May 1996
Press information

Address by Hervé la Prairie
President of IFOAM at press conference in Copenhagen, 2 May 1996.

Is organic agriculture a possible solution to world hunger

A proposal to the FAO World Food Summit

The FAO is of the optimistic opinion that the number of undernourished people in the world will decline from the present 800 million to 650 million over the next 15 years. This view is based on the assumption that production per capita will continue its steady rise in the future. The World Watch Institute takes a much more pessimistic view, claiming that cereal production will decline from its all time high of 346kg per capita in 1984, to 248kg by the year 2030. The Consultancy Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) shares this view and forecasts a deficiency in cereals by 2025 of 700 million tonnes. This figure should be compared with present world cereal production of 2100 million tonnes.

The FAO's optimistic view is based on the belief that the so-called new green revolution will manage to keep per hectare yield rising steadily. The World Watch Institute on the other hand points to a number of disturbing factors which makes it difficult to share FAO's optimism:

The market solution

It is compelling to point to the fact that overall world food production is sufficient to nourish all and that the problem is therefore one of distribution. The free market is the most efficient means of distributing resources and the conclusion reached is that total free trade in agricultural produce will solve the problem of hunger.

To me the issue of food security and eradicating hunger is a question of providing everyone with sufficient food. The above line of argument is flawed in one very important respect - it ignores the fact that the market reacts to purchasing power. At the moment pigs and cattle have greater purchasing power than the human poor. This means that cereal production goes to animal fodder and not to the undernour-ished.

There are no signs of a change on the way. Quite the opposite. With living standards rising in China the Chinese demand for meat will increase. This in turn will give rise to an increase in demand for cereals as animal fodder. This trend is already visible. In 1978 only 7% of cereals consumed in China was used as fodder. By 1990 the figure had risen to 20%. With a population of 1200 million small changes in Chinese habits will have major effects on the world market: one beer more to every Chinese person a year demands 370,000 tonnes of barley. And higher demand for grain will lead to higher prices. This may be fine for cereal producing farmers but even if they succeed in increasing yields, this will not produce more food for human consumption.

To secure sufficient food for all it will be necessary to create the opportunities for people in the developing world to produce their own food, shielded from the free market and from the dumping of agricultural surpluses from industrial countries. Local farmers must not be outcompeted by cheap imports. Small farmers in the developing countries should be given the possibility to farm. In other words, farmland must be made available. This is all too often not the case. To give one example. Shrimp production in many coastal areas in tropical countries is occupying and devastating farmland on a unbelievable scale. The shrimps of course are not used to improve the diet of the locals. They end up on the high priced markets of industrial countries.

Given space to farm poor farmers need a cheap farming method. Such a method is organic agriculture, relying solely on local resources. Organic farming is the realistic option in that it provides high yields, is environmentally accountable and is sustainable in the true sense of the word.

Organic agriculture - the realistic alternative

The general view in industrial countries where conventional, intensive farming is prevalent is that large-scale conversion to organic methods would aggravate world hunger. Organic agricultural methods are less intensive and in industrial countries yields are somewhat lower than those of conventional agriculture. But it would be erroneous to globalise this view. In the developing countries, and especially among the most impoverished groups, land is farmed at a very low level of intensity. Small farmers in the developing world do not have the means to buy fertilizers, pesticides, HYVs or other substances used in conventional agriculture. In this situation training farmers to make compost from household waste for use as manure and other little tricks of organic agriculture can increase yields dramatically. Double, treble and even higher increases in yields have been experienced in experimental projects. There is no need to transport artificial fertilizers over long distances and equally there is no need for excessive irrigation.

Organic agriculture is environmentally accountable The widespread use of pesticides is a serious problem in all parts of the world. Pesticides are threatening biological diversity directly by poisoning insects, birds and other organisms and indirectly by eliminating the food sources of many organisms. The use of pesticides is directly responsible for illness and death in the developing countries. Pesticide residues may also have harmful effects on human health and reproduction wider afield. In addition the danger of major accidents in pesticide production is always present, as the catastrophe in Bhopal is a glaring reminder of.

All these problems are nonexistent in organic agriculture. The only pesticides used are natural products, as, for instance, extracts of the Neem tree.

Soil erosion is another serious environmental problem solved by organic methods. The main cause of soil erosion is lack of humus in the soil and lack of top soil. Soil covering - mulching - is an important aspect of organic agriculture. With mulching and the use of compost as fertilizer the humus content of the soil is enriched and soil erosion prevented.

The environmental problems being experienced in industrial countries will force the change to organic methods within a short span of time. To mention just one example. The costs of purifying drinking water are far higher than the economic gains of using conventional farming methods.

Organic agriculture is sustainable

The term "sustainable" has been used and misused extensively in recent years. I would like to point out here that IFOAM used the term long before it became fashionable. Our very first international conference in 1977 was held under the slogan: "Towards Sustainable Agriculture". Organic agriculture is sustainable in the very literal sense of the word. By using organic farming methods agricultural production can continue indefinitely. Organic agriculture does not place limits on human life. It must be pointed out, however, that the use of fossil fuels in the industrialised version of organic agriculture is not sustainable and the machinery used on a modern farm in industrial countries is not integral to organic agriculture.

The reasons why organic agriculture is sustainable are quite simple: the methods used

Conventional farming can never be sustainable because the methods used are contrary to fundamental biological principles. I do not have time to go into detail here but I will give one example to illustrate the different thinking of organic and conventional farming. When a conventional farmer sees an aphid or other pest he will reach for his spray to kill the pest. This poses a challenge to nature. The first reaction is a build-up of resistance in pest and the second is the production of even more pests, as the pests' natural predators are killed by the pesticide. In the long term nature wins. This has been demonstrated, for instance, in cotton growing regions in many parts of world, where entire crops have been devastated by pests that no pesticide could eradicate.

The organic farmer on the other hand sees the pest as an indication that his plants have been weakened for some reason. He may use some natural pesticide with no long-term effects but his main concern will be to correct his growing methods to help the plants free themselves of pests.

The principles of organic farming have been tried and tested for centuries: composting, mulching, mixed cultures etc. Over the years these methods have been developed and refined but the basic principles remain the same. To me this is very reassuring. Organic methods have stood the test of time and have proven their efficiency. In many parts of the world organic methods are simply the only way of eradicating hunger and ensuring food for all.

Finally, I would like to contrast organic agriculture with the new green revolution: genetic engineering has never been used before. We know nothing of the long-term consequences of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment. And we know just as little about what affect the presence of these organisms, and products derived from these organisms in food and fodder, will have on human and animal life.

Therefore, to secure sufficient food for all in a manner that neither compromises human prosperity nor threatens the balance of nature, in the short or long term, I invite the FAO to give serious consideration to organic agriculture by placing it on the agenda of the World Food Summit, in Rome, in November. We have invited the Director General of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, to attend the International Conference on Organic Agriculture in Copenhagen in August, so that we can exchange knowledge and experiences. We have in fact invited him to deliver the closing address to the conference. We in the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements consider that organic agriculture has matured sufficiently to be taken seriously by world leaders, as an agricultural type capable of eradicating hunger and supplying food for all. We are calling on the FAO therefore to give due recognition to the organic alternative.


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