Global organic needs to move beyond one per cent

Markus Arbenz says consumers should understand organic’s ecosystem and social benefits, not just its absence of pesticides or GMOs. Photo: Lorraiane Stevenson

‘Organic 3.0’ calls for wider uptake of organic farming systems through innovation, inclusion and collaboration

By Lorraine Stevenson
OrganicBiz staff

The organic movement is now a century old, and while it’s widely recognized, very few farmers have actually adopted the practice. That raised questions about what needs to change, said a speaker at the recent Canadian Organic Science Conference.

“We are successful… but in a niche,” said Markus Arbenz, executive director of IFOAM — Organics International. “Being one per cent of agriculture and saying this is relevant to address global challenges… maybe that’s a question mark.”

Global markets are expanding rapidly, yet certified organic agriculture still only represents less than one per cent of all agricultural land and food markets worldwide and conversion rates among farmers worldwide remain very low, Arbenz told research scientists and industry representatives at the conference here last month.

As head of an organization with 800 members in 120 countries, Arbenz visited from Germany last month to speak about a widely circulating document called “Organic 3.0.” It lays out not just the challenges facing global organic agriculture, but a vision and strategy to address them.

He said Organic 3.0 is a third and visionary phase for the movement, with 1.0 representing its earliest beginnings a century ago and 2.0 being its present state.

The 2.0 phase has inspired a global movement, setting rules, regulations and standards defining minimum requirements for production systems, and fostered massive market development, Arbenz said.

I think we have in our DNA to be a protest movement. – Markus Arbenz

The problem now is that relatively few farmers, including the smallholders and peasant farmers who play a critical role feeding local populations, are making the switch to organic.

“Markets are developing more dynamically than what we see in production development. The step for farmers is a much bigger one than for consumers,” Arbenz said.

Standards a constraint

This present state of organic has also seen vast amounts of time and energy devoted to the development of highly detailed standards and third-party certification, he said. But this focus on standards has had the effect of constraining the organic movement, excluding farmers who do farm organically but aren’t certified, including smallholder and peasant farmers.

It has also limited organic’s ability to align with other value chain systems which embrace similar principles and values. Another major issue is the wider agricultural sector’s low recognition of the science behind organic farming, Arbenz said.

“Organic is system based, and based on science,” he said. “But unfortunately people think organic agriculture is a farming system that refuses to take up new technologies, a system for people who want to farm like our ancestors did.”

As a future strategy for the global sector, Organic 3.0 aims to position organic agriculture in such a way that it would be viewed as modern, innovative, and outcome based.

This would shift the focus in marked ways. Innovation would begin to dominate the sector instead of its current focus on standards, Arbenz said.

“Right now we talk about details and we argue about standards. It’s where we put a lot of our energy,” he said. “I’m not saying this is not necessary in the future. We will still need people to do that. But we need the overall energy of the movement to think about the objective, and see what kind of innovation we’ll need that moves us forward.”

The next phase

Arbenz said organic’s next phase would also be about upscaling through increasing adoption of organic principles in mainstream agriculture.

It would also be about linking with other sustainability initiatives that share organic principles such as agro-ecology, and fair trade, community-supported and urban agriculture programs.

“I think we have in our DNA to be a protest movement,” he said. “At the moment we are pretending to be alone sometimes. In reality, there are many other initiatives… developing agriculture in other directions to improve agriculture. We should not see (conventional agriculture) as a competitor, as greenwashers, but as allies.”

This new vision for organic agriculture also calls for creating tools for true cost accounting and pricing mechanisms that reward farmers whose practices provide ecosystem services, Arbenz said.

“Those who create ecosystem benefits should benefit from subsidy policies, and not be punished by, for example, fertilizer subsidies or fuel subsidies which are now common around the world.”

Not just pesticide free

Many now asked what organic means will reply that it’s about an absence of pesticides or GMOs. Organic 3.0 also wants to see consumers better understand the true value of organic agriculture for its ecosystem and social benefits, not merely defining it as products for a lifestyle choice.

Organic 3.0 is ultimately about to take organic out of its current niche and into the mainstream so that it can have real impact and ultimately be part of the solution for the world’s most pressing problems, Arbenz said.

Organic 3.0: For Truly Sustainable Farming and Consumption was launched in 2015 as a discussion paper at the ISOFAR International Organic Expo.

To learn more, visit the IFOAM Organics International website.