Organic Food and Farming; Development of Ecologically-Sound Agriculture Around the World
By Roger Blobaum, World Sustainable Agriculture Association
Abstract. This paper reports on the growth of organic agriculture in many parts of the world, continuing attempts to define organic food and farming, trends in the development of international organic food markets, factors responsible for growing consumer demand, and problems associated with development of international standards. It deals specifically with issues identified in the development and implementation of the Organic Food Production Act, the U.S. organic standards law enacted in 1990, and the outlook for harmonizing these standards with others established in the European Economic Community and elsewhere.
A growing number of people around the world are concerned about the long-term sustainability of our food production system, agriculture’s growing dependence on non-renewable resources, soil erosion and other resource base depletion, and heavy reliance on synthetic chemicals and pesticides. Widespread chemical use also raises questions about human and animal health, food quality and safety, environmental quality, and the deterioration of rural self-reliance and communities.
These concerns have led to development and adoption of low-input approaches, initially referred to as alternative agriculture and more recently as sustainable agriculture. These encompass a broad spectrum of environmentally friendly agricultural systems and practices. They include organic agriculture, a holistic management-intensive farming approach with specific and precise standards of production aimed at achieving systems that are ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable.
The term “organic” has generally become well understood by those involved with this approach. Other terms such as “biological,” “ecological,” “regenerative,” and “biological recycle farming” are used in an attempt to describe the organic system more clearly. More specific approaches, such as “bio-dynamic farming” and “nature farming,” also have been developed. “Organic” seems to be the most widely used and accepted term.
Introduction and Overview
This paper discusses recent developments that suggest that organic agriculture, developed over the last two decades as a multi-national alternative to modern high technology farming, is becoming a global movement. These developments also suggest this environmentally friendly approach, developed and demonstrated by farmers themselves, is gaining credibility and support as a model for agricultural sustainability throughout the world.
Growing support from consumer, environmental, conservation, animal welfare, and other constituencies has helped build official support and recognition for organic food and farming. It is widely practiced by small producers, who see it as an affordable alternative to expensive high-external-input systems and an opportunity to practice innovation and become more self-reliant.
Organic agriculture remains controversial, especially among agricultural scientists and policymakers who question whether it could ever be productive enough to provide the food needed by a growing world population. It also is resisted by many conventional agriculture proponents because it suggests a rejection of much modern agricultural technology and suggests to consumers that food produced with conventional methods is less safe and less Earth-friendly.
Multinational Developments in Historical Perspective
Agriculture in China has, until the last decade, been based on organic farming principles (Cheng and Simpson, 1989). Human wastes, animal manure, green manure crops, and a wide variety of crop byproducts for centuries have provided the bulk of the crop nutrient requirements (Parr and Hornick, 1992). This also was described by F. H. King, an American soil scientist who studied farming systems in China, Japan, and Korea (King, 1968).
Nature Farming, an organic system built on principles developed by Mokichi Okada, a Japanese naturalist and philosopher, has spread from Japan to other parts of the world. It emphasizes the utilization of natural systems and processes to build healthy, productive soils and to maximize the use of on-farm resources.
The bio-dynamic movement, developed initially by Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s in Germany, expanded rapidly after 1950 in Western and Northern Europe and is now practiced on all continents (Koepf, 1989). Biodynamics, the world’s oldest organized organic farming movement, emphasizes the biological, technical, economic, and social aspects of farming and gardening and pioneered the marketing of certified organic food.
The work of Sir Albert Howard, a soil scientist who conducted soil fertility research for more than 40 years in Great Britain, India, and the West Indies, also was influential (Howard, 1943). He championed the Indore method for maintaining soil fertility, which was based on making humus from vegetable and animal wastes.
Ecological agriculture also has roots in Russian history. Count Bolatov, sometimes called a father of ecological agriculture, developed and implemented an organic agriculture system in the 18th Century on his estates south of Moscow. V. R. Williams, a Russian scientist, developed an approach in the 1930s that advocated the routine use of forage legume-grass mixtures in crop rotations (Goldstein, 1993).
Biodynamic work in the United States began before World War II but the number of farmers involved was small. The dominant approach to organic agriculture in North America was developed and promoted initially by J. I. Rodale, who had been influenced by the work of Okada, Steiner, Howard, and others. Rodale advocated this approach primarily through an organic farming and gardening magazine and other activities carried out through his Pennsylvania-based publishing company.
Organic farming systems were developed throughout the United States by individual farmers and the information developed was spread primarily through alternative agriculture publications, input company representatives, and farmer-to-farmer contact (Blobaum, 1978). This information dissemination system became much more structured, beginning in the 1970s, with the establishment of a large number of state and regional organic farmer organizations.
Global Expansion of Organic Agriculture
The international dissemination of information on organic methods also has become much more structured in the 197 0s. A good deal of scientific information related to organic farming has been developed and disseminated through the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM, 1992). It was established in 1972 in Western Europe and its emphasis on science enabled it to spread rapidly. It now has more than 500 member organizations in more than 75 countries (IFOAM, 1992). Its Technical Committee has provided global leadership in the development of organic production, processing, and trading standards. IFOAM’s stated goal is to have 20% of the world’s food produced with organic methods by the year 2000.
Little information is available from official sources on the growth of organic agriculture and data on organic production and sales is almost non-existent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which issues statistical reports on almost every aspect of food and farming, does not gather data on agriculture’s organic sector. Most of the available information comes from private market surveys and from organic food and agriculture organizations. Identifying the locations of chapters of groups like IFOAM and the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) provide one way to determine where organic farming is done in various parts of the world. Another source is official agencies like the European Economic Community, which administers multi-nation organic standards in Europe and deals directly with countries exporting organic products to the 12 nations in the community.
A 1990 report shows more than 10,000 farms in the 12 EEC countries produce certified organic food on 1.2% of the agricultural holdings (Lampkin, 1991). Much of this production is concentrated in Germany and France. In addition to providing environmental and food safety benefits and meeting growing market demand for certified organic food, organic farms are viewed in EEC countries as a way to help reduce the output of surplus commodities. Great Britain has set high goals for organic production (Woodward, 1991). Austria, Sweden, and Switzerland are among non-EEC European countries with significant organic production.
Walter Goldstein and John Hall, soil scientists with the Wisconsin-based Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, now provide advisory and exchange services to emerging organic farming organizations in several countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They include Eko-Agro in Byelorus, Gaia in Lithuania, Ekoland in Poland, Biokultura in Hungary, Altegeko in Russia, and Modegeko in Moldavia. Others, including biodynamic organizations in Western Europe, are providing similar assistance to organic groups in other Baltic, Eastern European and former Soviet Union countries (Goldstein, 1993).
The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, which has developed standards for organic production, reports a dramatic increase in organic farming and the purchase of organic food (Fritz, 1991). The standards cover organic production, processing, and inputs. The Biological Farmers of Australia and the Biodynamic Agriculture Association also have certification programs. Similar growth is reported from New Zealand.
The Japan-based Mokichi Okada Association, which promotes nature farming, operates three research stations in Japan and supports research and other organic food and farming activities in several countries, including Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Peru, and Argentina. It also has publishing and research ties with the U.S.-based Rodale Research Center.
A report prepared by IFOAM describes organic agriculture activities being carried out in Africa, South America, and other developing regions in the South (IFOAM, 1992). Much of this is production of traditional crops for local markets. Some relates to coffee, tropical fruits, and other cash crops grown for export. Much of this activity, which includes organic certification, has been initiated by organic food traders from Europe and North America. Most of it is relatively new.
Recognition and Support in the United States
Organic agriculture was neither acknowledged nor supported by federal public policy until the 1980s and farm programs both encouraged and rewarded chemically-dependent conventional farming methods. The first provision that addressed any of the problems identified by organic farmers was included in the 1977 Food and Agriculture Act. It called, among other things, for research on alternatives to technologies based on fossil fuels and investigation and analysis of the practicability, desirability, and feasibility of using organic waste materials to improve soil tilth and fertility. One result was a government report on using organic wastes for soil improvement (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1978).
The states have proved to be more innovative than the federal government. Three of the 50 states (Oregon, Maine, and California) adopted legal definitions of organic agriculture in the 1970s and provided for the labeling of organically grown foods. The California act covered “naturally grown,” “wild,” “ecologically-grown,” and “biologically grown” as well as “organic” or “organically-grown” food (California Assembly, 1979). The number of states with underlying organic statutes and state-sanctioned or state-operated programs had grown to 27 by 1991. Certification in other states is provided by such national and regional certifiers as OCIA, Organic Growers and Buyers Association (OGBA), Farm Verified Organic (FVO), and the Demeter Association.
The first federal policy breakthrough came in 1980 with publication of a study of organic farming. This comprehensive study, conducted by a team made up primarily of senior U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists, investigated the motives of farmers shifting to organic methods, explored the socio-political character of the organic movement, assessed the nature of organic technology and management systems, evaluated the economic viability of organic agriculture and its limitations; and identified research and education programs that would benefit organic farmers (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1980).
In addition to dealing with economic viability and agricultural practices, the report also identified an “organic ethic,” a set of values and beliefs generally held by organic farmers. The principle tenets of this ethic identified in the report are (1) nature is capital, (2) soil is the source of life; (3) feed the soil, not the plant; (4) diversify production systems; (5) independence and self-reliance, and (6) recognition of finite resources and nature’s limitations.
The report concluded that organic farmers were using “best management practices” to control soil erosion, minimize water pollution, and conserve energy and that they had developed unique and innovative methods of organic recycling and pest control in their crop production sequences. “Much can be learned,” the report concluded, “from a holistic research effort to investigate the organic system of farming, its mechanisms, interactions, principles, and potential benefits to agriculture both at home and abroad.”
The study team also provided, for the first time, an official definition of organic farming: “Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To the maximukm extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon 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 pests.”
Although public response was described as overwhelming, and for the most part positive, a new national administration in 1981 stopped distribution of the report and declined to support its recommendations. Followup was limited to supporters outside the government, who then appealed directly to Congress and succeeded in getting authorization for the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program written into the 1985 farm bill. This continuing program, which has had little government funding, supports some research and education projects that apply specifically to organic farming.
In 1990 a coalition of organic farming organizations, organic food and agriculture businesses, and consumer, environmental, animal welfare, and other organizations succeeded in getting the Organic Food Production Act written into general farm legislation. Public support for the legislation was based to a great extent on food safety and environmental concerns that had built up during the 1980s. Congress, in an attempt to avoid acknowledging these concerns, struck all references to prevention of “adverse health and environmental effects” and encouragement of “environmental stewardship” and “organic and sustainable farming systems.”
The stated purpose of the law is to (1) establish national standards governing the labeling of organically produced products; (2) assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard, and (3) facilitate interstate commerce in fresh and processed food that is organically produced (Congressional Record, 1990). A National Organic Standards Board, established to assist the Secretary of Agriculture in developing the standards, was appointed in 1992 and its work is underway.
The board is developing crop, livestock, and processing and handling standards, a program for federal accreditation of certifiers, and a list of approved synthetic and prohibited botanical inputs. An important feature is an organic farm plan, a farmer-prepared document which must address soil and crop management, resource management, crop protection, and maintenance of organic integrity through growing, harvesting, and post-harvest operations. The plan must reflect a commitment to long-term soil improvement or maintenance at a high fertility level.
Although the board used standards developed over the last 20 years by state and farmer-controlled organic programs as a starting point, it faces a long list of difficult issues on which consensus has never been reached by organic food and farming proponents. They include standards relating to biotechnology, botanical pesticides, antibiotics and parasiticides, drift from public spraying programs, humane treatment of livestock, residue testing, and exempting small farmers from mandatory certification.
Toward a Global Agenda for Organic Agriculture
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which more than 150 countries participated in last summer in Rio, focused worldwide attention on global environmental problems. Agenda 21, the global plan of action for the 1990s and beyond, takes the position that sustainable agriculture is not just an option but an imperative. It is critical of chemical use in agriculture, includes a strong endorsement of non-chemical pest control, and calls for a worldwide transition to sustainable agriculture methods.
Agriculture received little or no attention from environmental leaders in the early planning and this hands-off-agriculture attitude prevailed during the first three preparatory meetings. After the third one, however, frustrated sustainable agriculture advocates came together in the Netherlands and developed a strategy for getting sustainable agriculture on the UNCED agenda. This included adoption of the Den Bosch Declaration for Sustainable Agriculture and Development. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, which supported this meeting, provided official follow up. The result was that the Den Bosch Declaration became the basis for Chapter 14, which is entitled “Meeting Agricultural Needs Without Destroying the Land.” Support for sustainable agriculture also is included in the Rio Declaration of Environment and Development and the Convention on Biodiversity.
The term “organic agriculture” does not appear in any of the official UNCED documents. But the UN Development Program published, and released in Rio, a new report that concludes that organic agriculture presents an attractive alternative to current non-sustainable practices in developing countries (UNDP, 1993). It also sums up many elements of the international debate over organic farming:
“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. Others believe that yields are much lower in organic agriculture, or that the cost of labor is much higher. In short, it is not an option to solve the world’s agricultural problems.
“In reality, organic agriculture is a consistent systems approach based on the perception that tomorrow’s ecology is more important than today’s economy. Its aim is to stop degradation and reestablish natural balances. The economy must readjust to the primary production factors, and not the other way around. Without ecology, there is no economy. If conventional agriculture had been made to pay for the degradation and environmental damage it is causing, the move towards organic farming would have been made long ago.”
Another development relating to organic agriculture at the UNCED conference was the preparation of a Sustainable Agriculture Treaty, a plan of action developed by representatives of organic and sustainable agriculture organizations from throughout the world. More than 300 representatives of accredited nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in organic and sustainable agriculture participated in this process at the final preparatory meeting in New York in March and at the NGO Global Forum in Rio. The treaty was signed by many of these organizations during the forum and by many others since.
The treaty commits organic and sustainable agriculture organizations around the world to work together in the 1990s and beyond toward these objectives: (1) development and enhancement of sustainable farming systems; (2) restoration of degraded agro-ecological and cultural systems; (3) development and promotion of regional food self-sufficiency; (4) development of alternative sources of sustainable agriculture information; (5) increased farmer participation in setting agtricultural research and funding priorities; (6) levying of taxes on pesticides, and (7) cutting pesticide use and speeding up the transition to biological pest control methods (WSAA, 1993).
Both semantics and the various ways certain concepts are articulated in different languages made the treaty discussions difficult. Words like “organic,” “sustainable” “regenerative,” and others commonly used were unfamiliar or unacceptable to many. The term that was agreed on during the discussions was “ecological.” U.S. NGOs agreed that their version of the treaty should use the term “sustainable.”
The treaty, in describing the kind of food production systems that NGOs would advocate, states that they (1) preserve biodiversity, maintain soil fertility and water quality, conserve and improve the physical properties of the soil, recycle agricultural wastes and conserve energy; (2) use locally available renewable resources, appropriate and affordable technologies, and a minimum of external and purchased inputs, and (3) use modern science to improve, rather than displace, the traditional wisdom built up over centuries by food producers around the world.
Trade in organic foods also is creating a need for international standards and guidelines. Organic food certification, now an international activity, is conducted by a multinational network of certifier organizations that includes Demeter, OCIA, and FVO. Many of these certifiers are loosely affiliated by IFOAM. All of them in countries that accredit certifiers are now required, as a condition of selling organic products into EEC countries, to achieve an agreement of equivalency between their own national standards and the EEC’s production rules and inspection measures. The EEC requires them to be registered as third-country agents and prove their organic standards are equivalent.
Exports, a rapidly growing sector of the organic food industry, are receiving increasing attention from traders. IFOAM began sponsoring an every-other-year trade conference in 1989. Its 1991 international conference, held at the United Nations complex in Vienna, attracted more than 350 participants.
In a related international process, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a multinational body of the United Nations, has in place a directive on organic labeling and is working on international guidelines for organic food products (Codex Alimentarius, 1993). The working document is entitled “Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling, and Marketing of Organically/Biologically Produced Foods.
The commission met recently in Canada to advance this process, will meet again in Geneva in July, and could complete this process as soon as late 1994. The proposed guidelines cover labeling, production rules, permitted and prohibited inputs, inspection and certification systems, principles of organic production, minimum inspection requirements, and processing, storage, and transportation requirements.
Productivity and Economic Viability
Adequate production to provide all people a healthy diet at an affordable cost is not just an economic necessity; it is a moral imperative. No government can or should support an agricultural system that cannot provide a reliable national food supply over the long term. In addition to preserving the resource base, organic agriculture also must meet the long-term productivity test.
It is difficult, and probably premature, to try to draw many conclusions about whether organic agriculture can meet the world’s productivity challenge. There are strong indications, however, that it is preferable to the Green Revolution technologies that are not sustainable and have had mixed reviews at best. There also is a good deal of evidence that well-managed organic farms do produce yields comparable to conventional farms after the transition period needed for establishment of a more holistic system.
Little funding has been available, particularly from official sources, for research on the economic viability and production potential of organic agriculture. The U.S. Congress, which provides more than $1 billion per year for agricultural research, refused in 1990 to authorize a proposed organic farming research plan that would have cost less than $5 million a year. Much of the data gathered has come from farm-level case studies (National Research Council, 1989), direct comparisons between organic and conventional farms (Klepper, et al, 1977; Regenold, et al, 1993), and research plot yield data. The work done so far strongly suggests that organic systems can meet yield and other productivity expectations while providing environmental, energy-saving, and other benefits at the same time.
Several U.S. studies comparing the economic returns of organic and conventional farms concluded that economic returns on organic farms are comparable to those on conventional farms because, although they have somewhat lower yields, they also have lower cash operating costs (Klepper, et al, 1975; Lockeretz and Wernick, 1980; Cacek and Langner, 1985). The USDA study team concluded that overall production was lower on organic farms due to greater crop diversity needed to maintain crop rotations.
The USDA study team reported that a number of case studies had found that most of the organic farmers involved reported comparable yields on a per-acre basis. Its report noted that yields normally fall during the transition from conventional to organic, which may take three years or more, but begin to increase after rotations are established and eventually equal yields that had been obtained with conventional methods. Most of these studies have found that conventional yields are higher when weather and other conditions are ideal and that organic yields are higher when crops are stressed by drought or other adverse conditions. Most of these studies also show somewhat higher yields on conventional farms for corn and wheat and slightly higher yields on organic farms for oats, soybeans, and legume hay crops that are less responsive to nitrogen fertilizer.
A review of the economic literature dealing with organic field crop production concluded that it is difficult to compare yields between organic and conventional systems because they are influenced by many external factors like climate, soil fertility, seed varieties, weeds, and pests (Cornell ??) . “In general,” it was concluded, “crops that respond to high nitrogen fertilizer rates like corn, wheat and potatoes have higher yields with conventional practices while crops like alfalfa, soybeans, and oats that depend on nitrogen less are likely to have comparable, or even higher, yields with organic practices.”
New resource accounting approaches strongly suggest that past studies comparing the economic returns of organic and conventional farms do not account for all the costs. A World Resources Institute team concluded that when “conventional” and “alternative” farming systems are evaluated with complete accounting for their on-farm and off-farm environmental costs, farming systems that make maximum use of rotations and biological nutrients are economically competitive even when environmental costs are low, and markedly superior when environmental costs are high (Faeth, et al, 1991).
Impact of Consumer Support for Organic Agriculture
Consumer support for organic agriculture is fully documented in polls and studies, both in the United States and elsewhere, that 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 concept of using dollars spent for food to “vote” for an Earth-friendly food system is gaining ground. In most instances, consumers equate organic agriculture with an Earth-friendly food system.
These concerns 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). 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 healthy food; this has expanded into a more altruistic attitude wherein purchasing power supports production methods conducive to a healthy environment,” the German report says. “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.
The principle aims of organic agriculture listed in IFOAM’s newly-adopted standards reflect this new trend (IFOAM, 1992). They include “allowing agricultural producers a living according to UN human rights, to cover their basic needs, and to obtain an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment” and “to consider the wider social and ecological impact of the farming system.”
This “conclusive products” concept also is being extended to the international area where guidelines for ethical trade in organic products have been developed (Petersen, 1992). The aims of ethical trade, which are designed to curb “bio-colonialism,” would include furthering respect for human rights in the country of origin of the organic products, supporting an equal distribution of income, countering the regionalization effect of import taxes and export subsidies, and having more of the processing and marketing take place in the country of origin.
Food safety concerns also are a driving force in the United States and elsewhere. A 1990 Lou Harris survey showed 84% of the respondents preferred organically grown fruits and vegetables, 30% had changed their food buying habits in response to concern over pesticide residues, and 28% had sought out organic produce or produce grown with limited use of chemicals. Similar concerns were highlighted in a study issued by the Center for Produce Quality, a U.S. industry-sponsored foundation. It showed that 59% of the respondents were very concerned about the effects of pesticides on the environment, that 73% would like farmers to reduce pesticide use, and that 18% want pesticide use eliminated. More than half said they believe farmers can produce all the fruits and vegetables needed without using pesticides.
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 a good bit more for products grown in an environmentally friendly way (IFOAM, 1992).
Organic Agriculture as a Sustainable Agriculture Model
Organic Agriculture must be productive, environmentally sound, and socially and economically viable if it is to become a global model for agricultural sustainability. The U.S. government’s most recent sustainable agriculture definition encompasses these general requirements. The 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act defined sustainable agriculture as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that has a site-specific application and will, over the long term, (1) satisfy human food and fiber needs; (2) enhance environmental quality and the natural resources base upon which the agricultural economy depends; (3) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrates, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; (4) sustain the vitality of farm operations, and (5) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole. (U.S. Congress, 1990).
My own vision of sustainable agriculture is based a more specific set of primary components: (1) it mirrors nature to the maximum extent possible; (2) it is sun-powered; (3) it does not use synthetic toxic inputs of any kind; (4) it conserves topsoil and achieves zero off-farm impact; (5) it recaptures and recycles all organic wastes generated on the farm; (6) it fully integrates livestock into holistic production systems; (7) it treats livestock humanely; (8) it protects all good cropland from conversion to nonfarm uses; (9) it fully utilizes the biological potential of the soil and the maintenance of soil health, and (10) it guarantees farmers a fair return on their investment plus a profit.
All of these things are achievable with available technology. All of them must eventually be practiced if agricultural systems are to be sustainable. All of them dealing with production methods have been achieved by organic farmers around the world.
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*Roger Blobaum is Associate Director of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association, 907 North Tower, 13 31 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004.