Organic Agriculture, World Hunger, and Global Warming

Report excerpts from the Organic World Congress and General Assembly, held June 17-24, 2008 in Modena, Italy
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“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

From June 17 through 24, 2008, I had the honor and pleasure of representing Northeast Organic Farming Association at “Cultivate the Future,” the 16th Organic World Congress and General Assembly of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in Modena and Vignola, Italy. The organizers of the conference did not shy away from the big issues. The official welcome 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.”

The Modena gathering was the largest and most diverse IFOAM congress ever held, with over 1,200 participants from 100 countries. The IFOAM General Assembly was also the best attended yet: 60 percent of the IFOAM members were present or represented by proxies. There were 248 voting members from 69 countries, with about 90 proxies.

With 16 tracks of workshops running simultaneously, there was no way to encompass them all. The International Society for Organic Agriculture Research (ISOFAR) accounted for six of the tracks, devoted to reports on the impressive amount of organic research from universities around the globe. The compilation of abstracts for the entire congress runs over 500 pages. I will share my impressions and urge you to consult the Book of Abstracts, available from the IFOAM website:

The Organic World Congress
The first two days of the Congress opened in a huge tent with plenary sessions devoted to IFOAM’s four principles of organic agriculture: ecology, care, fairness, and health. Jorgen E. Olesen and Vandana Shiva spoke on ecology. After reviewing the mounting evidence that organic agriculture uses less energy than conventional agriculture, Olesen, a Danish professor of agro-meteorolgy, challenged IFOAM to reduce international trade.

In her usual fiery and brilliant style, Shiva proposed changing the pyramid of life to put bacteria instead of human beings at the top. Ecology means understanding the power of biodiversity: in our world “everything is something else’s food.” She concluded with another challenge-since climate resilience is a common good, we must build on the strengths of organic agriculture, such as its lower use of water, to fight against climate change. On the principle of care, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher urged us to make soil replacement the central issue. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, punctuated with emphatic gestures his passionate summons to understand the essential connection between producers and consumers.

Juan Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia, was unable to attend. In his place, Javier Hurtado, Bolivia’s Minister of Production, described their ambitious program for converting 8000 farms and 3 million hectares to organic production by 2010, and their success in providing the low-income citizens of La Paz with 80 percent of their food from small-scale organic farms.

Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, who has worked within the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for many years to bring attention to the value of organic agriculture, coordinated the session on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change. In her opening remarks, Scialabba spoke about the current crisis in the price of food. According to FAO statistics, food prices rose 24 percent in 2007 and 53 percent in 2008. Increases in the price of food are especially threatening to the food security of developing countries where people spend 70 to 80 percent of their budget on food. The main factors underlying the increase, according to Scialabba, are the decline in food stocks due to increasing numbers of climate disasters, the privatization of control of food stocks, the rise in energy costs, the use of crops for biofuels (47 percent of the vegetable oil in European Union countries goes for biodiesel), the decline of the dollar, and speculation on crop markets. Scialabba concluded that the implications for organic agriculture are the urgency of promoting local food systems and fair trade and improving the use of energy.

Claude Aubert, a pioneer in organic agriculture in France, reported on the International Scientific Dialogue on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change held in April 2008. He stated that agriculture is responsible for 30 percent of CO2 emissions, half of which comes from fertilizer production. Aubert cited studies that show that organic agriculture uses less energy (26 percent less per ton of output), and emits significantly lower levels of nitrous oxide, especially where legumes are used. He advocated a change in eating habits to local, organic food, with less meat and less packaging.

Shiva introduced a Manifesto on Climate Change and Food Security. The manifesto stresses that the problems of our world are largely political-the lack of will to make change. Shiva denounced the Kyoto Protocol as a non-solution that does not even touch on agriculture; its emissions trading system allows polluters to get paid for continuing to pollute. Together with the other presenters at this session, Shiva believes that organic agriculture has a major role in mitigating the food and climate crisis. Steps that mitigate the effects of climate change also help us adapt to agricultural changes. When we add organic matter to the soil, we raise its water holding capacity and reduce the need for irrigation. In conclusion, Shiva called for a transition in knowledge to local and indigenous.

Unlike the two- and three-day social justice sessions the Agricultural Justice Project has organized at previous IFOAM conferences, this time the Social Justice module allowed little time for discussion. The day was packed with paper after paper, each speaker limited to seven or 10 minutes so that all could fit in the allotted time. Only the absence of a few presenters left a little time for questions and interactions. The program included presentations on an Ethiopian honey project, a Brazilian cooperative selling fair trade organic nuts, my presentation on the Agricultural Justice Project, Michael Sligh on the broader issues of organic guarantee systems, Richard Mandelbaum speaking on migrant workers, an organizing project in Colombia, another in Palestine, two survey projects, one from Austria and one from Great Britain evaluating communication of social values, a paper arguing the need for equivalence among the fair trade organic projects, Marty Mesh of Quality Certification Services (QCS) and Manfred Fuerst of Naturland on implementing social standards in organic certification, and a group of papers on “social farming,” defined as projects involving either prisoners or socially disadvantaged people in organic farms.

I attended two closely related modules on “short supply chain and local markets” and participatory guarantee systems (PGS). The short supply chain sessions included presentations on Community Supported Agriculture in the U.S., Japan, France, Canada and England, Slow Food, and several other local marketing initiatives. In the discussion, passionate words were exchanged about the urgency of including low-income, landless and people who live outside the money economy in organic agriculture. The PGS session clarified the meaning of such systems-local organizing of small-scale farms selling direct with education, empowerment of farmers, and democratic participation.

The General Assembly
The 2008 General Assembly was faced with three major tasks, and many minor agenda items:

  • Discuss the “new concept” for the Organic Guarantee System (OGS).
  • Elect a new World Board.
  • Select a site for the 2011 Congress.

The outgoing World Board (WB) presented a program of six goals, each with several objectives, for year 2011. Members divided into six groups to discuss them and suggest changes, which were then voted on by the entire body.

In his four minute speech, Roberto Ugas summed up the feeling of the clear majority of the members present. Ugas declared that poverty is the worst threat to sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture is the answer, and IFOAM must keep organic standards high since the problems for developing countries are with the procedures and price of certification, not with standards.

The abundance of motions and the energy with which each was discussed prevented the General Assembly from completing its agenda, despite skillful chairing. This process is IFOAM democracy at its best, though simultaneous translation into Spanish, Chinese and a few other languages would make it fairer. Motions that pass become directives to the WB, which must report back on what progress has been made on each motion. Several motions on seeds direct the WB to develop a holistic policy on the use of organic seed, and to oppose the patenting of living organisms and to clearly exclude all genetically modified varieties from cultivation on organic farms.

All in all, this was a most dramatic and clearly positive General Assembly, which created a strong mandate for change and called for hard work on the part of all members and allies to meet the highest ideals and potential of organic agriculture. Over and over again, the speakers at the Organic World Congress called upon organic agriculture to focus on our unlimited potential to help arrest global warming and provide resilient ways to produce healthy, clean, culturally appropriate and fairly traded food for everyone. The many fine contributions to the Congress demonstrate irrefutably that organic practice and science contain the clues to solving the world’s food crisis. The membership of IFOAM chose a World Board that understands the responsibility to bring this message to the world.

Elizabeth Henderson is an organic farmer in New York, active in the National Organic Coalition, and co-author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture ([email protected]).

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