An organic recipe for development
by Stephen Leahy
Inter Press Service, November 18 2006
Organic agriculture is a potent tool to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but also to alleviate poverty and improve food security in developing countries, many experts now believe.
Organic agriculture's use of compost and crop diversity means it will also be able to better withstand the higher temperatures and more variable rainfall expected with global warming.
The University of New England (Australia) is offering a new unit of study that will prepare people in rural industries for one of the most important developments of twenty-first-century farming: organic agriculture.
"Organic agriculture is about optimising yields under all conditions," says Louise Luttikholt, strategic relations manager at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM) in Bonn, Germany. IFOAM is the international umbrella organisation of organic agriculture movements around the world.
For example, a village in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia that had converted to organic agriculture continued to harvest crops even during a severe drought, while neighbouring villages using conventional chemical fertilisers had nothing, Luttikholt told IPS.
Because compost is used rather than chemical fertilisers, organic soils contain much more humus and organic carbon -- which in turn retains much more water.
"They can also absorb more water faster which means they are less likely to flood," she said.
It took more work to make the conversion to organic but it paid off when the drought stuck in the third year, according to Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, director general of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia.
Tewolde, who pioneered the organic revolution in a number of communities in northern Ethiopia as a way of ensuring food security, reported that the early success has prompted government agricultural departments to adopt organic techniques.
Organic and other forms of sustainable agro-ecology do not depend on chemical fertilisers, so they must find other ways to enrich soil and keep it that way. That also means there are more minerals and other nutrients in the soil so yields are generally good and food quality high.
And the added benefit is that organic soils hold much more carbon than soils farmed with conventional methods.
Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is the principal cause of global warming. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and can put it more or less permanently into the soil under the right conditions.
In a 23-year side-by-side comparison, the carbon levels of organic soils increased 15 to 28 percent while there was little change in the non-organic systems, according to the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trials conducted in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
If just 10,000 medium-sized farms in the U.S. converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road, Rodale reported in 2003.
And there's more.
Making chemical fertilisers like nitrogen requires huge amounts of energy, and tractors also consume large amounts of fossil fuel. In the United States, organic farming systems use just 63 percent of the energy required by conventional farming systems, David Pimentel of Cornell University in New York State found.
Going organic also offers a number of other environmental benefits, including waterways free of chemical pollution and improved biodiversity. In North America and European farming regions, expensive systems must be used to remove agricultural chemicals from drinking water.
"Those external costs of conventional agriculture have to be paid by someone," said Volkert Engelsman, the CEO of Eosta BV, a European distributor of organic fruits and vegetables.
"Organic brings a wide range of social and economic benefits, making it a much better and more efficient way of farming," Engelsman said in an interview from Eosta's head office in Waddinxveen, Holland.
For low-income countries, that means more jobs because organic farming is labour-intensive. It also values local expertise and traditional knowledge. That makes more economic sense than being dependent on the technical expertise of Western corporations, he said.
Engelsman has just returned from India where organic farming is undergoing "explosive growth".
Faced with rapidly depleting soils, the Indian government is now supporting organic techniques because no amount of chemical fertiliser can improve the soil. In addition, water shortages, increased disease problems and higher costs of chemicals and hybrid seeds have forced India to rethink its agricultural strategy, he said.
"It is more economically sustainable to invest in the soils of your land than to make the chemical companies richer," Engelsman told IPS.
The problem of global hunger is not about food production -- it is about poverty and food distribution, since the world already produces enough food, he said.
Engelsman agrees with the noted Indian scientist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva that research into ecologically-<wbr>friendly agriculture has proved that it is highly productive and is the only solution to hunger and poverty.
That view, once considered radical, is beginning to gain wider acceptance as hunger has increased under the globalised food production system.
Ten years after the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, where countries pledged to halve the number of hungry in the world by 2015, there were more hungry people in the developing countries today, said the head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, in a statement.
"Far from decreasing, the number of hungry people in the world is currently increasing -- at the rate of four million a year," Diouf said from Rome.
And finally the FAO is looking to organic to play a role in reducing hunger and alleviating poverty and will host a major conference in May 2007 in Rome. Many countries request FAO's assistance to develop organic agriculture, said Alexander Müller, assistant director-general of FAO, in a statement. <BR><BR>"There is a need to shed light on the contribution of organic agriculture to food security," Müller said.
Many countries are already moving in that direction.
Brazil's Minister of Agriculture Roberto Rodrigues has said he wants organic farming to grow from three percent of the country's agricultural output to 20 percent in the next five to six years.
Last month, 308 delegates from the Philippines' farming sector agreed to shift to organic production, in part because it can help poverty alleviation in rural communities.
Studies done by International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a U.N. agency set up to assist the rural poor to overcome poverty, have shown that organic agriculture reduced poverty. In almost all of the countries where the IFAD evaluations were carried out, small farmers needed only marginal improvements to their technologies to make the shift to organic production.
"Everyone is embracing organic agriculture now. And climate change will only boost that interest," Engelsman said.
(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)