The strength of organic farming is that it is multifunctional, that is, it performs many different services at the same time, like a Swiss army knife – a popular multifunctional tool. But that also means for any particular issue seen in isolation, there will be a better tool.
Organic standards developed mainly within the organic community, and largely by organic farmers and gardeners and small groups of activist ‘consumers’. Gradually other groups became engaged in the standard-setting process, for example, processors and special interest groups, such as animal welfare groups, social activist groups or environmental groups. Through regulation, governments also became active, getting engaged in several different roles. The government has the role of balancing the interests of different groups, to ensure that they are all fairly represented and considered. This can be a very useful role if performed correctly, especially in regard to ensuring marginalised groups are included in deliberations. The government, which has access to considerable expertise from within, can also provide technical expertise in matters of standards.
Governments, often, use their regulations to manifest their power over the sector. This is achieved in many ways, for instance by making certification bodies accountable to the government and by setting standards that are not grounded in organic traditions. It is unfortunate when regulations are driven by this desire to assert power. The organic sector has little to gain from this kind of regulatory approach. Ultimately, it has little value for the government as well. The kind of very heavy-handed regulation that the Chinese government has introduced is likely to drive many stakeholders out of the organic market place, in a similar way that the Japanese regulation did some ten years ago. Clearly, governments have both the right and obligation to take action if blatant fraud is prevalent in the organic market place, which seems to have been the case in China, but this can be done in many ways. Preferably it is carried out in a partnership with the sector rather than as a dictate from the government.
Governments are also stakeholders in the standards process, influencing organic (and other) standards in pursuing public interest goals, goals that are normally not pushed by any of the key parties. Such goals could be the development for the public good, such as improved biodiversity. It could also be about avoiding public ills, such as pollution from the handling of animal manure. Increasingly, organic agriculture is promoted as an option for mitigating climate change. And there are some reasons for this. Organic agriculture uses less energy than its non-organic counterpart, mainly because of the avoidance of nitrogen fertilisers, thus causing less carbon emissions. Organic agriculture also maintains or improves soil organic matter compared to non-organic systems, thus causing less carbon emissions and it can even work as a substantial carbon sink.
But these broad statements are expressions of average performance; they don’t mean that all organic farms are good for the climate. Not all of them use little energy; some use fossil fuel for heating greenhouses and some use massive amounts of energy for pumping water or simply for intensive mechanical cultivation. Some organic farms do not work as carbon sinks, for example, intensive row crop cultivation is likely to be harmful for soil organic matter.
The strength of organic farming is that it is multifunctional, that is, it performs many different services at the same time, like a Swiss army knife – a popular multifunctional tool. But that also means for any particular issue seen in isolation, there will be a better tool. And here there is an inherent danger or challenge. For the market place it is, perhaps, enough to make average statements, but when talk turns to economic compensation for a certain service, e.g. carbon sequestration or biodiversity conservation, it is not satisfactory to talk about average performance. By emphasising one aspect of the many sides of organic systems we may lose sight of its other valuable traits. This is a predictable risk when public compensation is introduced with the specific purpose of providing a particular ‘environmental service’ and if standards are tailored to provide that particular service. This effect can already be seen in the various private sector initiatives to make climate standards.
The future for the organic sector is more in making the tools mutually supportive rather than increasing the size of the individual tools. This requires systems thinking rather than a narrow focus on one parameter. But the standards, with their increasing level of detail, don’t foster systems thinking at all. And the work of government administrations rarely does as well, as each department has its own very limited responsibility. What to do?
Leader of The Organic Standard, April 2012