Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | September 27, 2007

An Organic Recipe for Sustainable Development

Organic agriculture is a potent tool to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but also to alleviate poverty and improve food security in developing countries, many experts now believe.

Organic agriculture’s use of compost and crop diversity means it will also be able to better withstand the higher temperatures and more variable rainfall expected with global warming.
“Organic agriculture is about optimising yields under all conditions,” says Louise Luttikholt, strategic relations manager at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM) in Bonn, Germany. IFOAM is the international umbrella organisation of organic agriculture movements around the world.
For example, a village in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia that had converted to organic agriculture continued to harvest crops even during a severe drought, while neighbouring villages using conventional chemical fertilisers had nothing, Luttikholt told IPS.
Because compost is used rather than chemical fertilisers, organic soils contain much more humus and organic carbon — which in turn retains much more water.
“They can also absorb more water faster which means they are less likely to flood,” she said.
It took more work to make the conversion to organic but it paid off when the drought stuck in the third year, according to Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, director general of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia.
Tewolde, who pioneered the organic revolution in a number of communities in northern Ethiopia as a way of ensuring food security, reported that the early success has prompted government agricultural departments to adopt organic techniques.
Organic and other forms of sustainable agro-ecology do not depend on chemical fertilisers, so they must find other ways to enrich soil and keep it that way. That also means there are more minerals and other nutrients in the soil so yields are generally good and food quality high.
And the added benefit is that organic soils hold much more carbon than soils farmed with conventional methods.
Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is the principal cause of global warming. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and can put it more or less permanently into the soil under the right conditions.
Making chemical fertilisers like nitrogen requires huge amounts of energy, and tractors also consume large amounts of fossil fuel. In the United States, organic farming systems use just 63 percent of the energy required by conventional farming systems, David Pimentel of Cornell University in New York State found.
Going organic also offers a number of other environmental benefits, including waterways free of chemical pollution and improved biodiversity. In North America and European farming regions, expensive systems must be used to remove agricultural chemicals from drinking water.
For low-income countries, that means more jobs because organic farming is labour-intensive. It also values local expertise and traditional knowledge. That makes more economic sense than being dependent on the technical expertise of Western corporations, he said.
Faced with rapidly depleting soils, the Indian government is now supporting organic techniques because no amount of chemical fertiliser can improve the soil. In addition, water shortages, increased disease problems and higher costs of chemicals and hybrid seeds have forced India to rethink its agricultural strategy, he said.
“It is more economically sustainable to invest in the soils of your land than to make the chemical companies richer,” Engelsman told IPS.
The problem of global hunger is not about food production — it is about poverty and food distribution, since the world already produces enough food, he said.
Engelsman agrees with the noted Indian scientist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva that research into ecologically-friendly agriculture has proved that it is highly productive and is the only solution to hunger and poverty.
That view, once considered radical, is beginning to gain wider acceptance as hunger has increased under the globalised food production system.
finally the FAO is looking to organic to play a role in reducing hunger and alleviating poverty and will host a major conference in May 2007 in Rome. Many countries request FAO’s assistance to develop organic agriculture, said Alexander Müller, assistant director-general of FAO, in a statement.
“There is a need to shed light on the contribution of organic agriculture to food security,” Müller said.
Many countries are already moving in that direction.
Studies done by International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a U.N. agency set up to assist the rural poor to overcome poverty, have shown that organic agriculture reduced poverty. In almost all of the countries where the IFAD evaluations were carried out, small farmers needed only marginal improvements to their technologies to make the shift to organic production.
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