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Business.2010 newsletter: Agribusiness

Volume 3, Issue 2 - February 2008: Agribusiness

Keeping farming organic and making it productive

Angela B. Caudle
Executive Director, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements
Demeteris Hale
Strategic Relations, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements
Honey bees pollinate about one-third of the food in the human diet. In the spring of 2007, farmers through out North America scrambled to find bees to pollinate their crops as colony collapse disorder (CCD) potentially threatened to impact the production of more than 90 food, fiber and seed crops that depend on honey bees for pollination. The symbiotic relationship between bees and crops is one of many such partnerships that are tied to the biodiversity present on farms. CCD has been a harsh reminder of the importance of biodiversity to the economic success of a farm as the price of bees for pollination has sharply increased. Biodiversity is being compromised in major part due to agriculture expansion, but also climate change, depleted water sources, and changing ecosystems contribute to biodiversity losses. Diminishing biodiversity affects producers intimately tied to the functioning of these systems. Organic agriculturalists are uniquely and intensely tied to biodiversity for the livelihood of their farms.

Biodiversity as the corner stone
Organic food producers operate their farms within norms and principles, as propagated by private and public authorities, which necessitate the functioning of biodiverse systems on the farms. A producer of unprocessed or processed products must follow prescribed norms, including the conservation and use of biodiversity, in order to market their goods as “organic” (1). The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) for example has requirements that ensure that a producer use biodiversity (ecological systems and methods) to be classified as organic. IFOAM mandates the conservation of primary ecosystems on organic farms for certification to be granted (2). Additionally, IFOAM operators are strictly prohibited from administering conventional pest and disease control inputs with ingredients that include carcinogens, teratogens, mutagens or neurotoxins and, are “required to manage pressure from insects, weeds, diseases and other pests, while maintaining or increasing soil organic matter, fertility, microbial and general soil health (3)”

National governments also have set legal standards that must be met in order for a processed or unprocessed good to be considered organic. Although the labelling guidelines don’t refer directly to biodiversity they may guide producers to take advantage of biodiversity benefits. European Union member countries, U.S.A., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other major organic food producing countries have standards in place to regulate organic production and labeling. Each organic farmer is dependent upon the distinct local ecosystem to produce goods for the market, sustain such production over time and retain their status as an ‘organic’ producer.

Expanding product markets
A biodiversity disruption or failure can also adversely affect the variety of products that can be marketed by a farm. It is a plain economic fact that greater diversity in a portfolio helps to spread risk and supplement production. Biodiversity also refers to diverse genes within a specific species. Organic farmers looking to move into new markets or develop a niche are facing a diminishing bank of genetic resources available from one or more species which hampers the organic product diversification and ultimately the potential profitability of organic farms. Breeding using organic sustainable methodology is a promising new vehicle for farmers to tap into livestock production of breeds more suitable for regional climate and feedstock. For example the reconstitution of the Giant Black Italian hens and other native species in the Ligurian region exemplifies the way in which farmers can use biodiversity to move into new markets to supplement farm income . However continued damage to biodiversity implies that these farmers may not have access to these gene pools and are constrained to more risk as a result of their concentration of production in one particular set of goods.

Production based on biodiversity
Colony Collapse Disorder affected farmers through out the world especially in crops where the bees were necessary pollinators or in the case of honeybee farmers where bee by-product is the crop. The disappearance of the bees meant lowered production and higher costs. Biodiversity in the form of insects, helpful fungus, microbes, and other ecological system by-products are essential to an organic farmer to maintain production and profit. Where biodiversity fails and the system breaks down, organic farmers have fewer avenues of recourse to ensure production to meet demand. Organic farmers look to sustain the mineral, water and energy cycle while minimizing operating costs. Plant biodiversity and animal biodiversity are related so that even organic farms with mixed production will suffer in a causal chain that is ultimately tied to the survival of their farms and their communities. Finally losses in production will also mean problems with inputs to organic processed products. Most national labeling standards require that processed organic products contain 95 to 100 percent organic content for the purpose of marketing and retailing. Processed products will incur higher costs as a result of limited supplies available from farmers, which will mean higher prices passed on to the consumer and market shortages.

Biodiversity is important to food safety and sustainable agriculture systems. The optimal use and management of agriculture depends upon biodiversity and biological processes. “This calls for the widespread adoption of management practices that enhance biological activity and thereby build up long-term productivity and health”. For organic agriculturalists there are important economic links between biodiversity and organic agriculture. Biodiversity in ecological systems and in plants, animals, and micro-organisms as well as interspecies genetic variability are the primary objects targeted for support by international conventions such ITPGR, CBD and others.

Angela B. Caudle is the Executive Director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). She has been active in both the United States and international organic industry, furthering the scope and acceptance of organics. Demeteris M. Hale is a strategic relations trainee at IFOAM in the FAO Liaison Office in Rome Italy. She is also a licensed attorney with a master’s degree in international commerce and policy.
(1) Under International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements Basic Standards, “organic” is defined as “…farming system and products described in the IFOAM Basic Standards…”
(2) IFOAM Basic Standards. Section 2.Ecosystem Management. Subsection 2.1.2
(3) IFOAM Norms for organic production and processing, 2005