How can organic agriculture and farming help feed the world's growing population? This highly debated question was discussed by the UN FAO Conference attendees.
How can organic agriculture help feed the world’s growing population? This highly debated question was discussed by 350 participants from 80 countries at a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference in Rome in May 2007.
What they found was that the answer to the world food crisis is nowhere near cut and dried–and that organic growing provides valuable environmental and social benefits that boost its balance on the positive side of the scale.
Conference attendees were quick to note that the world’s food system exhibits several paradoxes. Our global food supply is sufficient, yet 850 million people go hungry. For the past 20 years agrochemical use has been increasing, yet grain productivity has declined. Over the past half-millennium, farmers’ agricultural costs have risen while profits have not kept up. We live in an information era, yet nutrition-related diseases are on the rise. Plus, conventional agriculture and industrialized food systems exact environmental and social costs (such as occupational deaths through agrochemical poisoning) that actually threaten food security.
How, they discussed, could a shift to organic agriculture address these issues and assist overall international food security?
Meeting Challenges, Making Choices
Lack of water, the current fossil fuel shortage, urbanization and its associated loss of farms and farmers, and the impact of globalization on small farmers are just a few challenges to food production. Organic agriculture meets these challenges better than conventional agriculture, conference attendees contended.
Organic soils retain more water, according to research by the Rodale Institute (newfarm.org), and therefore require less irrigation and produce higher yields than conventional crops during drought and climate change conditions.
Organic systems also need from 10 to 70 percent fewer fossil fuels, according to European and American data presented at the conference and noted in the FAO conference report.
What’s more, organic methods actually capture atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and incorporate it into the soil. Rodale calculations suggest that one 130-hectare farm going organic is equivalent to taking 117 cars off the road, eliminating 526,500 kg of CO2 emissions. Each conversion to organic farming reduces the 680 billion kg of total CO2 emissions that conventional agriculture in the US alone produces annually.
A Social Security Net for the Poor
Another issue raised at the FAO conference is that in urban settings, organic gardens and other short supply chains between growers and consumers improve the quantity and availability of local food supplies. This is particularly important in poorer areas around the world. In Argentina the ProHuerta national food production program has successfully involved 3.5 million people who reported 70 percent self-sufficiency in growing vegetables.
The importance of organics to the poor is often overlooked when comparing agricultural systems. Organic gardens are a social security net for growers who may not have the means for, or access to, conventional agricultural supplies. A good thing, some may argue, as acute pesticide poisonings affect as many as 39 million people around the world annually. Further, this figure doesn’t include chronic effects of chemical exposure, which also reduce food production through ill health and tragic deaths.
Organics are More Nutritious
As a source of nutrition, organically grown foods were shown at the FAO conference to contain more micronutrients, as well as secondary metabolites and conjugated fatty acids that contribute to good health. Animals raised in organic systems also have a higher immunity, while plants are more resistant to disease, with 50 percent fewer microtoxins in crops and a longer shelf life.
They Produce High Yields, Too
Given these advantages, why is organic farming an alternative rather than the automatic choice to get food into needy hands quicker? For one thing, it has been accepted for many years that conventional agriculture produces higher yields, begging the question as to whether organic can compete in terms of quantity alone.
The Rodale Institute’s longest-running, scientifically controlled comparison suggests that, yes, comparable organic yields are possible. “Continuous soil improvements after two decades have resulted in dramatic environmental improvements, production resiliency during weather extremes, and–averaged over the past 12 years–slightly higher corn yields in the organic system,” observed Dr. Paul Hepperly, New Farm research and training manager, in February 2007.
Conference attendees considered other research showing that yields may decline initially in agricultural areas that farm conventionally and use high inputs of fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides, but then yields almost double when converting to organic in areas that require fewer inputs. “Studies from the field show that yield increases from shifting to organic farming are highest and most consistent in exactly those poor, dry, remote areas where hunger is most severe,” wrote Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute in the FAO conference report.
Halweil notes numerous other factors in the global food system, what he calls a “complex and unpredictable beast.” For example, rising international demand for organics can put local food requirements at a disadvantage. Organic farming is increasing in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, but due to consumerism elsewhere, produce is often exported (burning fossil fuels used during transportation) rather than used to meet domestic demand.
The result is a disconnect between global forces and local needs. When the two are successfully aligned, organic farm management offers a less input-dependent livelihood that’s more stable in changing weather conditions, more supportive of rural development, social equity, and local resource use, more environmentally friendly, and more nutritious.
Organic agriculture alone may not be able to solve world hunger, but it’s an intriguing choice for those who make decisions about today’s struggling food system.
Attention: Have You Seen This Logo?
Keep an eye out for the official Canada Organic label on certified organic products. This design, a maple leaf rising above two hill crests, was unveiled in July 2007.
“The new logo is a visual reminder to consumers that Canada has a set of regulatory standards and that products with the new logo meet the Canadian standard,” says Penelope Marrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Health Food Association.
Only products that contain 95 percent organic ingredients may display the certifying seal, which is expected to be fully implemented by the end of 2008.
The federal government first announced their plan to certify and regulate organics in September 2006; until then, only BC and Quebec had developed provincial regulations, and the industry in general was monitored and maintained by numerous independent certifiers in Canada and the US.
Marrett says the new logo should boost organic demand even more and will increase consumer confidence by providing easy identification of organic products.
Organics by the Number
Worldwide, 31 million hectares of crop and pasture lands are certified organic, and upward of 62 million hectares are harvested for wild mushrooms and other scavenged crops.
The international organic food and beverage market was worth about $42 billion in 2006, and is expected to hit $73 billion by 2012, according to the FAO conference report.
In Canada $1 billion was a conservative estimate of sales in 2006 and they are growing 20 percent annually, says the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada.
Statistics Canada’s 2006 agricultural census states that 15,551 farms (nearly 7 percent) grow organic products for sale. The number of certified organic producers has risen almost 60 percent since 2001, from 2,230 to 3,555.
Cool, Fun, and Indulgent Organic Stuff
One thing is for sure–organic products go far beyond food. Lots of other organic goods are available, too.
Demand for organic items such as personal care products, nutritional supplements, fibre, household cleaners, flowers, and pet food is growing twice as fast as the demand for organic food, at 32.5 percent and 16.2 percent respectively. Inedible US organic products represent $744 million of the industry’s total $14.6 billion in sales, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2006 Manufacturers Survey.
Check out a few of these organics products:
- Feel like pampering your pooch with a more natural winter wardrobe? Look for organic cotton dog clothes such as T-shirts and kimonos, as well as organic food and other pet supplies.
- Ten years ago, finding natural mascara was a nightmare. But no up-to-date cosmetics case is complete without a few skincare and makeup products, including the organic and biodynamic products from lines such as Dr. Hauschka and Jurlique. Find them at your natural health store.
- If you’re a yoga enthusiast, maybe an organic mat will enhance the experience. Look for mats, cushions, and pillows made from organic materials for extra “omm.”
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with organic chocolate. (Okay, busted! Yes, this is a food product, but, c’mon, it’s chocolate! How can we resist?)
If you can’t find whatever organic goodie you’re looking for locally, you’re guaranteed to find something fun in the Organic Trade Association’s online directory at theorganicpages.com.