Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy
Cook Organic not the Planet Campaign

OCA at the World Organic Trade Show

At the 2009 BioFach World Organic Trade Show in Nuremberg, Germany, there were plenty of innovative products and delicious foods to try, but the trade in ideas was even more exciting. In the trade show’s workshops, participants discussed the importance, but also the limitations, of defining organic by what it is not. Organic has no fossil fuel fertilizers, no chemical pesticides, no genetically modified seeds, no cloned animals, no factory farms, and it is not a source of food-borne illnesses or diet-related diseases. These are important core values, but that's not the end of the story. Organic also increases biodiversity, ecological services, and food security. Organic can mitigate climate change by reducing and sequestering green house gas emissions. Organic can restore marginal and unproductive lands and produce higher yields and more nutritious food by increasing the soil’s organic matter and nutrient content. Organic can reduce water usage, help crops withstand drought and reduce erosion by increasing the soil’s capacity to absorb and hold water. Ultimately, organic has the potential to help the human family grow in peace by increasing the caring capacity of the earth and managing the earth’s resources for maximum sustainability.

Recently, the buzz in the organic world has been “organic plus,” with consumers and producers trying to get “beyond organic” to products that meet labor and environmental standards that aren’t among the USDA National Organic Program's standards. One interesting example that was featured at BioFach is Sekem, an Egyptian company that is certified organic, but also fair trade, biodynamic and, soon, carbon neutral. In Egypt, labor standards are poor, poverty is widespread, children often work rather than attend school, and the land can turn to desert without careful management. Despite these obstacles, the Egyptian organic movement has achieved amazing results. The world’s first crop of biodynamic cotton was harvested in Egypt in 1991 and since then, the use of agrochemicals in Egypt has been reduced by over 30,000 tons through the conversion of 500,000 hectares of cotton to pesticide-free production. Cotton, an important cash crop, is cultivated on 9 million acres in 70 countries and provides nearly half the world’s textile fiber. Conventional cotton cultivation requires more hazardous synthetic pesticides and insecticides than any other crop, yet when using sophisticated cultivation techniques, organic cotton can produce higher yields of equal or superior quality. Organic cultivation saves the farmers from pesticides, supports biodiversity, preserves a healthy soil and maintains a balanced ecosystem. Biodynamic farming activities have reduced in the use of synthetic pesticides in Egypt by over 90% from over 35,000 tons per year to about 3,000 tons per year. At the same time, the average yield of raw cotton was increased by almost 30 percent to 1220 kg per acre, and fiber elasticity and overall quality improved compared to conventionally grown cotton.

Sekem's latest project is to measure the ecological services provided by its organic farming techniques. They've determined that their composting of organic waste (wood, straw, coffee residues, fresh green material and manure) avoids methane emissions and also improves the soil fertility of the degraded desert soil. The project is certified by the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to mitigate 60,000 tons CO2e per year. The CDM allows emission reduction and removal projects in developing countries to earn certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one ton of CO2. The projects must qualify through a rigorous and public registration and issuance process designed to ensure real, measurable and verifiable emission reductions that are additional to what would have occurred without the project. Operational since the beginning of 2006, the mechanism has already registered more than 1,000 projects and is anticipated to produce CERs amounting to more than 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, 2008–2012. The mechanism is the first global, environmental investment and credit scheme of its kind, providing a standardized emissions offset instrument.

The operator of Sekem's composting project is Soil & More International. Through this and similar projects in Mexico and South Africa (and projects planned for Brazil and India), Soil & More generates carbon credits through a specially developed composting technology that it claims helps to address some of the worlds’ biggest environmental and agricultural problems (soil degradation, climate change through increased carbon dioxide emissions, the excessive use of water, and the increasing amount of waste). According to Soil & More, it is one of the first companies in the world generating verified emission reductions from organic composting. The compost is made using unwanted and superfluous waste plant and animal material (mainly agricultural waste), most of which is currently dumped and left to rot anaerobically, thus constituting a threat to the environment and emitting methane. Soil & More says its special composting technology avoids these methane emissions while producing a mechanically aerated high quality compost product, providing farmers with an alternative to increasingly expensive conventional fertilizers, creating employment and contributing to sustainable agriculture.

At BioFach on Sunday, I had the opportunity to interview Tobias Bandel, Joint Managing Director of Soil & More. Here's what he told me:

"Soil & More is involved in large-scale composting in developing countries, mainly South Africa, Mexico and Egypt, but we've now also started subsidiaries in Brazil and India. On these composting projects, we've managed to get Kyoto Protocol and UN certified carbon credits which have a value now in the market. We sell these and the revenue from the carbon credits are used to subsidize the compost.

"Now why composting? Compost is (from my perspective as an organic fundamentalist) the start of a healthy product. Healthy products for healthy people start with healthy soils. You can't symptom-treat products in the pack-house. You have to have healthy soil to have a nutritious product.

"Every day there are about 1/2 million hectares of fertile soil lost due to our agricultural system with the erosion and salination caused by chemical fertilizers. This is reducing our space to live while our population on this planet is growing.

"What does this mean? Agriculture is still the largest employer worldwide, but if our soil is lost, farmers won't have the basis to grow anymore, and they'll move to the cities where they end up in the slums. We want to reverse that trend.

"We want to redirect waste streams, valuable organic waste streams which currently go to landfill to be burnt, to agriculture to add value to create the basis to grow healthy products for healthy people.

"So, for example, in Capetown, we have a contract with the municipality of Capetown where we get about 60% of the garden and park waste of Capetown which represents roughly 60 or 70 tons of waste per year. We chip it in a shredder and put it through a specific composting process and then sell it to growers and landscapers.

"In this process, we get carbon credits because normally this green material would go to landfill where it emits methane. Through our innovative composting technology, we break this material down while avoiding the methane emissions. On average, we obtain 1 carbon credit which equals 1 ton of CO2e emissions reductions per ton of compost produced.

"So, for example, in Egypt, we now have three composting sites which each have the capacity of roughly 60,000 tons, so in Egypt we produce not only 180,000 tons of compost every year, but we also reduce 180,000 tons of CO2e emissions per year. The same in South Africa, the same in Mexico, and the same hopefully soon in Brazil and India.

"So, what we're trying to do is actually sort of part of world peace, because we have a growing population on this planet, but we only have one planet. We have to make sure that we manage and use the resources available in the most efficient way. If there were no soil, we would not be able to produce food in the first place."

View Larger Map

Get Local

Find News and Action for your state: