The international organic conference known as IFOAM is held every fourth year. Last year it was held in Turkey. EAAA member Alan Broughton was there and he has scripted this report:
The 18th IFOAM Organic World Congress was held in Istanbul, Turkey, in mid October 2014. IFOAM stands for the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. The current chairman is André Leu, a tropical fruit grower from North Queensland, who has just published an excellent book called The Myths of Safe Pesticides.
There were 840 participants from 80 countries, and many talks going on at the same time, making the choice of which to attend very difficult. The conference is held every three years; this is the fourth I have been to. Previous conferences were in Seoul (South Korea 2011), Modena (Italy 2008) and Adelaide (2005). Next is in Delhi, India, in 2017.
The conference attracts organic researchers and teachers, and government and organic industry officials, but few farmers. The majority of the six Australians who attended were farmers, though with other roles in addition to farming. As organic research is concentrated in Europe this is where many of the speakers and participants came from, but there were also significant numbers from Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Following are some of the themes from the conference, bearing in mind that it was only possible to listen to a small proportion of the proceedings.
Organic farming in Turkey
Turkey is fairly new to organic farming. Though certified organic production started in the 1980s and the first organic organisation (ETO – Association of Organic Agriculture) was formed in 1992, growth was slow until 2008. Since then there has been a six fold increase to over 60,000 certified farms. The majority of organic produce is for export to Europe – dried fruits, cotton, nuts, olives, pulse crops and herbs. However there is a rapidly growing domestic market.
The Turkish government has been supportive, developing a national plan to expand organic agriculture including funding for organic education and extension, support payments to organic farmers, subsidies for organic inputs, soil testing and consultancy, and a 50% reduction in loan interest rates for organic farmers. The Turkish Minister for Agriculture has moved from regarding organic farming as dangerous to providing financial support to the conference.
Even the conventional produce has superb flavour – Turkish tomato growers have not learned the Australian technique for destroying taste.
Farming has been established in Turkey longer than in most places of the world, at least 12,000 years. It is the original home of wheat, figs, pomegranates, pistachios, walnuts, apricots and some legumes. Over that time there has been enormous soil loss. While the plains are still productive, the hills are bare and rocky. In the time of Alexander the Great, armies and their elephants could hide in the tall forests that now support stunted pines if anything at all. Revegetation work on these hills is being carried out.
Christian Felber (Austria) spoke on the need to create an Economy for the Common Good instead of the current economy based on maximising private profit. He suggested a Common Welfare Matrix to measure the ethics of business in order to make business more responsive to prople’s needs. However he notes that ethic businesses are less competitive, and suggests some measures like lower tax rates, lower interest rates and priority in public procurement for ethical businesses. He also advocates a limit on private property of 10 million euro, top incomes to be no more than 20 times bottom incomes, and the democratisation of companies.
Gürsel Tonbul (Turkey) said there was a major conflict in the world between ecology and economy, and that 90% of the world’s people wanted a different form of economy that took ecology and social needs into account.
The Agriculture Minister from Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom, Lyonpo Yeshey Dorje, talked about his country’s guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness, instead of the dominant Gross National Product in the rest of the world. Any development or law in Bhutan is measured against Gross National Happiness. The constitution guarantees at least 60% forest cover and free health care and education to all levels. Agriculture is almost fully organic – about 5% of farmers use chemicals – and the goal is 100% organic by 2020.
Anna Lappé (USA) was a superb speaker at one of the plenary sessions, talking about the lengths corporations go to in order to prevent modification of the food industry. The soda industry spent $7.4 million in San Francisco alone to campaign for a no vote in a referendum to put a 1 cent per bottle tax on soft drinks. The GM lobby spent $10 million in Colorado to prevent GM labelling and $12 million in Washington State. A total of $100 million was spent by the GM lobby in 2013 to prevent labelling. Anna also talked about stealth marketing, which is the funding of supposedly independent people to write what are really propaganda articles for magazines and TV talk programs, and the setting up of front organisations (Protect the Harvest, Alliance to Feed the Future, Global Harvest Initiative, US Farmers and Rancher’s Alliance, Center for Food Policy), all of which promote the corporate chemical agricultural agenda. The agribusiness corporations also campaign against organic farming, saying it is elitist, and that anti-GMO activity should be a crime. On the other hand Anna says there is much that is positive in the US – the biggest organic market in the world, huge popularity of farmers markets, and Farm-to-School organic projects in 40% of US schools.
Pat Mooney (Canada) said we need to talk about the negatives of chemical agriculture as well as the positives of organic. He provides some statistics: 75% of genetic diversity has been lost; 38% of food produced is wasted; 18% of global food is over-consumed; the fertiliser industry is worth $210 billion per year; half the world’s applied fertiliser never reaches the plant; the annual damage of fertilisers to the environment is $170 billion; and for every dollar spent on fertilisers there are health costs of $3. Monsanto and Syngenta are in merger talks – if this comes off the company will control 36% control of the world’s seeds.
Local activities to support organics
Chito Medina from the Philippine Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG) spoke about his organisation’s success in providing Philippine small farmers an alternative to the Green Revolution high input high yield monoculture system. The livelihood of 35,000 now organic farmers has been improved, involving 635 local organisations. A campaign was launched to recover traditional rice varieties, resulting in 1,300 being recovered, which is a quarter of the original. In addition 500 new varieties have been bred for trialling for resilience against climate change – flooding, typhoons, salting, pests and diseases. Variety trials are managed on farm by farmers. Chito stressed that farmer organisations were most important for sharing knowledge, work and seeds.
The Philippine tradition of bayanihan – collective work, action, unity and co-operation – is being revived as communities abandon the Green Revolution and adopt organic farming, according to Maria Rowena A. Buena. Organic farming commenced in the Palimbang district in 2005, restoring bayanihan principles. Community seedbanks, community organic fertiliser and pesticide making, shared labour, planning meetings and a marketing program have provided big savings to farmers.
Anna Marie Nicolaysen (Norway) reported on projects she has been working on in India. The Green Revolution in Punjab caused salinisation, water table reduction, desertification and the loss of original seeds. However the Green Revolution never reached the hills of Uttarakand state, and it is easy for farmers to obtain organic certification. In Uttarakand there is great diversity in cropping, including agroforestry. Seeds are exchanged but not sold; some community seed banks are hundreds of years old. Farming is low input and low debt. Organic hill farmers are much better off in their standard of living.
Frederic Rey (France) is also working on seed issues, particularly participatory plant breeding. European seed regulations pose a barrier, as it is very difficult working to save seeds on the borders of legality. The regulations forbid seed sales or exchange except for registered varieties. Frederic’s group manages to do it as part of a research program. Other Europeans said they can get around the laws by selling the seed as food (similar to people in Australia labelling raw milk “for cosmetic purposes only”). We should never allow such seed regulation in Australia.
Üzge Balk?z (Turkey) talked about the program of the Native Conservation Centre to improve the sustainability of wheat cropping in the semi-arid central Anatolian plateau region where rainfall is 300mm a year and expected to become drier and hotter with climate change. The aim is to improve soil water holding capacity by stopping stubble burning, reducing machinery use, rotating crops, direct seeding, and planting trees for biodiversity and windbreaks. I entered discussion afterwards with Üzge and her colleagues, saying that semi-arid Australian croppers are doing many of those things but are still a long way from sustainability because of the immense dependence on herbicides, a huge financial burden, now reversing previous gains in soil structure and causing new plant diseases. We are continuing the discussion by email.
The European Stable Schools program was described by Sylvia Ivemeyer (Germany). Groups of 5-10 farmers meet regularly to support each other in reducing veterinary medicine use for dairy cows. This involves a farm walk and discussion on each farm, with a facilitator. The result has been improvement in herd health. Farmers have found the scheme valuable because they see it as a joint effort and a good linkage between science and farming practice.
Andrew Hammermeister from the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada is involved in a similar system of farmer to farmer knowledge transfer which he contrasts with the traditional system of researchers developing technology and imparting it to farmers via extension agents. He says farmers have tacit knowledge: “People are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others”.
Will Allen (USA) is the author of “Good Food Revolution” and the originator of Growing Power, an urban farming organisation that uses vacant land in declining former industrial cities in the US including Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago for food production for local people. He says 30% of American young people go to bed hungry each night, and his organisation is helping to rectify the situation as well as connect people to food production. The organisation collects waste from industry – coffee grounds, wood waste, brewery waste – and processes it using composting and worms. Raised garden beds are built on soil which is often contaminated and on concrete. Fish in aquaponic tanks are fed on fly larvae. The organisation also assists farmers to sell their product.
Like Turkey, Greece has experienced a rapid rise in organic certification, says Christiana Vakali. Between 2000 and 2007 there was an 885% increase in the number of organic farmers, and this hasn’t diminished as a result of the economic crisis. Tree crops, corn and cereals are the main crops. Grape vine and olive varieties are mostly traditional, but most cereal and vegetable varieties have disappeared. Local traditional seed produces crops with better flavour; an example is Mauragani, a low gluten wheat variety. Other traditional varieties have better drought tolerance and disease resistance compared to modern varieties, but EU seed regulations pose a major barrier to their re-adoption.
Harouna Porgo (Burkina Faso) provided details of the work of the Association for the Protection of Nature in the Sahel, a huge semi-arid region bordering the Sahara Desert. The organisation, set up in 1994, supports farmers, particularly women and youth, to combat desertification, collect and distribute seeds, and plant trees. Training, credit and cultivation equipment is supplied. Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus) is planted to stabilise gullies, stone cordons are built on contours to hold soil and reduce water flow down the hill, and zai manure pits (planting holes containing compost) are used to reclaim degraded land.
Elizabeth Henderson (USA) spoke about the IFOAM principle of fairness which has been put into organic standards around the world, except for the United States where it has been excluded by the government. In response the Agricultural Justice Project has been set up to produce standards for justice for farm workers. Producers can now obtain additional accreditation through Food Justice Certification.
There was much discussion about the future of organic certification and the need to create cheaper and less bureaucratic systems. A key part of the discussion was Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), whereby organic farmers certify each other. This system is becoming more widespread in developing countries; one such system exists in Australia, that of the Sapphire Coast Producers Association in the south-east of NSW. I did not get to attend any of these discussions so have no further details.
A forum on government policy brought out several important points.
- Government regulation of organics can legitimise the domestic sector, but it can have a stifling effect on the movement. Government is therefore better in a supportive role rather than regulatory. Extension, education and facilitation are areas where government support can be valuable.
- Government agriculture policies often provide assistance to unsustainable agriculture and penalise organic. The US government subsidies for corn and soy are an example.
- As organic production increases premiums will go down. Therefore conventional producers must be made to pay for the environmental costs, or there should be government payment to organic producers for the environmental services they provide.
- In India there is plenty of government support for organic producers but there is not the organic market to take the produce. India has 600,000 certified organic farmers.
- There should be assistance to enter organic farming, as it is too expensive to buy or rent land.
- Governments need to recognise the benefits to everybody of organic agriculture and fund it accordingly.
- Organic movements in each country need to be well organised and united in order to influence governments.
Another forum concentrated on the future of family farming, which still provides the majority of the world’s food, and cares for the land much better. Here are some of the points raised.
- When the Common Market was set up in Europe 10 million farmers lost their land. In Denmark for example the number of farms fell from 160,000 to 40,000.
- Government policies tend to support exporters, who are often corporate farmers, not family farmers.
- Big farms commonly produce commodities, causing a shortage of local food.
- There is a need to build local markets to support family farming, including provisioning schools and hospitals.
- Free trade policies benefit big farmers but cause the loss of family farms. Unfair competition is a cause of the decline in family farming.
- The reality is that most small farmers are poor and staying poor. However we need to ask why family farms have survived, despite the obstacles.
- There is a need for an alliance between family farmers, environmentalists, feminists and agroecologists to strengthen family farming.
- Debt is a major issue.
Elizabeth Atangara (Cameroon) outlined the problems of family farming in Africa: population growth, climate change, land grabbing, lack of involvement by youth, unsuitable land use practices and marketing difficulties. Youth sees no future in farming. She advocates a change of the face of family farming, including a regional agricultural policy to support family farming with increased funding; the development of agroecology through education, information and resources; the building of local farmer organisations; a focus on women; improved infrastructure (especially roads); and the mobilisation of savings for farm investment.
Gerold Rahmann (Germany) said there was a great need for more organic scientists and more organic research. He lamented that there was a gap between farmers and scientists – farmers don’t go to science meetings and scientists don’t talk to farmers. He also said that as the rich world consumes 90% of the world’s organic production, it should put more research funding into the poorer countries which provide a lot of this produce.
The words of Gerold Rahmann could easily also be applied to the IFOAM conference. It is a conference that largely does not involve farmers, valuable though it is. In Australia it is farmers who are the leading researchers, with science struggling to follow way behind, or denigrating the work these farmers are doing. It is hard to believe that this does not occur elsewhere (though there is far more organic agriculture scientific research done in other parts of the world than in Australia).
IFOAM has a serious challenge to bring farmers and their experiences into the conferences. This is an extremely difficult challenge as farmers generally don’t have money or time and most farmers in the world do not speak English, always the language of the conference.
Despite these limitations, the IFOAM conference provides an excellent opportunity for those involved in the move towards agricultural sustainability to find out what others are doing around the world. I will plan to attend the next one too.
Comment: A cost of $170 billion to the environment of putting chemicals on plants and the soil. Surely the time is arriving when farmers will need to think about farming ecologically rather than taking a chemical shortcut. Surely the time is coming when farmers make informed decisions rather than being tempted by advertising. Surely the time is coming when farmers start to think in terms of their systems rather than isolating all information to the effect of it on the bottom line. Surely……….(you fill it in).