Organic farming under challenge

Urs Niggli

25 May 2010

While organic agriculture has a key role to play in meeting the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century, it is hindered by an elaborate framework of standards and certification procedures. How well is organic farming positioned to meet these challenges – and how will it look in 20 years asks Urs Niggli?

Over recent years, the introduction of national organic action plans in most EU countries has without doubt increased the rate of organic conversion among European farms. With 18.5% of all its farms now managed to organic standards, Austria is the clear leader here. Indeed, the Austrian Government is determined to achieve a level of 20% of its farms managed to organic standards by the end of 2010, a goal set in their latest Action Programme for Organic Farming (2008–2010). But while the percentage of organic farms in some European countries ranges between 7–12%, for most parts of Europe the percentage remains below 5%. And the global organic acreage is 35 million hectares, which represents just 0.8% of the agricultural land of those countries where statistical data on organic farming is available.

The rapid growth in demand for organic food in European and US markets has encouraged many farmers and farm communities in developing and emerging countries to convert to organic methods, representing 80% of the 1.4 million certified farmers. In this context, certified means that the farmers or farmer communities are inspected and certified under a third party scheme. They supply a fast growing global market worth $50 billion in 2009. An additional number of farmers are organised in Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which gives them access to local markets and provides poorer consumers with high quality and safe foods.

An increasing number of farm communities are also adopting organic agriculture as it offers a comprehensive and attractive ‘tool box’ for sustainable or ‘best practice’ agriculture. The system uses easy-to-learn techniques like composting and minimising losses through nutrient recycling, mixing crops and legumes, and attracting beneficial insects or in-house manufacturing of naturally-derived pesticides. It also encourages more complex and more resilient farming systems, and therefore represents a low-cost strategy for improving food security.

Consequentially, the most significant growth of organic farming will happen in the next decade beyond classical third-party certified production and trade. Hence, any participatory actions with farmers which harness human and social capital in rural areas have to be further developed: PGS, empowerment of farmer groups and community-based learning and training, participatory market development, community based agriculture and novel farmer-consumer partnerships.

Today, it is fair to say that agriculture – and the food industry it supplies – is facing challenge and criticism as never before. Rising energy and fertiliser costs, fiercer competition for land use between food, feedstuff and energy crop production, and temporary shortages in food stock levels are leading to increased global food insecurity, profoundly affecting the lives of1.2 billion people – or every sixth human being on this planet. Climate change scenarios predict that agricultural production in many parts of the world is likely to become increasingly vulnerable to floods, droughts and novel invasive weeds, pests and diseases. Indeed, crop yields in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia are likely to suffer significantly unless urgent action is taken to make farms in these regions more resilient. Industrial agriculture is also currently responsible for 10–15% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And when land use change is taken into consideration – for example, the clearing of primary rainforests for palm oil production or to grow soya for animal feed – then agriculture’s real climate footprint reaches almost 20% of all GHG emissions. While other sectors of our society will develop and adopt low-carbon technologies, it is likely that agriculture will become the greatest GHG emitter unless significant changes are also undertaken.

Yet although many in the organic movement believe that organic methods have a vital role to play in meeting many of these challenges, for the first time in 30 years organic agriculture is arguably not well positioned to capitalise on these critical situations and burning questions. Particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, the relevance of organic agriculture and organic food consumption is highly disputed by policy makers and the scientific community alike, who do not currently perceive organic agriculture as the type of agriculture which will provide the best solutions to these future challenges. Perhaps the most pervasive criticism of organic farming is that it cannot ‘feed the world’, and that a greater adoption of organic methods would negatively impact on land use. As a result, global seed and pesticide companies, such as Syngenta, promote their interests successfully with claims that their technologies ‘grow more from less’.

One can always blame others for one’s own weakness: the agrochemical/seed industry is keen on pursuing ‘business as usual’ agriculture; the food industry is not really interested in a high diversity of food suppliers and in high food quality, preferring homogeneous products and highly centralised distribution systems; the policy makers are still captive to the false policy of cheap food; and the scientists are over-reliant on industry money and fixated on what is currently regarded as ‘cutting-edge’ science.

Nonetheless, there are also clear weaknesses which originate from the lack of good strategies and clear actions among organic farmers and their organisations. For many, the opportunities presented by the rapidly growing organic market were too alluring, subjugating any concerns about the ‘nagging’ questions of the future. While many organic farmers and other organic businesses adopted the ‘business as usual’ approach, other non-organic farmers and businesses expanded their positioning as also contributing to a ‘sustainable’ future.

The organic movement must re-establish and reaffirm the true definition of sustainability in relation to agriculture. In 1977, FiBL organised the very first International Scientific Conference ‘Towards Sustainable Agriculture’ of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) – the global umbrella organization of organic farmers and growers. Since then, the term sustainability has been increasingly used in a misleading way, overemphasising the short-term economic viability of farm enterprises. And, following the food crisis in 2007/2008, the agro-industry has shamelessly ‘green washed’ its highly industrialised, high input and polluting conventional farming approaches as a ‘sustainable’ approach.

The reality is completely different: the unsustainable production of food, feed, fibre and fuel continues to damage global ecosystems and the vital services that these systems provide for human survival (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Such ‘public services’ include the provision of clean water, the recycling of organic matter and supply of plant nutrients through fertile soils, the regulation of climate and weather events, the regulation of crop pests and diseases through biodiversity and natural enemies, and the pollination of crops by wild animals.

Initiated by UN organisations, the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report represents the work of several hundred scientists from across the world. Their findings provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends of the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as the scientific basis for action to conserve and use them sustainably. At the same time, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2008) appraised the contribution of technology-oriented agricultural research to food security as inferior to interdisciplinary research based on the ecosystems services approach and to trans-disciplinary research involving and valuing farmers’ skills and knowledge. But while the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report was actually very supportive of systems-based agriculture like organic, the dramatic food shortages and the rise in food prices during 2007–08 led to a renaissance of interest in high-tech and high-input agriculture, which focused primarily on maximising yields.

The efficiency of natural resource use – such as water, oil and phosphorus – has decreased significantly in conventional food production. For example, the efficiency of nitrogen use for cereal production has decreased from 80% to 30% between 1960 and 2000. At the same time, nitrogen and phosphorus emissions from agricultural systems increased dramatically. And it is now widely accepted that phosphorus mines will be depleted within 40–60 years.
Currently, the most consistent change is organic agriculture as these farms rely heavily on preventive, system-oriented practices, on recycling of nutrients and organic matter, on symbiotically fixed nitrogen, on efficient management of non-renewable inputs and on functional biodiversity and landscape management.

The organic movement must now urgently reposition concepts like organic farming as being the ‘truly sustainable’ option. But doing so means liaising strongly with like-minded organisations far beyond the ‘organic philosophy’ – in other words, linking with organisations involved with nature conservation, bird life, rainforest protection, food sovereignty, and others. In order to be a convincing partner the organic movements will have to be far more willing to embrace the ideas and perspectives of others: automatically assuming that ‘we are the best’ is not always the ideal way to make friends!

The organic movement must now create innovation and bring like-minded people and movements closer together. It is fair to say that the day-to-day focus of most organic stakeholders is very much self-centred. Indeed, the themes which still appear to dominate discussions among organic stakeholders include basic requirements and standards for production, quality assurance, inspection and certification – and the question as to whether different governmental and private standards comply or are equivalent to each other (which is indeed a never ending debate). This has led to a very scattered landscape where individual singularity and corporate identity seem more important – and have become more dominant – than the common goal of identifying how we can all work together to tackle the global challenges facing agriculture and nutrition.

Organic agriculture has become too apologetic in defending formalities instead of redefining the underlying principles of organic farming in the context of the present-day challenges and of a greater recognition and understanding of nature. In its purest sense, organic farming was about how fertile soils can be managed in order to nourish people with healthy foods. It was also about diversity: diversity in nutrition, diversity of farms, diversity of species and diversity of landscape. And it was about respect and care for every creature. If the organic movement talked more about these principal missions, its common ground with like-minded organisation would become overwhelmingly attractive. Yet, the dominant occupation with standards and quality assurance accentuates the dividing elements with others.

Historically, organic farming has a strong emphasis on what farmers are not allowed to do or use on their crops and livestock: synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, benetically modified organisms or the preventative use of allopathic veterinary medicines. Whether this has really a positive impact on the environment, soil fertility and biodiversity or the overall habitat quality of farms and the landscape they are in is not really assessed or checked on every farm. Fortunately, many scientific studies show that, on average, organic farms perform ecologically better than conventional or integrated holdings. But we also see a great variation among organic farms, with some where significant improvements are necessary. And I am therefore convinced that in a few years time the certification organisations will check ‘public services’ on farms.

Today, there is already a growing public interest in the carbon and water ‘footprint’ of foods and such information is increasingly being included on product labels and as a marketing tool to consumers. Yet it appears that the organic movement is a bit at a loss for answers now that issue like land use, rainforests and deforestation, food security and climate change are (back) on the agenda.

What we urgently need is a strong involvement of the most profound thinkers to come forward and to make their voices heard by the public and the policy makers. In addition, there is a real need to establish an alliance with other people, groups and organisations working on truly sustainable ‘bio carbon capture and storage solutions’. Soils should become the favoured solution among politicians and policy makers for sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; here, organic crop rotations with grass-clover leys and the recycling of nutrients and organic matter from livestock production is highly relevant and offers real potential. Converting an intensive conventional farm to best organic practice will result in several hundred kilograms of CO2 per hectare – year on year – being put back into the soils and stored as stable humus. And as the agricultural acreage is huge – 1.7 billion hectares of arable and permanent crops and 3.5 billion hectares of permanent pastures and grassland – this amounts to a significant contributing to abate GHG in the atmosphere.

The organic movement must bring the relevant issues of food consumption and high quality nutrition into the public debate in a more prominent and appropriate way. Over recent years, the public debate on the qualities of organic food has been too focused on the issue of health – sometimes also in the context of more philosophical aspects like (spiritual) vitality. In comparison to this, the most relevant aspects of sustainable food consumption are the high proportion of animal foods in diets, the highly simplified (genetic) diversity of the plants and animals that increasing numbers of humans base their nutrition on, and the dramatic decline of food culture through Western ‘fast food’ catering habits.

Healthy nutrition means – first and foremost – a reasonable ratio between meat and dairy on the one hand, and vegetables, pulses, fruits and cereals on the other. Organic farms supply less livestock and more vegetable produce as they rely on lower stocking densities. This is the consequence of environmental and welfare concerns, and the ban of factory farming practices and intensive ‘feedlots’. Lower stocking densities on farms and a reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy products in Western societies are both part of solution to global food security. When cereals are fed to animals, seven vegetable calories are wasted to produce just one animal calorie. Yet across the world vast acreages of high quality agricultural land is used to grow crops to feed livestock instead of nourishing people.

The problem for our global ecosystems is not the 6.8 billion people who currently live on this planet, nor the 9 billion people who will possibly inhabit the Earth by the year 2050. It is the 18.7 billion livestock that we currently farm – and the 25 billion livestock we will have to manage in 2050 if we follow thesame unsustainable meat-based diet. Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2006, dramatically depicts the pollution of soils, water and air, as well the destruction of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity associated with the fast growing livestock production.

Throughout history, humans have cultivated around 7,000 plant species. Today, 120 of them are still important for agriculture, and just 30 species are responsible for delivering globally 95% of all our foods. Through breeding processes, 4,000 cultivars or varieties of potatoes and 100,000 varieties of rice have been created – an incredibly high genetic diversity. Yet the industrialised production of mass foodstuffs has drastically reduced this diversity of species – and genetics within species. The loss of diversity in the fields and on the farms has been compensated for by the use of sophisticated food processing technologies, which feign real variation through the creation of ‘colour’ and ‘taste’.

There is an interdependence (so far little discussed) between this loss of diversity of foods and farms, and obesity and malnutrition. Organic farmers must therefore move away from standard thinking in terms of ‘cash crops’ and standardised product quality which are so prevalent in today’s long and anonymous food chains. Back to regionalism, closeness and authenticity!

Organic farming offers so many potentials for future agriculture and nutrition, and will no doubt be reshaped further by the challenges we face. Innovation and reform will keep the organic movement busy in the next decade, always bearing in mind the organic principles as defined by International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) – and not the standards as set in stone by the regulatory bodies.

Urs Niggli is director of the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) since 1990. He is on the World Board of IFOAM, member of the board of directors of the certification company, bio.inspecta, and on advisory boards of many research organisations and committees in different countries. He teaches cross-cutting themes of organic agriculture as honorary professor at the University of Kassel-Witzenhausen. 

Further reading

Carpenter, S. R. et al. (2009) Science for managing ecosystem services: Beyond the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106(5): 1305-1312.
Erisman, J.W., et al. (2008) ‘How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world’, Nature Geoscience 1: 636–639.
Niggli, U., Fließbach, A., Hepperly, P. and Scialabba, N. (2009) Low Greenhouse Gas Agriculture: Mitigation and adaptation potential of sustainable farming systems, Rev. 2, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.
Steinfeld, H., et al. (2006) Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.
UNEP-UNCTAD CBTF (2008) Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. United Nations, Geneva and New York.
Willer H and Kilcher L (eds) (2009) The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends, IFOAM and FiBL.

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