I often hear from many of my colleagues that organic agriculture is nothing but a fad and an impractical type of agriculture. Yet no one can deny, it is growing worldwide at a much faster rate than ever before. On 1st November 2016, the World Board of International Society of Organic Agriculture Research (ISOFAR) met in Isfahan (Iran) for the International Scientific Conference on Research and Innovation in Organic Agriculture hosted by the Islamic Azad University’s Isfahan branch. As one of the members of ISOFAR’s world board, I understand the topic well. We cannot ignore the voices questioning organic agriculture.
We know we cannot move forward unless we innovate and do more research to make organic agriculture a sustainable option that counters the input-intensive, chemical-dependent conventional type of agriculture. So at the meeting, we discussed what would be required to make sure that faith in organic agriculture grows stronger among producers and consumers. The speakers and the participants of this conference felt the market is there, but productivity needs to be enhanced to make organic products available at affordable prices to the consumers. This explicitly means that when we are saying no to agro-chemicals, we must have methods and bio-inputs to protect plants and animals. The ISOFAR board again resolved to make organic farming more science based as well as to offer the inputs, methodologies and technologies required by organic farmers.
Impressive organic markets
According to findings in the World of Organic Agriculture Report on Statistics and Emerging Trends 2016, the global sales of organic food reached $80 billion in 2014, with the U.S. representing the largest organic market. The report was presented during BioFach in February 2016 by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBL) and IFOAM—Organics International. It report revealed impressive figures for organic market growth worldwide including in Asian and African developing countries. Organic agriculture also has a strong presence in the EU, the U.S., Australia and Canada.
In 2016, 48,533 trade visitors from 130 countries travelled to Nuremberg (Germany) for the Biofach event where 2,325 exhibitors presented products and services from the organic food sector. In addition, trade fairs are becoming common in many countries including India, where there is now a regular annual Biofach event. Organic trade is obviously booming globally.
Support for research is weak
There is strong tradition of research in conventional, chemical-based agriculture with substantial funding, including from the private sector. Yet spending on organic agriculture research is not even 1%. Organic agriculture is currently dominated by marketers rather than researchers. Many believe that organic agriculture, due to low yields, cannot feed the world. To enhance productivity following organic practices, we need research along various dimensions including soil fertility, bio inputs, plant protection, weed control, agronomic interventions, eco-intensification, breeding, processing, marketing issues, animal nutrition and health, housing and welfare issues. The little research being currently done on organic agriculture is concentrated mostly in a few developed countries, while developing countries are the main producers for the western consumers.
I recently read an old but good paper entitled “Research in organic agriculture: Assessment and future directions.” It was published in 2000 and has detailed the research needs in organic agriculture. To give a boost to organic agricultural research, outfits like IFOAM’s Technology Innovation Platform and Animal Husbandry Alliance are engaged in promoting international collaboration on organic agricultural research and development. There is a clear need to make organic farming more science based, according to Dr Gerold Rahmann, ISOFAR’s President, as well as many others. This topic was discussed at Organic 3.0, an International symposium held in South Korea last year.
The EU has a clear lead in organic agricultural research, since this kind of research is currently conducted in almost all European countries. The amount of on-going research is highest in Scandinavia and the German-speaking regions of Europe. It takes place in private institutions as well as universities, institutes and research stations. There are some places, which dedicate all their activities to organic agriculture. In several countries, research in ecological agriculture originated in independent institutes like FIBL and the Elm Farm Organic Research Centre. In the U.S., the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) seeks to solve critical organic agriculture issues, priorities, or problems through the integration of research and extension activities. The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), also based in the U.S., cultivates organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production.
Looking at the prospects of organic agriculture and the need for more research in this rapidly evolving field, FAO has also developed the Organic Research Centres Alliance (ORCA). It intends to build an international network, and strengthen existing institutions with scientific credentials and empower them to become centers of excellence in transdisciplinary organic agriculture research. However, its outcome is yet to be sufficiently visible.
I recently read a wonderful article called “Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century“, which was written John P Reganold and Jonathan M Watchter, and published in the February 2016 issue of Nature Plants. These two Washington State University researchers assessed hundreds of published studies to see how organic farming performed against four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing. They found that organic farming systems produced lower yields compared with conventional agriculture. However, organic agriculture was found to be more profitable and environmentally friendly. It also delivered equally or more nutritious foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, compared with conventional farming. In addition, they reported that there is evidence that organic agricultural systems deliver greater ecosystem services and social benefits. Although organic agriculture has an untapped role to play when it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming systems, no single approach will safely feed the planet. Rather, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems is needed, they concluded.
We need more scientific analysis of organic systems published in credible journals. There are only a few journals that cover the area of organic agriculture are only a few. We discussed at length about the improvements needed are discussed at length in the Organic Agriculture Journal published by ISOFAR through Springer, which covers various dimensions of organic farming. Another journal called Organic Farming publishes articles on advances and innovations in organic agriculture, and food production to provide scholars and other groups with relevant and highly topical research in the field. It includes very experienced scientists in the field as a part of the editorial board, but it has published only two issues since it was launched.
The ISOFAR conference in Isfahan discussed organic agriculture in the context of the Organic 3.0 initiative. Organic 3.0 is about bringing organic agriculture out of its current niche into the mainstream and positioning organic systems as part of the multiple solutions needed to solve the tremendous challenges faced by our planet and our species.
The scientific bodies concerned with organic agriculture are rightly asking for more funds to conduct research in different aspects to develop alternative methodologies and inputs for organic agriculture. In India, the government has recently established a National Organic Farming Research Institute to give a boost to organic agriculture research.
The ISOFAR world board ended its meeting and the conference on an optimistic note: more research is going to generate biological alternatives to harmful chemicals used in agriculture. And we strongly hope that the Organic 3.0 initiative makes a big difference in the way agriculture is practiced around the world in coming years!
Guest blog post by Mahesh Chander (drmahesh.chander(at)gmail.com), Head, Division of Extension Education, ICAR- Indian Veterinary Research Institute
The views expressed are personal, and cannot be attributed to ICAR or GFAR.
Photo credits: Dr Mahesh Chander