Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
March 12, 1999
Consumer demand for organically produced food is on the rise and provides new market opportunities for farmers and businesses around the world, according to a new report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Typically, organic exports from developing countries are sold at impressive premiums, often at prices 20% higher than identical products produced on conventional farms. The report states that, under the right circumstances, the market returns from organic agriculture can potentially contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes, and recommends an FAO-wide, cross-sectoral program in organic agriculture.
In several developed countries organic agriculture already represents a significant portion of the food system: 10% in Austria and 7.8% in Switzerland. Other countries such as the U.S., France, Japan and Singapore are experiencing growth rates in the organic industry that exceed 20% annually.
Some developing countries such as Egypt have small domestic organic markets and have begun to seize the lucrative export opportunities presented by organic agriculture, FAO said. Some countries export tropical fruits to the European baby- food industry, six African nations export cotton to the European Community, Zimbabwe exports herbs to South Africa, and China exports tea to the Netherlands and soybeans to Japan.
Entering the market in industrialized countries is not easy for organic producers in developing countries, according to FAO. In most cases, farmers seeking to sell products in developed countries must hire an organic certification organization to inspect their farms annually and confirm that they adhere to organic standards. These services can sometimes be expensive, and few developing countries have certification organizations within their borders, according to the report. Many developing countries also lack the resources and training to participate in international standard setting regarding acceptable inputs for organic production and ingredients.
Farmers converting to organic production will probably initially experience losses in yields, the report warned. In particular, "where soil fertility is low and biological processes have been seriously disrupted, it may take years to restore the ecosystem." However, there are other short term benefits. Instead of using synthetic pesticides which can kill beneficial organisms, create pest resistance, pollute water and land, and poison farmers and their families, organic farmers rely on natural pest controls to grow their crops.
FAO recommended that it would be most advantageous for farmers to participate in locally-based, applied field research. Experience with FAO-initiated Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Farmer Field Schools and community forestry projects has shown that farmers, whether owners or tenants, large or small, can practice good scientific methods if they are given training and technical support.
To maintain consumer confidence in the integrity of organic products, FAO recommends that countries promote their own organic certification organizations and better enforce organic standards by "punishing those who engage in fraudulent activities as well as undertaking systematic tracking and measuring of fraud and its impact on the market."
The report concludes by stating: "FAO has the responsibility to give organic agriculture a legitimate place within sustainable agriculture programmes and assist member countries in their efforts to respond to farmer and consumer demand in this sector. Organic agriculture may contribute to the overall goals of sustainability."
According to the report, the FAO organic program should focus on providing fora for discussions on organic production and trade; facilitating research, extension and networking; and technical assistance for developing skills, organic standards and certification capacities. FAO should also develop pilot projects that explore and promote organic agricultural techniques.
The FAO report, "Organic Agriculture" is available on the web at http://www.fao.org/unfao/bodies/COAG/COAG15/default.htm
Sources: UN FAO Press Release 99/3, "Organic Agriculture," Item 8 of the Provisional Agenda, Committee on Agriculture, January 25-29, 1999.
Contact: UN FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy; phone (39-06) 5705 3105; email Erwin.Northoff@FAO.org.