Although still only a small industry, organic agriculture is becoming of growing importance in the agriculture sectors of many countries, irrespective of their stage of development. In Austria and Switzerland, organic agriculture has come to represent as much as 10% of the food system, while USA, France, Japan and Singapore are experiencing growth rates that exceed 20% annually.
The demand for organic products has also created new export opportunities for the developing world. Since demand for a variety of foods year-round makes it impossible for any country to satisfy all its organic food needs domestically, many developing countries have started to tap lucrative export markets for organically grown products - for example, tropical fruit to the European baby food industry, Zimbabwe herbs to South Africa, African cotton to the European Community, and Chinese tea to the Netherlands and soybeans to Japan.
"Impressive premiums". Typically, organic exports are sold at impressive premiums, often at prices 20% higher than identical products produced on non-organic farms. The ultimate profitability of organic farming varies, however, and few studies have assessed its long-term prospects. Nevertheless, under the right circumstances, market returns from organic agriculture can contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes.
Whether the intent is to sell organic products domestically or abroad, reliable market information is almost always difficult to obtain. In particular, no projections for the market in the developing world have been made, nor have markets systematically been identified for developing country exports.
Farm productivity. Typically, farmers experience some loss in yields after discarding synthetic inputs and converting their operations to organic production. Before restoration of full biological activity (e.g. growth in beneficial insect populations, nitrogen fixation from legumes), pest suppression and fertility problems are common. Sometimes it may take years to restore the ecosystem to the point where organic production is possible.
In these cases other sustainable approaches that allow judicious use of synthetic chemicals may be more suitable start-up options. One strategy involves converting farms to organic production "in instalments", so that the entire operation is not put at risk.
Most studies have found that organic agriculture requires significantly greater labour input than conventional farms. Therefore, the diversification of crops typically found on organic farms, with their different planting and harvesting schedules, may distribute labour demand more evenly, which could help stabilize employment. As in all agricultural systems, diversity in production increases income-generating opportunities and can, as in the case of fruits, supply essential health-protecting minerals and vitamins for the family diet. It also spreads the risks of failure over a wide range of crops.
Nevertheless, organic farmers face huge uncertainties. Lack of information is a major obstacle to organic conversion, according to 73% of North American organic farmers. Extension personnel rarely receive adequate training in organic methods and studies have shown that they sometimes discourage farmers from converting. Furthermore, institutional support in developing countries is scarce - professional institutions capable of assisting farmers throughout production, post-production and marketing processes are non-existent in many developing countries.
Environmental impact. Most organic farmers are motivated by more than economic objectives - their aim is to optimize land, animal, and plant interactions, preserve natural nutrient and energy flows, and enhance biodiversity, all of which contribute to sustainable agriculture.
They have adopted many of the soil and water protection and conservation techniques used to combat erosion, compaction, salinization and other forms of degradation. Their use of crop rotations, organic manure and mulches improves soil structure and encourages development of a vigorous population of soil micro-organisms. Mixed and relay cropping provide a more continuous soil cover and thus a shorter period when the soil is fully exposed to the erosive power of the rain, wind and sun.
Organic farmers also employ natural pest controls - e.g. biological control, plants with pest control properties - rather than synthetic pesticides which, when misused, are known to kill beneficial organisms, cause pest resistance and often pollute water and land. Reduction in the use of toxic synthetic pesticides, which poison an estimated three million people each year, should lead to improved health of farm families.
Eliminating the use of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer greatly lowers the risks of nitrogen contamination of water, while crop rotation is a widely used method of fertility maintenance and pest and disease control. Most certification programmes restrict the use of mineral fertilizers, which may instead be necessary to supplement organic manure produced on the farm. However, natural and organic fertilizers from outside the farm (e.g. rock phosphate, potash, guano, seaweed, slaughterhouse by-products, ground limestone, seaweed, wood-ash) may also used .
Finally, crop rotations encourage a diversity of food crops, fodder and under-utilized plants which, in addition to improving overall farm production and fertility, may assist in the on-farm conservation of plant genetic resources. Integrating livestock into the system adds income through organic meat, eggs and dairy products, as well as draught animal power. Tree crops and on-farm forestry integrated into the system provide shade and windbreaks while providing food, income, fuel and wood. Integrated agri-aquaculture may also be found within diverse organic agricultural systems.
Published January 1999