly growing market for organically produced food has captured the attention of FAO member nations.”

  • The Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific, another UN agency, recently brought Ministry of Agriculture officials from 13 countries together to explore whether organic farming might be able to help alleviate poverty in rural areas. The final result is a published symposium report calling for an organically based sustainable system of agriculture for the developing nations in the region. It urges each country to set up an organic certification program that meets the new Codex guidelines.
  • Finally, we have seen the gradual turnaround in the attitude of the Commission on Sustainable Development, the UN agency set up to carry out Earth Summit followup. A report prepared by the CSD and signed by the UN Secretary General, cited a growing awareness of organic agriculture as a promising development approach. The CSD at the same time published a developing country trade report that included case studies of organic coffee in Costa Rica, organic fruit in Chile, and organic cotton in Uganda.

The most recent development in the warmup toward organic by this important UN agency is an organic agriculture report that covers organic standards, production trends, environmental and health benefits, certification, and export opportunities.
It should be clear from all of this that we are seeing some real “global warming” in the attitudes of international UN-type agencies toward organic agriculture.

Europe Continues on the Organic Fast Track

I want to turn now to Europe, which has become the world’s organic hot spot. I am aware, as someone involved the last five years in accrediting organic certifiers in Europe, that the 14 countries in the European Union have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into organic farming. This investment includes payments to farmers making the transition to organic and, in several countries, support payments to farmers who have completed the transition. It also includes support for organic farmer training, extension initiatives, consumer education, and advisory and marketing programs.

European consumers enthusiastically endorse this support, which is seen as a way to compensate organic farmers for the many environmental and other benefits they provide to the general public. This support has led to a spectacular increase in the number of organic farms and the amount of acreage under organic management in Europe. Some new numbers were reported recently by Tom Dobbs, a professor of agricultural economics at South Dakota State University who conducted a study of organic farming in Europe last year. Tom has done excellent work here as well in documenting premium pricing of organic grains in the Upper Midwest.

While only 100,000 hectares in European Union countries were under organic management in 1985, Dobbs reported late last year, the total now is 3.5 million hectares. That is a 35-fold increase. He reported, for example, that land under organic management now totals 8 percent in Austria, 7 percent in Sweden, 6 percent in Denmark, 5% in Italy and Finland, and 3 percent in the UK. Parliaments in two countries have established 100 percent organic as a national goal. The percentage of land under organic management in this country, by comparison, is increasing at a rate of 20 percent a year but is still less than one percent of our farmland total.

The basis of public support for organic farming in Europe is the multi-functionality concept of agriculture, an approach that Dobbs reports is moving to center stage there. This view of agriculture is one in which farmers are recognized for producing environmental and social benefits as well as food. European consumers understand this concept and the result is growing support for policies that provide ongoing public payments for benefits that organic farmers provide. This is in addition to premiums paid for organic food in the marketplace.

To wrap up this review of organic developments in Europe, I want to focus on Sainsbury’s, a 440-store supermarket chain in the UK that is now the leading organic retailer in that part of the world. This chain, which is the Safeway of the UK in size and market share, has increased the number of organic lines from 42 in 1997 to more than 1,000. Its sales of organic food have increased 40-fold over the last five years. Just in the last two weeks, when the foot and mouth disease story hit the British papers, organic sales at Sainsbury’s jumped 10 percent.

Sainsbury’s has helped the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic certifier, in forming a joint organic retailer group that includes all UK supermarket chains. Sainsbury’s has also teamed up with Konsome, a big Swedish retailer, in setting up the World Organic Supermarket’s Club. The trade, and supermarket chains in particular, have become a driving force behind the transition to organic in Europe.

Global Nonprofit Provides Organic Leadership

Finally, I want to touch on the work of another important global organization. That is the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, or IFOAM, which now is made up of nearly 700 member organizations in more than 100 countries. This global organization, set up in 1972, is the organization that promotes and speaks for organic farmer organizations, certifiers, and others in the private organic sector.

IFOAM has developed basic organic standards that are updated every two years in a democratic process at a global assembly. It supports an international organic accreditation service that accredits bodies that certify organic farms in 71 countries. It is estimated that the 29 large certifiers in this program now certify more than 60 percent of all the world’s organic food.

This global organization also operates a 4-year effort to strengthen organic agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe and in Third World countries. Its goals include expansion of organic farming, development of local organic certification capacity, and increasing the influence organic fanners in these countries have in the worldwide organic movement.

I think we can conclude from this review that the United States is not the global organic nerve center and that, to some extent, the world is passing us by in terms of organic development. Regarding our place in the global organic community, whether it is working with global organizations like IFOAM, or adopting organic public policy models that work in other countries, or supporting global efforts to protect the right of organic farmers and consumers to define organic, I feel we need to do more.

We are part of the global organic community and we need to reach out to organic farmers and others in other lands in friendship, cooperation, and solidarity. It is time, it seems to me, to raise our sights, to think big, to think positive, and to think global.