Definition and Global Situation of Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture has a long history with guidelines developed in 1924 to formalize an alternative to conventional production systems (Hovi et al. 2003). This was associated with Rudolf Steiner and the development of biodynamic farming and agriculture, which has unique features in addition to those of organic farming in general, and a certification scheme established in 1928. This still operates today and is identified by the Demeter and Biodyn labels on foods (Lampkin 1999). Organic farming can be defined as a method of production, which places the highest emphasis on protecting and enhancing the environment and minimizing pollution (Liebhardt 2003). Organic farming systems focus on soil fertility as the key to successful production and reduction of external inputs by refraining from the use of chemosynthetic fertilizers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Instead, natural resources and processes are relied upon to manage soil nutrient status and pests, diseases and weeds and hence to influence animal and crop product yields and quality under certain standards and regulations. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is the worldwide umbrella of the organic movement and works to coordinate and unite the organic food and farming at the international level. IFOAM described organic agriculture as 'all agricultural systems that promote the environmentally, socially and economically sound production of food and fibres by adhering to globally accepted principles'. These are implemented within local socio-economic, geoclimatical and cultural settings and indeed, IFOAM stresses and supports the development of self-supporting systems at local and regional levels.

Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food standard body established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), describes organic agriculture in great detail: 'Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agroecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfil any specific function within the system.' (Sligh and Christman 2003).

Products labelled as organic must be certified by a third-party organization as having been produced according to specific standards. The first standards on organic agriculture were developed by private organizations, and the IFOAM basic standards were first published in 1980 and have been continuously developed. Today, the basic standards of IFOAM are applied worldwide, with minor differences in interpretation in different countries. For example, the European Union has a common set of minimum standards (European Commission 1991), while individual European countries or organizations have additional requirements or limitations. The need for clear and harmonized rules has not only been taken up by private bodies, IFOAM and state authorities, but also by United Nations Organizations. The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission approved the Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods in June 1999, and animal production guidelines in July 2001. Throughout 2005 and 2006, IFOAM updated and integrated the Organic Guarantee System (OGS) and 'harmonization' programme to provide greater assistance to governments and private bodies worldwide, which are cooperating on organic standards and regulations. Currently the annex lists, which define what substances can be used in organic systems, are under revision, and in the future the discussion about alternative treatments for food processing will continue (Willer et al. 2008).

Organic agriculture is practised in most countries of the World and the extent has continued to expand as more producers have realized that organic production is often a legitimate and economically viable alternative enterprise (Creamer 2003). Worldwide in 2006, over 30.4 million hectares were managed organically by more than 700,000 farms, constituting 0.65% of the agricultural land of the countries surveyed (Willer et al. 2008). Table 4.1 shows that the Australia/Oceania continent accounted for the majority with almost 12.4 million hectares, followed by Europe with almost 7.4 million hectares, Latin America, Asia, North America and Africa. Australia is the country with most organic land. China is second and Argentina is third.

Table 4.1 Land area in organic production in the world in 2006 (Willer et al. 2008)

Continent

Land area (million hectare)

% of global total

Oceania

12.4

42

Europe

7.4

24

Latin America

4.9

16

North America

2.2

7

Asia

3.1

10

Africa

0.4

1

Total

30.4

100

Global demand for organic products remains robust, with sales increasing by over US$5 billion per year. Organic Monitor estimates international sales to have reached US$38.6 billion in 2006, double that of 2000, when sales were US$18 billion and have grown at a rate of 24% per year for the last 8 years (Willer et al. 2008). Consumer demand for organic products is concentrated in North America and Europe. These two regions comprise 97% of global revenues. Asia, Latin America and Australasia are also important producers and exporters of organic foods. The global organic food industry has been experiencing acute supply shortages since 2005. Exceptionally high growth rates have led supply to tighten in almost every sector of the organic food industry: fruits, vegetables, beverages, cereals, grains, seeds, herbs, spices (Willer et al. 2008).

In Europe, while the area under organic agriculture has risen rapidly over the last decade, it represents only 3% of all agricultural land. However, organic agriculture is the most dynamic sector within the whole of European agriculture, with production increasing by 30% per year since 1998. The UK organic market has increased rapidly in recent years, with a growth rate of 30-50% per annum. For example, in the UK sales amounted to £802 million in 2000-2001, and increased by 33% on the previous year (DEFRA 2002) and had exceeded £2 billion in 2006 (Soil Association 2007). Clearly, although organic farming's share of the total agricultural area and food production in the world may still seem very low, it is continuing to expand and might play an increasingly significant role in future throughout the world.

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