Thursday, 17 November 2011

Can organic farming feed the world?

Alan Broughton has just returned from South Korea, where he attended the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) Conference.  Approximately 800 people from 76 countries took part and 737 papers were presented. Here is an extract from his full report:

Several speakers took up the question - Can organic farming feed the world?

Sarojeni Rengan from Pesticide Action Network of Asia-Pacific told the conference that there was no other way because pesticides are so dangerous. An estimated 350,000 people per year are killed by pesticides, mostly in Third World countries, as a result of illiteracy, malnutrition, lack of information, lack of options, lack of training and lack of labels in local languages. Pesticides also produce chronic effects on people, causing cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects, developmental and behavioural problems, immune system impacts, endocrine disruption and neurological impacts. Some chemicals cause more effect at lower dosages than higher dosages – this is especially the case of the endocrine disruptors, which mimic hormones in the body. More than 127 pesticides are endocrine disruptors. Chemical companies put great effort into preventing chemical control, and regulatory bodies rely mainly on the information that they supply. Only 6 corporations – Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont, BASF and Monsanto - control 75% of the world pesticide market. These are also seed companies and promote genetic modification. They determine government policy, said Sarojeni.

Vladimir Martichenkov from Russia outlined other problems of chemical agriculture and its emphasis on yields not quality. He said the IQ of children was falling because of poor food. Since chemical farming commenced in China there has been a 100 fold increase in cancer. Male infertility is 30% in the US, 10% in Norway, yet there has been no decline in Africa where chemical farming is just starting. Two billion hectares of land has been destroyed in the world by agriculture; 50 million hectares per year is lost. The cost of food continually rises while the return to farmers continually falls. He advocated Vertically Integrated Farming that combines production with processing and marketing, integrates cropping and livestock raising, and recycles all wastes.

Hans Rudolf Herren spoke about the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Technology and Development, a United Nations agency) report called Agriculture at the Crossroads, which said that the world has to go organic to survive. The Green Revolution did not address hunger and poverty, rural livelihoods, nutrition, human health, social equity, sustainable development or the environment. It produced starch but not vitamins. The world produces more food that is needed – in Western countries 30% of food purchases are wasted by consumers and too much goes into meat production. Herren said that farmers must be respected for their work, animals have to be returned to farms out of factories and biodiversity increased. Research should be funded by governments, not private companies. The IAASTD report is available from

There was some discussion about the Bill Gates project Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Some people thought there were worthwhile aspects that could be supported, but Gertrude Kenyangi Kabusimbi of Uganda denounced it as another avenue for the penetration of agro-industrial corporations into Africa. Monsanto, Syngenta and YARA (a fertiliser company) are partners in AGRA. She said AGRA was motivated by profit, to sell fertilisers, pesticides and GM seeds, which will worsen food security for small holders as the Green Revolution in Asia did in the 1970s and 1980s. The answer was organic farming, not chemical farming, she said.

John Reganold from Washington State University talked about the large number of studies that have compared organic and non-organic agriculture. While organic farms in developed countries have lower yields on average in normal seasons than non-organic, yields are higher in droughts; in developing countries organic farms have significantly higher production. Other benefits are better nutrition, an absence of pesticide residues, higher incomes, higher carbon sequestration, less soil degradation, more biodiversity, less pollution and better energy efficiency. He concluded that organic farming can feed the world.

Moses Muwanga of Uganda believed that organic farming was the most appropriate farming system to solve the problems of small farmers in Africa. While much of African agriculture uses no chemicals, great improvements can be made by improved design and recycling. Uganda has 200,000 certified organic farmers, yet the organic movement in that country is only 10 years old.

Vic Tagupa has been involved in an organic conversion program in Mindanao Island in the Philippines, using non-hybrid rice and a system of polyculture. He reported that household income had increased by 25% and farmers had greater food security. The program started in 1993 and now covers 10,000 hectares. Similar stories were presented by other speakers in various parts of the world, all of which increased small farmers’ incomes and contributed to a better environment: organic cotton in Burkina Faso, coffee with bananas and pineapples in the Philippines, food crop agroforestry and organic potatoes in Peru, eco-agroforestry in Nicaragua, grains and soybeans and vegetables in the organic village of Ogawa in Japan.

Francis Blake from the UK Soil Association spoke on the topic of peak phosphorus, which will occur in about 2030, as a major incentive for the uptake of organic farming. Long before 2030 phosphorus as a fertiliser may be unaffordable; the price is very volatile, increasing by 400% in 2008, then dropping again to previous levels. China has the greatest reserves of rock phosphate, 35% of the world’s total, followed by the USA with 17% and Western Sahara (now a colony of Morocco) with 15%. Phosphate processing produces large amounts of fluoride which is disposed of in water supplies. The alternatives to mined phosphate are: preventing nutrient loss from farms, recycling waste, supporting mycorrhiza for phosphorus release, reducing lot-fed meat consumption and using sewage as fertiliser. He said modern sewage treatment technology has greatly reduced heavy metal contamination of sewage and organic standards should be changed to allow its use.

Gary Zimmer, who did a speaking tour of Australia straight after the conference, was also critical of organic standards, saying that certification has nothing to do with food quality and that you can get certified by doing nothing. In his opinion the standards should contain two questions: What are you doing to get your soils healthy and mineralised? and What are you doing to get your livestock healthy?

Political issues

Gunnar Rundgren, a former IFOAM leader, expressed the opinion that organic farming must exit from the competitive market economy, as the world environment cannot cope with continued economic growth. Organic farming should be part of the change to a regenerative economy; if not then organic farming is part of “green washing”, the pretence that environmental sustainability can be achieved in a growth economy. “Organic standards will not change the system and save the planet”, he said. Third World countries have difficulty feeding themselves because they cannot compete with industrialised agriculture which is based on cheap oil and trade policies that disadvantage them. We need to challenge the market economy, he said.

Andrea Ferrante of Italy was strongly in support of Gunnar’s opinions. He said organic farmers need to remain outside the commodity food distribution system and to make use of new distribution models for organic food. Options included direct selling, organised group selling in bio-districts, Community Supported Agriculture, cooperatives, and public procurement (for example for school canteens, hospitals, prisons). One million school meals a day in Italy are organic. Organic farmers should get away from supermarkets, he concluded.

Pat Mooney of Canada also attacked corporate control. He talked about the concept of the Green Economy which is now being promoted by some corporations, including chemical and oil companies, in answer to critics. He said people must take control of the Green Economy and not let it be directed by corporations; it must be governed by food sovereignty principles. He warned of the danger of Terminator gene technology being reactivated – there is currently an international moratorium on its use that Brazil is the leader in trying to overturn. The Terminator gene prevents seeds from germinating, so that farmers cannot save seeds. Once it is released into the environment it has the potential to spread to non-target plants, which would be devastating. Pat Mooney says we have successfully fought it in the past and will need to do so again.

Wen Tiejun of China spoke about the worldwide problem of industrialisation causing impoverishment of the countryside, as the capital required for industrial expansion is extracted from farmers, and labour is transferred to the cities. The faster the industrialisation, as is occurring in China now, the faster the rural impoverishment. At the same time chemical increase in agriculture has greatly increased. Now there is a move in China with some government support to develop programs to empower farmers to organise themselves and take control over their livelihoods, reducing poverty and reducing chemical use, ecologising agriculture.

Alan Broughton is a farmer and researcher who works at the Australian Landscape Trust's 2000 acre property, Strathfieldsaye in East Gippsland, Australia.

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