"FAO has relegated organic agriculture to a footnote in the discussion of food security in the long run”
Ulrich Hoffmann, head of the Trade and Sustainable Development Section at the secretariat of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in Geneva, mentioned his frustration on the low priority which organic agriculture and small-scale agriculture gets in the global food security discussion: "FAO has relegated organic agriculture to a footnote in the discussion of food security in the long run”.
But it is fair to say that not only FAO was criticised, as he came to a somewhat similar conclusion for UNCTAD - with the difference that UNCTAD has, at least at a political level, a rather concrete notion of the importance of organic farming to feed the world. The food and agricultural policymakers and industries ignore the fact that the conventional approach centred on external inputs will meet environmental, climate, social and ecological limits.
Knowing the important role that small scale farming plays in regional and local food security (and being aware of the limitations of conventional agriculture) this was a welcome statement for a lot of the participants. The fact that sustainable or organic agriculture is generally kept out of mainstream discussions is a problem in itself.
According to Mr Hoffmann, the 21st century should focus on an eco-agricultural intensification instead of in the further industrialization of agriculture, leading to higher production levels on the same plot of land.
Ulrich Hoffmann stressed two facts, first of which is the intensification of ecological knowledge and practices, in contrast to the intensification of profits, waste, chemicals and energy.
Second, he stated that organic farming builds in resilience in its system. Through the in situ the development of farming systems, the improvement made are long lasting and become a part of the ecological, social and economical system. This contrasts a conventional approach to farming that mostly chooses to outsource resilience by investing in e.g. pesticides, GMOs and imported farming systems based on large scale monocultures.
Notwithstanding the intrinsic positive connotation of his paradigm, it seems a mirage if you look at the actual trends in the world. Examples of sustainable value chains that include the producers and their social, economic and natural environment are still scarce.
GEPA's Managing Director Robin Roth explained the difficulties of developing a sustainable value chain and certification system. If next to sustainable and organic parameters economic, social and natural parameters are also included, a set of standards is introduced which can then be monitored by a certification institute. According to Mr Roth, this leads to a form of neo-colonialism that does not respect the producers involved.
The GEPA certification process differs, as it doesn’t start with presenting the necessary standards which producers have to adhere to. The starting point of any value chain development or fair trade labelling starts with a participation process in which producers are invited to evaluate their production process and come up with adjustments that will lead to a certified product. As these changes ask for a lot of investments prior to the actual certified product, GEPA includes an investment scheme to facilitate the actual transformation process of production.
This proposition of a knowledge intensive development path for smallholders either looked at from the position of a certification institute as GEPA or from an organisation like the UNCTAD the need for external investment and support is a necessity to bring changes about. As Mr Hoffmann put it: “R&D funding should shift from input intensive to knowledge intensive agriculture.”
Text: Elisabeth ter Borg