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UN Backs Organic Farming to Address Global Hunger, Environmental Sustainability, and Food Security

The organic food movement has received endorsement from the United Nations leading agency on food and agriculture, the FAO. In a new report, it says that organic farming fights hunger, tackles climate change, and is good for farmers, consumers and the environment. Sam Burcher reports.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has come out in favour of organic agriculture. Its report Organic Agriculture and Food Security explicitly states that organic agriculture can address local and global food security challenges.

Organic farming is no longer regarded as a niche market within developed countries, but a vibrant commercial agricultural system practised in 120 countries, covering 31 million hectares (ha) of cultivated land plus 62 million ha of certified wild harvested areas. The organic market was worth US$40 billion in 2006, and expected to reach US$70 billion by 2012.

Nadia Scialabba, an FAO official, defined organic agriculture as: "A holistic production management system that avoids the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and genetically modified organisms, minimises pollution of air, soil and water, and optimises the health and productivity of plants, animals and people."

The strongest benefits of organic agriculture, Scialabba said, are its reliance on fossil fuel independent, locally available resources that incur minimal agro-ecological stresses and are cost effective. She described organic agriculture as a 'neo-traditional food system' which combines modern science and indigenous knowledge.'

The FAO report strongly suggests that a worldwide shift to organic agriculture can fight world hunger and at the same time tackle climate change. According to FAO's previous World Food Summit report], conventional agriculture, together with deforestation and rangeland burning, are responsible for 30 per cent of the CO2 and 90 per cent of nitrous oxide emissions worldwide.

Convestional farming paradox

The new FAO report frames a paradox within the conventional food production systems as follows:

# Global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry

# Use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing; yet grain productivity is dwindling to seriously low levels

# Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades.

# Knowledge is increasingly provided through fast information technologies, but nutritionally related diseases are rising

# Industrialised food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings and high numbers of farmers have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.

In contrast, organic agriculture offers an alternative food system that improves agricultural performance to better provide access to food, nutritional adequacy, environmental quality, economic efficiency, and social equity. This is crucial if agricultural production in developing countries is to rise by 56 per cent by 2030 to meet nutritional needs, as stated in the report. . Researchers recommend a shift to organic agriculture especially for poor developing countries. Evidence presented to the FAO by the Danish Research Centre for Food and Farming confirm the potential of a new organic farming paradigm to secure more than enough food to feed the world, and with reduced environmental impacts.

The results, using a computer model developed by the Washington DC based Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), show that a 50 per cent conversion to organic farming in sub-Saharan Africa would not harm food security. Instead, it would help feed the hungry by reducing the need to import subsidised food, and produce a diverse range of certified organic surpluses to be exported at premium profit.

The conversion of global agriculture to organic farming, without converting wild lands for agricultures and using N-fertilisers, would result in a global agricultural supply of 2640 to 4380 kcal/day/person. These conclusions came from a research team led by Catherine Badgley at the University of Michigan, based on extensive review of the evidence from both the developed and developing world.

The fact that sustainable intensification of organic agriculture could increase production by up to 56 per cent is good news, as despite gains in food production and food security in some countries, sub-Saharan Africa produces less food per person than it did 30 years ago; and the number of chronically malnourished people in the region has doubled since 1970, from 96 million to over 200 million in 1996. This reflects the wider picture that developing countries have registered declining increases in yields under conventional agriculture between 1972-1992.

In contrast, the FAO report presents evidence that organic management systems have doubled yields in arid and degraded soils in Tigray, Ethiopia. Alexander Mueller, FAO assistant director-general, praised the research, and noted that as the effects of climate change are expected to hurt the world's poorest, a shift to organic farming could be beneficial to cope with the rising number of global hungry.

Recommendations arising from the FAO report feed directly into the framework for the Right to Adequate Food and also into the Millenium Development Goal (MDG)1 for reducing hunger and poverty, MDG7 for environmental sustainability, and MDG 8 for global partnerships with emphasis on hidden, acute or chronic hunger.

Environmental benefits

The Danish researchers suggest that a 50 per cent organic conversion by 2020 in the food exporting regions of North America and Europe would have little impact on the availability and prices of food. Converting from chemically intensive farming to organic farming can initially decrease yields, but the adjustment evens out over time and provides numerous non-material benefits such as land improvement.

The FAO Report points to further benefits such as better animal welfare, wildlife protection, avoidance of GMOs and pesticides, more jobs and less energy used. Results from studies carried out by the US Department of Agriculture support the FAO findings; showing that organic crops are worth more than conventional crops on the market, and on average, farmers could net $50-$60 more per acre by going organic, even with the highest transitional costs.

This is a shortened version of an article from the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS)
(, distributed by the Third World Features Network. Sam Burcher is Publishing Consultant and Contributor to ISIS.

Related links:

Organic farming 'improving Ethiopian yields'

Indian women take the lead in organic farming

Organic farming can feed the world

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