Organic farming gains ground

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Sunday, February 3, 2013


IN SULTAN Mastura, Maguindanao, most farmers are now growing rice organically. More farmers are following suit as they have seen the sweet harvest of those who went ahead of them and practiced what was earlier was less popular.

"Organic agriculture is the answer," pointed out Jessica Reyes-Cantos of the Manila-based Rice Watch and Action Network. "It won't only retain soil productivity but it can make farming viable. If farmers will have additional income from their land they will continue to plant rice."

To think of, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is supporting organic agriculture. Its report, "Organic Agriculture and Food Security," explicitly states that organic farming fights hunger, tackles climate change, and is good for farmers, consumers and the environment.

The FAO report frames a paradox within the conventional food production systems. 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.

Not only that. Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades. Industrialized 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.

Today, "organic farming is now established in international standards, and 84 countries had implemented organic regulations by 2010, up from 74 countries in 2009," reports Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues.

Definitions vary, but according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, organic agriculture is a production system that relies on ecological processes, such as waste recycling, rather than the use of synthetic inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"Although organic agriculture often produces lower yields on land that has recently been farmed conventionally, it can outperform conventional practices – especially in times of drought – when the land has been farmed organically for a longer time," said Laura Reynolds, co-author of the Worldwatch report, "Organic Agriculture Contributes to Sustainable Food Security."

Reynolds, a researcher with Worldwatch's Food and Agriculture Program, said that "conventional agricultural practices often degrade the environment over both the long and short term through soil erosion, excessive water extraction, and biodiversity loss."

Organic farming, she pointed out, has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.

In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, certified organic farming accounted for approximately 0.9 percent of the world’s agricultural land. Asia, with a total of 2.8 million hectares, is home to 7 percent of the world’s certified organic agricultural land.

Organic farming is bound to increase manual labor as “sustainable practices associated with organic farming are relatively labor intensive,” Worldwatch said in a statement.

Organic agriculture uses up to 50 percent less fossil fuel energy than conventional farming, and common organic practices – including rotating crops, applying mulch to empty fields, and maintaining perennial shrubs and trees on farms – also stabilize soils and improve water retention, thus reducing vulnerability to harsh weather patterns.

"On average, organic farms have 30 percent higher biodiversity, including birds, insects, and plants, than conventional farms do," noted Catherine Ward, co-author of the report.

Certifications for organic agriculture, however, are increasingly concentrated in wealthier countries.

"From 2009 to 2010, Europe increased its organic farmland by nine percent to 10 million hectares, the largest growth in any region," the Worldwatch report said.

The United States has lagged behind other countries in adopting sustainable farming methods. "When national sales rather than production are considered, however, the US organic industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, expanding by 9.5 percent in 2011 to reach $31.5 billion in sales," the report said.

In developing countries, sustainable food production will become increasingly important as the majority of population growth is concentrated in the world’s poorest countries.

Agriculture in developing countries is often far more labor intensive than in industrial countries, so it is not surprising that approximately 80 percent of the 1.6 million global certified organic farmers live in the developing world.

The report identified the following countries with the most certified organic producers in 2010: India (400,551 farmers), Uganda (188,625), and Mexico (128,826).

"Non-certified organic agriculture in developing countries is practiced by millions of indigenous people, peasants, and small family farms involved in subsistence and local market-oriented production," the Worldwatch report said.

Some scientists believed that aside from addressing food insecurity, organic farming may help mitigate climate change. A 30-year scientific trial shows that organic practices could counteract up to 40 percent of global greenhouse gas output.

Andre Leu, chair of Organic Federation of Australia, claims the trial of organic and conventional farming practices has proved that organic practices "can be the single biggest way to mitigate climate change."

Scientists at the Rodale Institute in the United States have proven that organic farming practices can remove about 7,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the air each year and sequester it in a hectare of farmland.

According to Leu, the scientists estimated that if all of America’s 100 million hectares of cropland were converted to organic practices, it would be the equivalent of taking 217 million cars off the road.

"This is not a theoretical estimate as in some of the tree plantation models or unproven like the millions of dollars being spent clean coal or mechanical geo sequestration trials," Leu was quoted as saying. "This is being achieved now by organic farmers in the US, Australia and around the world."

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on February 04, 2013.

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