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WASHINGTON, Jan 16 2013 (IPS) - Despite the growing worldwide demand for organic food, clothing and other products, the area of land certified as organic still makes up just 0.9 percent of global agricultural land, with 37 million hectares being farmed organically.
Organic farming delivers a wide range of benefits, including reduced human exposure to toxic chemicals, improved resilience of landscapes and greater profit margins for farmers.
The countries with the most certified organic producers in 2010 were India (400,551 farmers), Uganda (188,625), and Mexico (128,826). The region that added the most organic farmland between 2009 and 2010 was Europe.
Overall, the amount of organically farmed land worldwide dropped by 0.1 percent between 2009 and 2010, due largely to a decrease in organic land in India and China. Still, organic farmland has grown more than threefold since 1999.
The modern organic farming movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s largely as a reaction to consumer concerns about the rising use of agrochemicals. The period after World War II and through the 1950s is commonly known as the “golden age of pesticides”.
But as the health and ecological impacts of agrochemicals began to be understood, governments started to regulate their use, and consumers began demanding organically certified foods.
Now fast forward to 2010, when organic food sales reached 59 billion U.S. dollars.
Although the requirements for certification vary for each certifying organisation, farming organically involves following certain ecological principles, such as applying mulch to fields or rotating the crops grown in certain fields. Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals, such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Compared with conventional farming methods, organic farming is much healthier for a farm’s entire ecosystem: it boosts on-farm biodiversity, protects nearby waterways from chemical pollution and helps soil retain water and nutrients, improving resilience to drought and other harsh weather patterns. It also reduces human exposure to chemicals or toxic residues, which have been linked to a variety of illnesses.
The Rodale Institute, an organic research and advocacy organisation in the United States, has conducted a comparative study of organic versus conventional farming since 1981. The study focuses on corn and soybeans, for which the United States is the number one and number two producer, respectively.
The study found that organic agriculture outperforms conventional farming on many levels. Over 30 years, organic fields produced equivalent yields, including 31 percent higher yields in times of moderate drought.
Organic soils also retained more carbon, microbes and water, and organic systems were three times more profitable than the study’s conventional systems, producing an average net return of 558 dollars per acre each year compared with 190 dollars per conventional acre. Organic fields emitted nearly 40 percent less greenhouse gases per pound of crop.
Reliable data are lacking for land that is farmed according to organic principles but has not been certified organic. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that the majority of smallholder farmers still operate organically by default, either because chemical inputs have not been introduced to their community, or because their complex agricultural system does not require chemical inputs.
In recent decades, certified organic products have created a niche market, allowing farmers to earn premium prices over conventional products, particularly when selling to supermarkets or restaurants. Farmers in developing countries have also found that their produce will fetch a higher price if exported to more lucrative international markets.
The costs of compliance with international organic standards, however, often force farmers to reduce their on-farm diversity and maximise production of a few “cash crops,” such as cotton, coffee and cocoa, certified organic farming can cause some of the same ecological problems as conventional farming.
Farmers may choose to avoid certification because they believe that the costs or regulation involved in certification hinders their operation, and that their customers trust them to grow food safely and healthfully. This choice is increasingly possible as farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture become mainstream worldwide.
Producing food sustainably, which includes farming without chemicals whenever possible, will be extremely important in the coming decades as the global population continues to grow and as climate change affects land quality worldwide. Organic farming has the potential to contribute to food security, boost farmer incomes, enhance biodiversity and reduce ecosystems’ vulnerability to climate change.
But it is important too that organic farming form part of a larger, more sustainable global food system – where low-income consumers can access and afford fresh, nutritious foods; where farmers can protect endangered plant and animal species that may not be the most productive, but that can withstand drought or temperature extremes; and where supermarkets and advertisers promote consumption of healthy rather than highly processed foods.
Laura Reynolds is a staff researcher with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.
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