Interest in organic agriculture methods is growing, especially in areas where the present farming system has degraded resources essential to agricultural production (especially land). Non-production factors, such as the farmer's health, are also mentioned as a reason for shifting to organic management. Consumers also have an interest in organic agriculture. Consumer awareness of the environmental costs of agriculture (such as the deteriorating quality of drinking water and soil, and the impact of agriculture on landscape and wildlife) is increasing. The awareness of environmental quality and health is often promoted by environmental groups, especially in developed countries. The resulting demand for organic products creates the opportunity to sell organic products at premium prices, enabling organic farmers to continue, and often expand.
Some governments have begun to recognize the possibility that it may be cheaper to support organic agriculture than to rectify problems associated with certain resource-destruction production practices. For this reason, several governments have introduced subsidies for organic agriculture. These subsidies come in many forms, such as direct payments to farmers (both for those in the conversion stage and also for established organic farmers), and indirect aid (such as for education, research, extension and marketing).
In developing countries, two schools of interest in organic agriculture practices can be detected. First, some farmers switch to organic production without the incentive of price premiums, finding other economic and environmental reasons sufficient for management changes. In this case, improved conditions on the farm are the main focus of concern, especially increased and more sustained production as compared with what has been possible previously. Less dependence on outside inputs is also noted. As well as economic and environmental impacts, the introduction of organic principles in agricultural management brings social benefits as farmers adopt a logic close to their traditions and values.
However, if the emphasis is on future improvements, land tenure conditions are of utmost importance, where tenure is important for interest in future possibilities. An additional, but debatable issue, is that production in organic agriculture is often said to be less variable than under other management systems. In climatically adverse years, yields on organic farms can be observed to be relatively high; in areas where drought conditions are common, this can be an important point in relation to availability of and accessibility to food.
More frequently, farmers switch to organic agriculture in order to secure market premiums. In this second case, the increased income can help in improving the local food security situation, but variations in price over time should be anticipated. At present the size of the organic market is small (typically less than one percent in most countries), and therefore a small change in organic production will mean a large percentage change in quantity available, influencing price. Increased organic production in the future may have a depressing influence on prices; however, increased consumption may offset any downward pressure on prices.
It is often believed that organic agriculture is easier to undertake under certain conditions, especially where the situation is good for agriculture in general, such as on fertile soils. However, organic agriculture can be found in many different bio-physical settings. In fact, some of the projects referred to in this paper were located in rather poor areas. Nonetheless, consideration should be given to the locations and circumstances that most suit the development of organic agriculture.
National governments can play a role in encouraging the adoption of organic agriculture in developing countries. Research and development, education and extension into organic agriculture methods, legalization of the word "organic" and implementation of a certification scheme, and refraining from manipulating input and output prices (such that organic agriculture becomes less attractive to farmers) as well as the all important issue of land-tenure, all merit policy consideration.
However, the most important factor that will enable organic agriculture to usefully contribute to food security is the attitude of decision-makers. Organic agriculture must be discussed with an open mind, with the advantages and disadvantages being clearly considered. Only then can developing countries fully determine the potential of organic agriculture under various conditions. FAO can play a key role in promoting a more objective debate on the potential role of organic agriculture, and identifying the circumstances where organic agriculture can be applied most beneficially.