Organic Agriculture Worldwide:
A Fast-Growing Reality
Bookshelves with scientific studies are filled and the evidence cannot be argued
that the introduction of chemically synthesized pesticides has caused tremendous
environmental and social problems. In my home country of Germany, despite all the
IPM propaganda from the chemical industry and the serious attempts of scientists
and farmers to really reduce pesticide spraying, we still dump 30,000 tons of pesticides
per year on our fields.
A recent study in Germany has shown that the economic damage for our society caused
by the use of synthetic pesticides every year is in the range of up to 300 million
DM (Deutschmarks) - and this does not include the new federal states of our republic.
Even in our highly educated country with careful training of our farmers in handling
pesticides, the costs for deadly poisoning with pesticides alone amounts to almost
8 million DM per year. The costs for monitoring the pesticide level in drinking water
is the highest cost factor at 64 million DM.
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE MEAN?
Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil
in 1992, the term of sustainability has become rather meaningless. The phrase has
actually been highjacked by chemical companies showing nice advertisements with ladybugs
and weeds flowering in the fields who claim that so-called modern agriculture with
all its chemical/synthetic interference is sustainable. Politicians and organizations
such as the United Nations have overused and overemphasized this phrase until it
has become more or less meaningless.
The organic movement and IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements)
claim the parenthood of introducing the term sustainability into agriculture. Already
20 years ago, the first IFOAM International Scientific Conference in 1977 in Switzerland
was titled “Towards Sustainable Agriculture.” One of our earliest and most fascinating
pioneers in the organic movement, Lady Eve Balfour from the United Kingdom, has given
the best definition of sustainability I have ever come across: “The criteria for
a sustainable agriculture can be summed up in one word, ‘permanence,’ which means
adopting techniques that maintain soil fertility indefinitely, that utilize as far
as possible only renewable resources, that do not grossly pollute the environment,
and that foster life energy (or if preferred biological activity) within the soil
and throughout the cycles of all the involved food chains.” That is what organic
farming is all about.
STANDARDS & RULES
There is no other farming method so clearly defined and regulated by standards and
ruses as organic agriculture. Our organic movement has four decades of experience
in not only defining our way of practicing agriculture, but also in establishing
inspection and certification schemes to give the consumer both a guarantee and confidence
in the prime quality of our products, and especially in the environmentally sound
methods by which they are produced.
The rapidly growing importance of organic agriculture may be seen in the development
of organic regulations within “Codex Alimentarius,” as well as in the fact that many
nations such as England, Argentina, Israel, Australia, and recently the United States
are enacting legislation in this field. The draft for the U.S. regulation recently
published has been heavily critized and has already attracted thousands of comments
from around the world, concluding that these agro-industry biased regulations would
destroy the organic movement and our market opportunities.
There are fewer problems with the regulations in other countries by far, since they
draw their inspiration from the IFOAM basic standards, which have now been translated
into 18 languages from Chinese to Swahili. Comparable clarity cannot be found for
integrated farming methods, much less for so-called “sustainable” agriculture. We
have lots of reasons to claim that “organic agriculture is sustainability put into
A GROWING INDUSTRY
In order to get an impression about the fast growth of organic agriculture, a look
at IFOAM and its membership gives some interesting indications. Founded in 1972 by
six organizations (coming from three continents), the federation developed after
15 years into an umbrella federation with about 100 member organizations in 25 countries.
In the last ten years, the almost explosive development of organic agriculture all
over the world is reflected in the fact that IFOAM now unites 670 member organizations
and institutions in over 100 countries worldwide.
To get an understanding of how fast organic agriculture is spreading out we should
look first at development on the farming and production level. It is impressive to
have about 8,000 organic farmers in Germany, which is home to some of the biggest
and transnational chemical companies whose political and financial power creates
quite some pressure on the organic movement. In the federal state of Mecklenburg-
Vorpommern already 10 percent of the total land is under organic cultivation. A number
of other German federal governments have committed themselves to a 10 percent organic
goal. Yet, it remains a fact that nationwide, we are in the range of only 2 percent.
Neighboring countries show what booming developments are possible. In Switzerland
the organic share has reached the range of 7 percent, with the largest Kanton (province),
Graubunden, having around 30 percent. The boom in Austria, with more than 20,000
organic farmers, indicates a 10 percent share for organic farming. But Sweden and
Finland have also reached the level of Switzerland, and they are now competing with
Austria for the lead. The latest statistics from Italy show 18,000 farms either organic
or in conversion to organic farming.
Yet there has also been impressive development in the Southern Hemisphere and in
the so-called Third World. An organic farming project for cotton-producing farmers
in Uganda started with a couple of hundred farmers and within three years has shown
that 7,000 farmers moved to cultivate organic cotton. In Mexico tens of thousands
of campesinos (small farmers) produce organic coffee for export, as well as staple
food organically for the local market. The Mexican UCIRI cooperative alone has organized
some 7,000 farmers in over 30 villages converting a whole region into organic farming.
Fortunately, the market development and consumer demand for organic products is matched
by the rapid growth of conversion to organic farming methods. The organic market
in the United States is in the range of $3 billion and is expected to double in the
next two or three years. In Germany, we can see how the whole babyhood sector is
well on its way to becoming more or less exclusively organic. Also, the fact that
more than 30 percent of the daily bread in Munich is baked with certified organic
ingredients is a clear indicator that organic products conquer mainstream markets.
It may be surprising that even in a country like Egypt, organic produce is becoming
mainstream. The biodynamic SEKEM initiative, employing about 1,000 people, delivers
its products to 6,000 pharmacies and to 1,200 shops. Egypt, being a nation of tea
drinkers, has shown its preference for organic tea by the fact that the best selling
herb tea is certified organic. Rapidly growing consumer demand is also reported from
countries like Argentina, Japan, Poland and Australia. The boom for organic products
is not a luxury of the developed world, as we have seen in the case of Egypt. It
is encouraging that local markets for organic food are becoming increasingly established
in so-called developing countries. The growing importance in this context will be
close cooperation between organic agriculture and the fair trade movement.
The organic sector is probably the most rapidly growing food market in the world.
Respected organic market analysts like Professor Ulrich Hamm have forecasted annual
growth rates of 20 to 30 percent and, in some countries, even up to 50 percent per
year. The largest organic trader in the United Kingdom expects today’s estimated
$11 billion world organic market to go to a volume of $100 billion in the next then
years, with a major share of this growth taking place in the United States and Japan.
In the context of these figures and forecasts, Denmark’s target of reaching a 20
percent market share of the total food market for organic products in the next couple
of years sounds quite realistic.
An indication of the organic future ahead is the fact that McDonald’s (with organic
milk in Sweden), Nestle, Sandoz, Lufthansa and, lately, with a lot of media attention
and an ambitious commitment, Swiss Air (catering 25,000 meals per day), have entered
the organic sector.
Many people may not see that organic farming will one day be so widespread that synthetic
chemical fertilizers and pesticides become “endangered species.” I certainly do not
want to have the farmers worldwide forced legally to stop using pesticides. But I
do trust in the power of markets and consumer demands, as well as in the convincing
fact that our organic and often-called “biological” way of farming is so logical.
The organic movement and the environmentalists are ready for the next struggle -
genetic engineering, which is accelerating the already existing problems of pesticide
use, and enters our environment with a new dimension of global risk. In the promotion
of genetic engineering, we hear the same unrealistic promises as we heard when chemistry
was introduced into farming. If we continue to manipulate genetic organisms, we will
face problems, which we may quite likely never get under control.
Genetic engineering has to be rejected for many reasons: It is dangerous and not
at all risk tolerant. It is absolutely not necessary for food production and processing,
and it is not economically viable (which doesn’t mean that the big multinationals
cannot reap huge profits).
If one has a basic understanding of the underlying principles of organic farming
and knows about the power of nature, one will agree with the firm position of the
organic movement that genetic engineering has no place either on organic farms or
on any other field. I will continue to support the 76 percent of German consumers
that are against genetic engineering in food and will work to ensure that the future
of genetic engineering will soon become history.
During my first practical training in farming on a conventional farm which used all
the chemical options available, I realized very quickly that this cannot be the future
for farming. Most fascinating for me was that organic farming is not at all a “do
nothing way” of farming and that it does not get its strength by being against something
like pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming has at its core an attention
to healthy soils and cycle economies, and it cares about the social aspects of agricultural
If we continue with this positive approach, the organic movement will be the starting
point, not only for healthier farmers and food, but also for a change in lifestyle
and consumption patterns, thus helping to develop sustainable societies with a bottom-up
strategy - namely, field to field, farm to farm, shop to shop, village to village,
and region to region. Look more closely at what organic farming has to offer. Have
the courage to be more “radical” (in the truest sense of the word, of going to the
roots) and join the organic movement.
Bernward Geier, Executive director, International Federation of Organic Agriculture
He can be reached at Okozentrum Imsbach, D-66636 Tholey-Theley, Germany,
phone 49- 6853-5190.
(Reprint, ACRES U.S.A., February, 1999 edition)