Winter 2008-2009
Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved. (New IFOAM definition of Organic Agriculture)

Report from the IFOAM Organic World Congress and General Assembly

By Elizabeth Henderson

In June 2008, I represented NOFA at “Cultivate the Future,” the 16th Organic World Congress and General Assembly of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), in Italy. My full report is at www.gvocsa.org; conference abstracts and IFOAM’s Principles of Organic Agriculture are at www.ifoam.org.

The official welcome for over 1200 participants from 100 countries announced: “We will be looking for ways on how Organic Agriculture contributes solutions to the major problems in this troubled world: from climate change to food insecurity, from gender imbalances to biodiversity loss, from rural depopulation to global injustice.”

Plenary sessions were devoted to IFOAM’s principles of organic agriculture: ecology, care, fairness and health. Regarding ecology, Danish professor of agro-meteorology Jorgen Olesen reviewed evidence that organic agriculture uses less energy than conventional but challenged IFOAM to reduce international trade. Vandana Shiva proposed putting bacteria instead of humans at the top of the pyramid of life. Ecology means understanding the power of biodiversity: in our world “everything is something else’s food.” She said we must build on the strengths of organic agriculture, such as its lower use of water, to combat climate change.

On the principle of Care, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher urged that soil replacement be the central issue. Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini passionately summoned us to understand the essential connection between producers and consumers.

On Health, pediatrician and author Alan Greene reviewed the damage caused by such drugs as DES and hormone-laced meat, and applauded organic agriculture for adhering to the precautionary principle. Geneticist and Director of Plant Science for Mars Inc., Howard-Jana Shapiro, stressed the importance of seed and defined health as the abundance of the positive.

On Fairness, Frances Moore Lappe noted that improving the lives of farmworkers was not on Whole Foods’ list of reasons for organic, and warned that fairness and justice were unlikely to result from an economy driven by the highest return on investment; but she insisted that fairness is innate in humans, so we must live and work in hope. Javier Hurtado, Bolivia’s Minister of Production, described his country’s ambitious program for converting 8000 farms and 3 million hectares to organic production by 2010, and its success in providing the low-income citizens of La Paz with 80% of their food from small, organic farms.

In the session about climate change, Nadia El-Hage Scialabba of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations noted that food prices rose 24% in 2007 and 53% in 2008, threatening food security in developing countries, where people spend 70 to 80% of their budgets on food. Contributors to the increase: declining food stocks due to more climate disasters; privatization of control of food stocks; increased energy costs; use of crops for biofuels (47% of the vegetable oil in EU countries goes for biodiesel); decline of the dollar; and speculation on crop markets. Organic agriculture, she said, must promote local food systems, fair trade and improved use of energy.

Claude Aubert, a French pioneer in organic agriculture, said that agriculture is responsible for 30% of CO2 emissions – half of that from fertilizer production. He cited studies showing that organic agriculture uses 26% less energy per ton of output and emits significantly less nitrous oxide, especially when legumes are used. He advocated eating more local, organic food, less meat and food with less packaging.

Vandana Shiva introduced a Manifesto on Climate Change and Food Security, which stresses that the world’s problems are largely political – the lack of will to make change. She called the Kyoto Protocol a non-solution – an emissions trading system that pays polluters for continuing to pollute and does not touch on agriculture. She believes that organic agriculture has a major role in mitigating the food and climate crises, and she called for a transition in knowledge to local and indigenous.

The Social Justice module was moderated by Jacqueline Haessig Alleje, a member of IFOAM’s World Board (WB). The Swiss woman lives in the Philippines where she, her Filipino husband and their children run the first certified organic dairy farm in the Manila region. She said Social Justice is as integral to organic agriculture as soil health. Other talks covered migrant workers, communicating social values, implementing social standards in organic certification, “social farming” (organic farming involving prisoners or socially disadvantaged people) and more. IFOAM has a Guide to Implementing Social Standards. (Go to ifoam.org, Search, Social Justice.) Module participants recommended that IFOAM include a social justice component in its Organic Guarantee System (OGS).

At a session on organic markets, Ong Kung Wai, a Malaysian WB member who has helped harmonize organic standards to smooth international trade, said that the ideal OGS is one inspection, one certification and one accreditation – far from the current labyrinth of competing standards. Wolfgang Sachs from the Supernal Institute promoted “Slow Trade” over neo-liberal “free trade,” proposing: that countries have the right to govern their own imports; investing in domestic supports that help the common good while not harming foreigners; setting standards for quality; democratizing the food chain; and redressing asymmetric global markets by prioritizing national food security, with fair and organic trade for the entire food system. In contrast, Jan Keeps Vies from Unilever said the volume of trade controlled by Unilever surpasses the entire world trade in organic products; that Unilever is investing in sustainability indicators and working with small farmers in Africa; and that Unilever requires a large volume of sustainably produced raw materials. Danielle Giovannucci talked about geographical indicators as a way for smallholders to define local to foster rural development. Farmer John Peterson gave a moving version of his personal story, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.” (Watch his video!)

A module on short supply chains urged including low-income, landless and those who live outside the money economy in organic agriculture. Another session discussed participatory guarantee systems – locally organized small farms selling directly, with education, empowerment of farmers and democratic participation.

During the General Assembly, we discussed the Organic Guarantee System, which, since 2005 (and continuing), IFOAM’s WB has struggled to revise so that developing countries have easier access to certification. We elected a new WB, including seven members who prioritize developing local markets and empowering smallholders over international trade. Katherine diMatteo was selected President, as neither Roberto Ugas nor Urs Niggli had time for the job; they will serve as vice-presidents. Ugas summed up the feeling of the majority of board members present: that poverty is the worst threat to sustainable agriculture, and organic agriculture is the answer; and IFOAM must keep organic standards high, since problems for developing countries are with procedures and cost of certification, not with standards.

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