"Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved." (New IFOAM definition of Organic Agriculture)

Organic Agriculture, World Hunger and Global Warming
Report from the IFOAM Organic World Congress and General Assembly

Modena, Italy, June 17-24, 2008

by Elizabeth Henderson

Most of our attention and energy as NOFA members goes to acting locally. But occasionally it is exciting to think globally and travel to meet other people from around the world who are practicing, organizing, researching and lobbying for organic agriculture in their own local places. From June 17 through 24, 2008, I had the honor and pleasure of representing NOFA at "Cultivate the Future," the 16th Organic World Congress and General Assembly of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in Modena and Vignola, Italy. The organizers of the conference did not shy away from the big issues. The official welcome announces: " We will be looking for ways on how Organic Agriculture contributes solutions to the major problems in this troubled world: from climate change to food insecurity, from gender imbalances to biodiversity loss, from rural depopulation to global injustice."

The Modena gathering was the largest and most diverse IFOAM congress ever held with over 1200 participants from 100 countries. The IFOAM General Assembly was also the best attended yet: sixty percent of the IFOAM members were present or represented by proxies. There were 248 voting members from 69 countries with about 90 proxies. I got to vote with NOFA's blue card at the three days of intense discussions and debates on the top priorities for organic agriculture.

The Organic World Congress

The setting for the congress was Modena, a small city in the industrial heartland of Italy, in the Emilia-Romagna region, home of Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto ham, Lambrusco wines, and Mazaratti and Ferrari automobiles. In the evening, the center of the city with its cobblestone streets and beautiful old buildings is closed to motorized vehicles. Tourists can pick up a free key to bicycles parked conveniently around the city. The local, municipal and regional governments supported the conference and cooperated with the Italian Organic Agriculture Association (AIAB) in organizing special organic street markets, tours and dinners with local food. There were also pre-congress conferences on organic fruit, fiber and wine production.

With sixteen tracks of workshops running simultaneously, there was no way to encompass them all. The choices were maddening — Organic Agriculture and Climate Change or Women in Organic Agriculture or Organic Agriculture's Relationship with Nature Conservation and Biodiversity. The International Society for Organic Agriculture Research (ISOFAR) accounted for six of the tracks devoted to reports on the impressive amount of organic research from universities around the globe. The compilation of abstracts for the entire congress runs over 500 pages. So I will share my impressions and urge you to consult the Book of Abstracts, available from the IFOAM website: www.ifoam.org.

The first two days of the Congress opened in a huge tent with plenary sessions devoted to IFOAM's four principles of organic agriculture: ecology, care, fairness and health. Jorgen E. Olesen and Vandana Shiva spoke on ecology. After reviewing the mounting evidence that organic agriculture uses less energy than conventional agriculture, Olesen, a Danish professor of agro-meteorolgy, challenged IFOAM to reduce international trade. Support for organic business is fine and a source of revenue, Olesen said, but in conflict with the principle of ecology. In her usual fiery and brilliant style, Vandana proposed changing the pyramid of life to put bacteria instead of human beings at the top. Ecology means understanding the power of biodiversity: in our world "everything is something else's food." She concluded with another challenge — since climate resilience is a common good, we must build on the strengths of organic agriculture, such as its lower use of water, to fight against climate change. On the principle of Care, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher urged us to make soil replacement the central issue. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, punctuated with emphatic gestures his passionate summons to understand the essential connection between producers and consumers.

On the principle of Health, Alan Greene, a pediatrician and author, reviewed the history of long-term damage caused by using such drugs as DES and hormone-laced meat, and applauded organic agriculture for its adherence to the precautionary principle. Geneticist and Director of Plant Science for Mars Inc., Howard-Jana Shapiro stressed the importance of seed and defined health as the abundance of the positive. On the Principle of Fairness, Frances Moore Lappe pointed out that improving the lives of farmworkers was not on the Whole Foods list of reasons for organic, and warned that fairness and justice were unlikely to result from an economy driven by the highest return on investment. By contrast, Lappe insisted that fairness is an innate quality of human beings so we must live and work in hope. Unfortunately, Juan Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia, was unable to attend. In his place, Javier Hurtado, Bolivia's Minister of Production, described their ambitious program for converting 8000 farms and 3 million hectares to organic production by 2010, and their success in providing the low-income citizens of La Paz with 80 percent of their food from small-scale organic farms.

Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, who has worked within the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for many years to bring attention to the value of organic agriculture, coordinated the session on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change. In her opening remarks, Scialabba spoke about the current crisis in the price of food. According to FAO statistics, food prices rose 24% in 2007 and 53% in 2008. Increases in the price of food are especially threatening to the food security of developing countries where people spend 70 to 80% of their budgets on food. The main factors underlying the increase, according to Scialabba, are the decline in food stocks due to increasing numbers of climate disasters, the privatization of control of food stocks, the rise in energy costs, the use of crops for biofuels (47% of the vegetable oil in European Union countries goes for biodiesel), the decline of the dollar and speculation on crop markets. Scialabba concluded that the implications for organic agriculture are the urgency of promoting local food systems and fair trade and improving the use of energy.

Claude Aubert, a pioneer in organic agriculture in France, reported on the International Scientific Dialogue on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change held in April 2008. He stated that agriculture is responsible for 30% of CO2 emissions, half of which comes from fertilizer production. Aubert cited studies that show that organic agriculture uses less energy (26% less per ton of output), and emits significantly lower levels of nitrous oxide, especially where legumes are used. He advocated a change in eating habits to local, organic food, with less meat and less packaging. In addition to her contributions to the congress, Vandana Shiva introduced a Manifesto on Climate Change and Food Security. The manifesto stresses that the problems of our world are largely political — the lack of will to make change. Vandana denounced the Kyoto Protocol as a non-solution that does not even touch on agriculture; an emissions trading system allows polluters to get paid for continuing to pollute. Together with the other presenters at this session, Vandana believes that organic agriculture has a major role in mitigating the food and climate crisis. Every step that mitigates the effects of climate change also helps us adapt to those changes. When we add organic matter to the soil, we raise its water holding capacity and reduce the need for irrigation. In conclusion, Vandana called for a transition in knowledge to local and indigenous.

The Social Justice module took up a full day of presentations at the Congress, which also included many relevant papers in other sessions, as well as a full day on Women in organic agriculture, and half a day on Food Sovereignty, featuring a major address by Miquel Altieri. There were so many simultaneous sessions in different buildings that it was impossible to attend them all or to get all the people concerned with the social agenda for organic agriculture together. Jacqueline Haessig Alleje, a member of the World Board, helped organize and moderated the SJ module. Swiss by birth, Jacqueline lives in the Philippines where she and her Philippino husband and their 5 children run a dairy farm, the first to be certified organic in the Manilla region. In her introduction to the module, Jacqueline set the tone, stating that Social Justice is as integral to organic agriculture as soil health.

Unlike the 2 and 3-day social justice sessions the Agricultural Justice Project has organized at previous IFOAM conferences, the Social Justice module allowed very little time for discussion. The day was packed with paper after paper, each speaker limited to 7 ½ or 10 minutes so that all could fit in the allotted time. Only the absence of a few presenters left a little time for questions and interactions. The program included presentations on an Ethiopian honey project, a Brazilian cooperative selling fair trade-organic nuts, my presentation on the Agricultural Justice Project, Michael Sligh on the broader issues of organic guarantee systems, Richard Mandelbaum speaking on migrant workers, an organizing project in Colombia, another in Palestine, two survey projects, one from Austria and one from Great Britain evaluating communication of social values, a paper arguing the need for equivalence among the fair trade organic projects, Marty Mesh of Quality Certification Services (QCS) and Manfred Fuerst of Naturland on implementing social standards in organic certification, and a group of papers on "social farming," defined as projects involving either prisoners or socially disadvantaged people in organic farms. In the final 20 minutes open for discussion, all we could do was agree to develop a recommendation to IFOAM at the Saturday session, and Richard and I distributed draft language and language from a recommendation passed at the 2005 congress. I later learned from Thomas Cierpka that IFOAM had followed up on the 2005 recommendation by producing a Guide to Implementing Social Standards, available for download from the IFOAM website (to find it, go to Search, then click on "Social Justice").

The half-day social justice discussion did not have a large attendance due mainly to scheduling complexities — the GALCI (Latin American) and Asian groups were meeting at the same time. Nevertheless, we worked well as a group to compose the following set of recommendations to IFOAM:

The IFOAM Organic World Congress 2008 Social Justice Module participants recommend to the IFOAM General Assembly at Vignola:

That IFOAM continues to engage actively in the promotion and inclusion of Social Justice in the development of Organic Agriculture.

IFOAM recognises that Social Justice is a mandatory component of any Organic Guarantee System and will therefore commit to include the Social Justice component in the IFOAM Organic Guarantee System, regardless of the outcome of its revision.

To this end we recommend that IFOAM initiate a Forum on Social Justice in order to:

  • Establish a definition of Social Justice in Organic Agriculture, based on the declaration of human rights of the UN, the ILO conventions and taking into account the regional socio-economic conditions and the different cultural contexts. The definition of Social Justice in Organic Agriculture will focus on the rights and perspectives of women, children, farmers and workers.
  • IFOAM will support the Social Justice Forum to host a conference on Social Justice in Organic Agriculture.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly had too long an agenda and did not get to the recommendations, which will be circulated to and voted on by the membership electronically.

I also attended a session devoted to Organic Markets. The plenary included speakers from the entire spectrum of marketing from local direct sales to one of the largest food corporations on the globe. Helga Willer from the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) presented the latest statistics on organic farmland, crops and percent of market. Ong Kung Wai, from Malaysia and a member of the World Board who has done a lot of work on harmonizing organic standards to smooth international trade, gave an ingeneous and realistic analysis of the state of organic guarantee systems. The ideal, according to Kung Wai, is one inspection, one certification and one accreditation, but this is far from the current baffling labyrinth of competing standards. He concluded with a call to build trust in organic through more emphasis on values formation.

The next four speakers contrasted stunningly with one another. Wolfgang Sachs from the Wuppertal Institute presented the case for "Slow Trade," a critique of the dominant neo-liberal system of "free trade." Sachs called for five propositions: 1. give countries the right to govern their own imports, 2. invest in domestic supports that help the common good while not harming foreigners, 3. set standards for quality, 4. democratize the food chain, and 5. redress the current asymmetry in global markets by placing priority on national food security, with fair and organic trade for the entire food system. Following upon Sachs, Jan Kees Vis from Unilever put the audience in its place by declaring that the volume of trade controlled by Unilever surpasses the entire world trade in organic products. Unilever, according to Vis, is investing in sustainability indicators and working with groups of small farmers in Africa. However, Unilever requires a large volume of sustainably produced raw materials. He concluded, "Whoever tells the story best, wins." The final two speakers, Daniele Giovannucci and Farmer John Peterson proved that Vis is right, telling their stories with far more authenticity than the corporate officer could muster. Giovannucci talked about the value to small holders of geographical indicators, a new way of defining local that can foster rural development. Peterson gave a brief but moving version of his personal story, "The Real Dirt on Farmer John." If you have not seen his film, check it out soon!

Next I attended two closely related modules on "short supply chain and local markets" and participatory guarantee systems (PGS). The short supply chain sessions included presentations on Community Supported Agriculture in the US, Japan, France, Canada and England, Slow Food, and several other local marketing initiatives. In the discussion, passionate words were exchanged about the urgency of including low-income, landless and people who live outside the money economy in organic agriculture. The PGS session clarified the meaning of a PGS — local organizing of small-scale farms selling direct with education, empowerment of farmers, and democratic participation.

I also attended a meeting between most of the members of the Urgenci board (an international network of CSA-like projects, represented in Modena by Samuel Thirion, acting president, Shinji Hashimoto and Murayama from Japan, Daniel Vuillon , a the first of 1000 farmers to adopt AMAP (Association pour le maintien d'une agriculture paysanne) in France, and a farmer from Mali, whose name, unfortunately, I did not catch) and IFOAM representatives (Angela Caudle, and World Board members Ong Kung Wai, Mette Melgard, Vice President, and Brendan Hoare.) The conclusion was that partnering in some way was possible and that Urgenci should begin by talking with the PGS Forum of IFOAM. Urgenci would like joint sponsorship of a conference in France to persuade authorities that CSAs and PGS are legitimate ways to offer an organic guarantee. The Urgenci group then rushed off to Rome to a meeting with FAO to request financial support for a training program in authentic marketing, such as Teikei and CSA, for farmers from developing countries.

Since 1998 in Mar del Plata, farmer organizations in IFOAM have been trying to get a Farmers Group together. As long as Inger Kallander, of Sweden, coordinated voluntarily, the group functioned, exchanging occasional messages about issues related to farmers within IFOAM. After Adelaide, Andrea Ferranti took over, and not much occurred. At Vignola, farmers gathered again and this time decided to constitute themselves as an internal body of IFOAM. At three hurried meetings, we knocked together a set of by-laws and elected a board with Moises Quispe from Peru as Chair and Anton Pinschof as coordinator (secretariat). I am on the board, representing N. America. The objectives are: to pursue IFOAM's principles and objectives within the areas of food sovereignty, climate change, farmers markets, Guarantee systems, standards and all other farmer related issues; to be an exchange platform among Farmers organizations (and I think this will be the main function for the time being), and to represent farmers' organizations within IFOAM and outside. Our first task will be to identify the farmers' organizations in IFOAM and to create an email group. Anita Deppe, a new staffer at IFOAM, attended the meetings and was very helpful.

The General Assembly

The 2008 General Assembly was faced with three major tasks, and many other agenda items, to:

  1. discuss the "new concept" for the Organic Guarantee System (OGS)
  2. elect a new World Board(WB)
  3. select a site for the 2011 Congress.

The outgoing WB presented a program of 6 goals, each with several objectives, for 2011. Members divided into 6 groups to discuss them and suggest changes, which were then voted on by the entire body. The GA also discussed and voted on motions from the members as binding guidance for the WB.

Sixty percent of the IFOAM members were present or represented by proxies at the GA, the highest attendance in IFOAM history. There were 248 voting members from 69 countries with about 90 proxies.

Since 2005, the World Board has been struggling with a revision of the OGS. Taking as their rationale the need to open the certification system to easier access for developing countries, the WB has been working on a scheme to decouple the IFOAM standards from IFOAM accreditation. Although the WB chart for the new concept refers to "best management practices," and a code of ethics for certifiers, these pieces have yet to be developed. The WB directed their attention first at replacing the IFOAM Basic Standards (IBS) with "benchmark" standards that were meant to serve as a baseline for organic certification programs, the lowest common denominator. IFOAM members, including yours truly, responded with such emphatic criticism that, after 3 revisions, the WB realized that approach would not work. At a meeting a few weeks before the GA, they came up with a new concept — IFOAM Requirements for Organic Standards (IROS): a set of standards for standards that would be used to screen sets of organic standards to select those that would be considered members of the "IFOAM Family of Standards." In recognition of the fact that they were springing this new understanding on IFOAM members at the last moment, the WB postponed a final decision till the fall and will solicit written responses from members. Many of the participants at the GA were hearing about this plan for the first time and found it confusing and complex.

To prepare for the WB elections, Michael Sligh and I decided that members needed to know where the candidates stand on the major issues facing IFOAM. While the GA agenda provides for introductions of the candidates, with only 4 minutes each, there was no possibility of learning very much. So we developed a questionnaire and sent it out to all the candidates. 15 of the 26 (later reduced to 22) responded. I compiled their answers into a 24-page document and was able to send it to the IFOAM membership email list before the GA. We also made 100 copies, which we distributed. Many members told me that this was very helpful. Based on these responses and our familiarity with some of the candidates, we created a short list of candidates who could be trusted to put the development of local markets and smallholder empowerment as the top priority for IFOAM rather than emphasizing international trade. When the votes were counted, all 5 of those elected in the first round were on our list. Existing president Gerald Hermann announced his withdrawal from further balloting, saying he did not feel he had a mandate from the members to continue as president. In the second round, two more from our list were elected. Only Jim Riddle failed to be elected — by 1 vote. When the WB convened to elect officers, they selected Katherine diMatteo as President, since neither Roberto Ugas nor Urs Niggli, who had received close to 100 more votes each, felt they could find time for that job, although they agreed to serve as vice-presidents. So we have a "coalition" government for IFOAM, a definite improvement on the previous Executive Board.

In his 4-minute speech, Roberto Ugas summed up the feeling of the clear majority of the members present. Roberto declared that poverty is the worst threat to sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture is the answer, and IFOAM must keep organic standards high since the problems for developing countries are with the procedures and price of certification, not with standards.

As a side circus to all this serious business, three countries - South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines - competed to host the 2011 congress with native costumes and performances, impressive amounts of food, and even little presents. Korea was clearly the best prepared and financed and won the competition. They promise to provide a big budget to bring small-scale farmers from developing countries to the next GA and to offer tours of agriculture in China, and North and South Korea.

The abundance of motions and the energy with which each was discussed prevented the GA from completing its agenda, despite skillful chairing by Beate Huber and Brian McElroy. This process is IFOAM democracy at its best, though simultaneous translation into Spanish, Chinese and a few other languages would make it fairer. Motions that pass become directives to the WB, which must report back on what progress has been made on each motion. Several motions on seeds direct the WB to develop a holistic policy on the use of organic seed, and to oppose the patenting of living organisms and to clearly exclude all GMO varieties from cultivation on organic farms. The motions touching the OGS were all written before the announcement of the "new concept," by the departing WB. Unfortunately, this new proposal was only available just prior to the GA and therefore could not be fully evaluated or comprehended by those present. While not covering all needed areas of options and guarantees, the new concept does present some promising elements that warrant additional dialogue and scrutiny. Nevertheless the motions that passed make it clear that the membership wants to keep the current system of IFOAM Basic Standards in place until the members have approved a new and more holistic system, that can meet the needs of members seeking access to basic standards as well as those calling for higher standards. A motion passed that further clarified the IFOAM Grower Group policy, stating that it is only for smallholders and not open to retailers. A motion on including the gender perspective in all IFOAM work was dropped because the World Board had already declared this to be an IFOAM policy. Motions to strengthen regional groups, farmer representation, to include PGS in the OGS, and to promote Food Sovereignty all passed with strong votes and finally a motion passed ensuring that major political changes to the OGS must be approved by the full membership.

All in all, this was a most dramatic and clearly positive General Assembly, which created a strong mandate for change and called for hard work on the part of all members and allies to meet the highest ideals and potential of organic. Over and over again, the speakers at the Organic World Congress called upon organic agriculture to focus on our unlimited potential to help arrest global warming and provide resilient ways to produce healthy, clean, culturally appropriate and fairly traded food for everyone. The many fine contributions to the Congress demonstrate irrefutably that organic practice and science contain the clues to solving the world's food crisis. The membership of IFOAM chose a World Board that understands the responsibility to bring this message to the world.