Science in Society Archive

FAO Promotes Organic Agriculture

FAO Report says organic farming fights hunger, tackles climate change, good for farmers, consumers and the environment. Sam Burcher

FAO favours organic agriculture

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has come out in favour of organic agriculture. Its report Organic Agriculture and Food Security explicitly states that organic agriculture can address local and global food security challenges [1]. Organic farming is no longer to be considered a niche market within developed countries, but a vibrant commercial agricultural system practised in 120 countries, covering 31 million hectares (ha) of cultivated land plus 62 million ha of certified wild harvested areas.  The organic market was worth US$40 billion in 2006, and expected to reach US$70 billion by 2012.

Nadia Scialabba, an FAO official, defined organic agriculture as: “A holistic production management system that avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air, soil and water, and optimises the health and productivity of plants, animals and people.”

The strongest benefits of organic agriculture, Scialabba said, are its reliance on fossil fuel independent, locally available resources that incur minimal agro-ecological stresses and are cost effective. She described organic agriculture as a “neo-traditional food system” which combines modern science and indigenous knowledge.

The FAO Report strongly suggests that a worldwide shift to organic agriculture can fight world hunger and at the same time tackle climate change. According to FAO’s previous World Food Summit report [2], conventional agriculture, together with deforestation and rangeland burning, are responsible for 30 percent of the CO2 and 90 percent of nitrous oxide emissions worldwide.

Organic agriculture overcomes paradox of conventional food production systems

The new FAO Report frames a paradox within the conventional food production systems as follows:

  • Global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry
  • Use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing; yet grain productivity is dwindling to seriously low levels
  • Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades.
  • Knowledge is increasingly provided through fast information technologies, but nutritionally related diseases are rising
  • Industrialised food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings and high numbers of farmer have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.

In contrast, organic agriculture offers an alternative food system that improves agricultural performance to better provide access to food, nutritional adequacy, environmental quality, economic efficiency, and social equity. This is crucial if agricultural production in developing countries is to rise by 56 percent by 2030 to meet nutritional needs, as stated in the Report. 

Researchers recommend a shift to organic agriculture especially for poor developing countries

Evidence presented to the FAO by the Danish Research Centre for Food and Farming confirm the potential of a new organic farming paradigm to secure more than enough food to feed the world, and with reduced environmental impacts [3]. The results, using a computer model developed by the Washington DC based Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), show that a fifty percent conversion to organic farming in sub-Saharan Africa would not harm food security. Instead, it would help feed the hungry by reducing the need to import subsidised food, and produce a diverse range of certified organic surpluses to be exported at premium profit.

The conversion of global agriculture to organic farming, without converting wild lands for agricultures and using N-fertilizers, would result in a global agricultural supply of 2 640 to 4 380 kcal/day/person. These conclusions came from a research team led by Catherine Badgley at the University of Michigan [4], based on extensive review of the evidence from both the developed and developing world (see Scientists Find Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World and More, SiS 36 [5]).

The fact that sustainable intensification of organic agriculture could increase production by up to 56 percent is good news, as despite gains in food production and food security in some countries, sub-Saharan Africa produces less food per person than it did 30 years ago; and the number of chronically malnourished people in the region has doubled since 1970, from 96 million to over 200 million in 1996 [2]. This reflects the wider picture that developing countries have registered outright declines in yield increases under conventional agriculture between 1972-1992.

In contrast, the current FAO Report presents evidence that organic management systems have doubled yields in arid and degraded soils in Tigray, Ethiopia. (See The Tigray Project [6] and Organic Production for Ethiopia [7], SiS 23). Alexander Mueller, the FAO assistant director-general praised the research, and noted that as the effects of climate change are expected to hurt the world’s poorest, a shift to organic farming could be beneficial to cope with the rising number of global hungry.

Recommendations arising from the FAO report feed directly into the framework for the Right to Adequate Food and also into the Millenium Development Goal (MDG)1 for reducing hunger and poverty, MDG7 for environmental sustainability, and MDG 8 for global partnerships with emphasis on hidden, acute or chronic hunger.

Environmental and economic benefits of organic agriculture

The Danish researchers [3] suggest that a 50 percent organic conversion by 2020 in the food exporting regions of North America and Europe would have little impact on the availability and prices of food.  Converting from chemically intensive farming to organic farming can initially decrease yields, but the adjustment evens out over time and provides numerous non-material benefits such as land improvement. 

The FAO Report points to further benefits such as better animal welfare, wildlife protection, avoidance of GMOs and pesticides, more jobs and less energy used. Results from studies carried out by the US Department of Agriculture [8] support the FAO findings; showing that organic crops are worth more than conventional crops on the market, and on average, farmers could net $50-$60 more per acre by going organic, even with the highest transitional costs.

The expansion and intensification of conventional farming is harmful not only to the environment, but also to the very resources essential to farming. Over the past two decades, some 15 million ha of tropical forests are lost each year to provide land for agriculture, and at a tremendous loss of genetic diversity [2]. During the same period, soil erosion and other forms of land degradation cost the world between 5-7 million ha of farming land every year; a further 1.5 million ha are lost to waterlogging and salination, and an additional 30 million ha damaged.

Organic agriculture has the potential to reverse those trends, and reduce carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, greenhouse gasses (GHG) that contribute to global warming [1].  Organic agriculture could double soil carbon sequestration in livestock based systems and decrease GHG by 48-60 percent. For example, organic systems have decreased the use of fossil fuels by between 10-70 percent in Europe, and 29-37 percent in the USA.

On organic farms, increasing soil organic matter and microbial biomass is a fundamental principle to support agro-ecosystem stability.  Mandatory crop rotation, the use of seeds and breeds that are adapted to local conditions, and the regeneration of functional biodiversity all contribute further to ecological balance. 

Organic networks meet local food demands and benefits farmers

The FAO gives top priorities to agricultural production that targets local food needs in local markets, allowing imports only for items not grown locally, and exporting high value produce.

In developing countries, food quantity, quality and availability in urban areas are enriched by organic market gardens where local produce is sold to international markets and domestic supermarkets. This reduces dependence on cheap subsidized imports, which are projected to rise to more than 160 million tonnes by the year 2010. For example, a food network in Argentina that covers 3.5 million people reports 70 percent self-sufficiency in vegetable production through organic urban garden networks.

A successful conversion to organic agriculture has occurred in parts of Egypt where scarce or polluted water supplies led to the development of thriving local markets. In China, the awareness of environmental pollution and the need for environmental and health protection resulted in organic-managed land rising from 342 000 ha in 2003 to 978 000 ha in 2005, and increasing local farmers incomes nine-fold.  Cuba is an inspiring example of how food crises can be averted by drastically reducing chemical inputs and relinquishing dependency on fossil fuels [9]. National food security was maintained with some help from food aid, by re-localizing organic food production, and ensuring food access through food rationing and social safety nets such as food and nutrition surveillance systems. Furthermore, organic urban gardens create a healthy environment for the inhabitants and supply local restaurants, markets and shops with nutritious foods.

As organic produce enters the mainstream, consumers are willing to pay higher prices in exchange for truthful labelling and absorb some of the extra costs of organic agriculture. Demand for organic produce has encouraged countries like Brazil (fast becoming a world leader in organic farming) and India to reconcile their local food demands. The main challenge to international markets is bringing producers together to create value chains of fair trade, informed choice and traceability [1]. And, as Catherine Badgely argues [4], food security depends as much Government policies and market price as it does on yields.

Producing organic food has distinct benefits for farmers too.  Farmers’ rights to local seeds and varieties are strengthened, knowledge sharing is promoted, incomes are raised, production increased, environmental and health protection is improved, natural resources are conserved and outward rural migration is reversed. As organic farming is highly knowledge intensive, the FAO recognises that the organization of organic farmers and growers associations, co-operatives, enterprises, and community groups is crucial to research and development. Farmers converting to organic methods also increase incomes by minimizing chemical inputs and other industrial interventions and thereby break the cycle of indebtedness that has devastated hundreds of thousands of farmers livelihoods (See Stem Farmers’ Suicides with Organic Farming, [10], SiS 32). Ensuring farmers well-being and increasing national and regional self reliance in food production methods that meet key environmental and animal welfare standards will not only enhance food security, but will also reduce the use of fossil fuel use for food transportation and production. (See Food Miles and Sustainability, [11] SiS 28)

Health benefits of organic agriculture

As the FAO Report points out, organic foods tend to have higher micronutrient content that contributes to better health, lower incidence of non-communicable diseases and boosts plant and animal immunity against disease (See Organic Farms Make Healthy Plants Make Healthy People, [12] Organic Strawberries Stop Cancer Cells, [13], SiS32).  The UK Soil Association carried out a systematic review of the evidence comparing trace minerals in organic and non-organic food, and found that on average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and chromium [14]. An independent study found higher levels of all 21 nutrients in organic crops, particularly potatoes, cabbage, spinach and lettuce [15].

Evidence suggests that organic crops contain up to fifty percent fewer mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi) (See Increased Mycotoxins in Organic Produce? [16]), and have a longer shelf life.

Organic farmers produce good food from developing a balanced living soil and using only as a last resort four of the hundreds of pesticides on tap to conventional farmers. Non-organic fruits can be sprayed up to 16 times with 36 different pesticides [17]. In 2003 the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) conceded that: ”…buying organic is a way to reduce the chances of your food containing these pesticides.” [18]. Pesticide residues used in conventional farming such as organophosphates are linked with cancers, foetal abnormalities, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Parkinson’s, [19] as well as allergies, especially in children [20], and breast cancer in women [21]. The US Government linked pesticide residues to the top three environmental cancer risks. A study in Seattle [22] found concentrations of pesticide residues 6 times higher in children eating conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables. The restriction on synthetic inputs by organic farmers prevent pesticide poisonings that cause around 20 000 deaths each year in conventional agricultural practices, (see Picking Cotton Carefully [23]); and stop phosphates and nitrates leaching into drinking water.

Organic agriculture provides long term solutions

The FAO Report concludes that a broad scale shift to organic agriculture can produce enough food on a global per capita basis to feed the world’s population over the next 50 years.  Workable solutions to pressing problems such as the growth in population and consumption, oil peak, fossil fuel dependence, food transport, and agricultural sector employment are all built in holistically to the organic agriculture paradigm. Therefore, as the myth of  “low yield organic agriculture” recedes [24], it is up to the agricultural researchers, officials and Governments to invest in long-term alternative agricultural systems such as green manures that can provide enough biologically fixed nitrogen to replace all the synthetic nitrogen currently used on the planet [4].  Despite scepticism at the potential of organic agriculture to feed the world [25], if conventional farmers adopted only some of its principles such as soil health and ecology, the results would strongly benefit farmers, consumers and the environment. 

Article first published 10/09/07


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