BASEL, 28-31 AUGUST 2000


Nadia Scialabba

Secretary of the Inter-Departmental Working Group on Organic Agriculture
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Rome, Italy


Mr. Chairman, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with pleasure that FAO is today participating in the IFOAM 2000 Conference. At the time of our attendance at the last session of the IFOAM Scientific Conference in Mar del Plata, FAO was still not formally involved in organic agriculture. It was only in January 1999 that governing bodies mandated the FAO Secretariat to develop a cross-sectoral programme on organic agriculture. This request came at a time when the organic sector was becoming a most flourishing food sector. Our efforts to date have focused on exploring and learning and IFOAM has been instrumental in this process.

What are the food prospects for the next decades?

There are today 790 million persons in a chronic state of under-nourishment. FAO has recently concluded a study on Agriculture towards 2030: it appears that the absolute number of hungry will remain stubbornly high in the future; 580 million in 2015 and 400 million in 2030. By 2030, growth of global food production is expected to surpass population growth. Increase in production will come on account of further intensification in the form of higher yields, higher cropping intensities as well as further expansion of arable land and of irrigated agriculture.

The top priority for FAO is to ensure food security for all. The food problem is tackled through every means at our disposal, including both access to food and enhanced food production. FAO will carefully assess new agricultural technologies, including using the genetically modifying tool, while taking all the necessary precautions to protect human health and the environment. The contribution of organic agriculture to food needs will also be investigated.

Why is FAO interested in organic agriculture?

The extraordinary growing market of certified organic products offers export opportunities to developing countries. Provided that producers of these countries are able to certify their products and access lucrative markets, returns from organic agriculture can potentially contribute to food security by increasing incomes.

A large number of farmers in developing countries produce for subsistence purposes. They live in remote and poorly endowed areas and have little or no access to modern technologies. Macro-economic disequilibria and high agricultural input costs often combine to further marginalize this poor section of the world population.

Many resource-poor farmers have traditional systems that are similar to organic systems: diversified cultivations using no (or little) chemical inputs. As the productivity of traditional systems is often very low, organic agriculture could provide a solution to the food needs of poor farmers while relying on local natural and human resources. Our aim is to study and document what successful organic agriculture farmers are doing right - with a view to promoting agricultural practices accessible to resource-poor farmers and of benefit to the environment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are indeed several challenges facing the organic agriculture movement. Embracing a holistic system implies dealing with complexity, which is naturally fraught with difficulties. The site-specific nature of organic agriculture limits replication of results, as solutions change with biophysical and socio-political settings.

Let me now touch on the topic on what could be the future challenges for both certified organic agriculture and non-market organic agriculture.

The term organic agriculture usually refers to a legal definition, backed with strict standards and rules that govern the "organic" label of certified food found on the market. Establishing or entering such a system is not an easy task for most producers in developing countries. Producers who successfully access organic markets have to comply with foreign standards not necessarily adapted to their country conditions. They often incur high inspection and certification costs. The participation of small holders to the benefits of the organic system is increasingly out of reach.

Standards sensitive to different country conditions, international accreditation of certification bodies and especially flexibility in organizing inspection of small holders will be essential to promote the supply of certified organic products. IFOAM has developed Accreditation Programme Criteria for Small Holders Certification but there is no consensus on how it should be implemented nor on who should bear certification costs.

Last spring, the Eight Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development reviewed the agricultural sector. Governments reported that organic agriculture "should not be considered as a solution for developing countries". They fear that "the use of organic agriculture as a basis for setting standards could lead to trade barriers". It is important, however, to establish the authenticity of the organic claim and its integrity with regards to food safety. In order to prevent trade barrier fears, there is an urgent need to establish equivalence between different national standards, through a totally transparent and participatory approach. The Codex Alimentarius Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods constitute a recognized basis for the harmonization of relevant national standards and regulations and for the establishment of equivalence.

While in some ways, organic agriculture rules may appear too strict, environmental requirements are becoming looser as the organic system expands. Increasingly, organic agriculture systems are mimicking monoculture systems in order to derive maximum economic benefits and respond to demand. Few certification schemes explicitly mandate soil-building practices. Fewer organic systems integrate animal production. Organic inputs are often imported from outside the farming system. Shelter for wild biodiversity (in the form of hedges and perennial vegetation) is often lacking. The intra- and international transportation of organic commodities is intensifying at the expense of energy conservation and consumption of local or regional products. With the increasing focus on trade, organic agriculture systems are increasingly loosing their nutrient and energy closed-system characteristic.

IFOAM introduced principles of social justice in its last revision of the Basic Standards. More should be done to define implementable standards, eventually by considering those developed by SA 8000 or other social certification schemes. Where possible, organic, fair trade and ethical trade certification should converge under a common label. This would minimize costs, improve synergy among the different movements and assist consumers in their choices.

With regard to non-market organic agriculture, little has been done as yet to demonstrate the agronomic and economic performance of organic systems in resource-poor areas. Most developing countries’ governments would not be willing to promote organic agriculture unless more is known on opportunities and constraints under different climatic zones and socio-economic conditions. It is generally assumed that organic agriculture is successful only in high potential areas. More research is needed on organic agriculture performance in tropical areas in order to provide a decision-making basis to policy makers.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Because FAO is an inter-governmental body with a governmental constituency, it provides a forum for normative questions proper to certified organic products (e.g. Codex Alimentarius Commission). FAO could explore, together with IFOAM and its partners, technical questions in different developing countries to complete existing organic agriculture knowledge of temperate countries with that of tropical countries.

The organic agriculture movement has made a laudable effort in making its original ideology a reality in today’s agriculture. As the movement is "scaling-up", collaboration should intensify to cater for the diversity of ideologies while responding to emerging needs.

FAO is happy to be a partner in the team that will take up these challenges.

Thank you for your attention.