Organic Agriculture Worldwide:
A Fast-Growing Reality

Bookshelves with scientific studies are filled and the evidence cannot be argued that the introduction of chemically synthesized pesticides has caused tremendous environmental and social problems. In my home country of Germany, despite all the IPM propaganda from the chemical industry and the serious attempts of scientists and farmers to really reduce pesticide spraying, we still dump 30,000 tons of pesticides per year on our fields.

A recent study in Germany has shown that the economic damage for our society caused by the use of synthetic pesticides every year is in the range of up to 300 million DM (Deutschmarks) - and this does not include the new federal states of our republic. Even in our highly educated country with careful training of our farmers in handling pesticides, the costs for deadly poisoning with pesticides alone amounts to almost 8 million DM per year. The costs for monitoring the pesticide level in drinking water is the highest cost factor at 64 million DM.


Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil in 1992, the term of sustainability has become rather meaningless. The phrase has actually been highjacked by chemical companies showing nice advertisements with ladybugs and weeds flowering in the fields who claim that so-called modern agriculture with all its chemical/synthetic interference is sustainable. Politicians and organizations such as the United Nations have overused and overemphasized this phrase until it has become more or less meaningless.

The organic movement and IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) claim the parenthood of introducing the term sustainability into agriculture. Already 20 years ago, the first IFOAM International Scientific Conference in 1977 in Switzerland was titled “Towards Sustainable Agriculture.” One of our earliest and most fascinating pioneers in the organic movement, Lady Eve Balfour from the United Kingdom, has given the best definition of sustainability I have ever come across: “The criteria for a sustainable agriculture can be summed up in one word, ‘permanence,’ which means adopting techniques that maintain soil fertility indefinitely, that utilize as far as possible only renewable resources, that do not grossly pollute the environment, and that foster life energy (or if preferred biological activity) within the soil and throughout the cycles of all the involved food chains.” That is what organic farming is all about.


There is no other farming method so clearly defined and regulated by standards and ruses as organic agriculture. Our organic movement has four decades of experience in not only defining our way of practicing agriculture, but also in establishing inspection and certification schemes to give the consumer both a guarantee and confidence in the prime quality of our products, and especially in the environmentally sound methods by which they are produced.

The rapidly growing importance of organic agriculture may be seen in the development of organic regulations within “Codex Alimentarius,” as well as in the fact that many nations such as England, Argentina, Israel, Australia, and recently the United States are enacting legislation in this field. The draft for the U.S. regulation recently published has been heavily critized and has already attracted thousands of comments from around the world, concluding that these agro-industry biased regulations would destroy the organic movement and our market opportunities.

There are fewer problems with the regulations in other countries by far, since they draw their inspiration from the IFOAM basic standards, which have now been translated into 18 languages from Chinese to Swahili. Comparable clarity cannot be found for integrated farming methods, much less for so-called “sustainable” agriculture. We have lots of reasons to claim that “organic agriculture is sustainability put into practice.”


In order to get an impression about the fast growth of organic agriculture, a look at IFOAM and its membership gives some interesting indications. Founded in 1972 by six organizations (coming from three continents), the federation developed after 15 years into an umbrella federation with about 100 member organizations in 25 countries. In the last ten years, the almost explosive development of organic agriculture all over the world is reflected in the fact that IFOAM now unites 670 member organizations and institutions in over 100 countries worldwide.

To get an understanding of how fast organic agriculture is spreading out we should look first at development on the farming and production level. It is impressive to have about 8,000 organic farmers in Germany, which is home to some of the biggest and transnational chemical companies whose political and financial power creates quite some pressure on the organic movement. In the federal state of Mecklenburg- Vorpommern already 10 percent of the total land is under organic cultivation. A number of other German federal governments have committed themselves to a 10 percent organic goal. Yet, it remains a fact that nationwide, we are in the range of only 2 percent. Neighboring countries show what booming developments are possible. In Switzerland the organic share has reached the range of 7 percent, with the largest Kanton (province), Graubunden, having around 30 percent. The boom in Austria, with more than 20,000 organic farmers, indicates a 10 percent share for organic farming. But Sweden and Finland have also reached the level of Switzerland, and they are now competing with Austria for the lead. The latest statistics from Italy show 18,000 farms either organic or in conversion to organic farming.

Yet there has also been impressive development in the Southern Hemisphere and in the so-called Third World. An organic farming project for cotton-producing farmers in Uganda started with a couple of hundred farmers and within three years has shown that 7,000 farmers moved to cultivate organic cotton. In Mexico tens of thousands of campesinos (small farmers) produce organic coffee for export, as well as staple food organically for the local market. The Mexican UCIRI cooperative alone has organized some 7,000 farmers in over 30 villages converting a whole region into organic farming.


Fortunately, the market development and consumer demand for organic products is matched by the rapid growth of conversion to organic farming methods. The organic market in the United States is in the range of $3 billion and is expected to double in the next two or three years. In Germany, we can see how the whole babyhood sector is well on its way to becoming more or less exclusively organic. Also, the fact that more than 30 percent of the daily bread in Munich is baked with certified organic ingredients is a clear indicator that organic products conquer mainstream markets.

It may be surprising that even in a country like Egypt, organic produce is becoming mainstream. The biodynamic SEKEM initiative, employing about 1,000 people, delivers its products to 6,000 pharmacies and to 1,200 shops. Egypt, being a nation of tea drinkers, has shown its preference for organic tea by the fact that the best selling herb tea is certified organic. Rapidly growing consumer demand is also reported from countries like Argentina, Japan, Poland and Australia. The boom for organic products is not a luxury of the developed world, as we have seen in the case of Egypt. It is encouraging that local markets for organic food are becoming increasingly established in so-called developing countries. The growing importance in this context will be close cooperation between organic agriculture and the fair trade movement.

The organic sector is probably the most rapidly growing food market in the world. Respected organic market analysts like Professor Ulrich Hamm have forecasted annual growth rates of 20 to 30 percent and, in some countries, even up to 50 percent per year. The largest organic trader in the United Kingdom expects today’s estimated $11 billion world organic market to go to a volume of $100 billion in the next then years, with a major share of this growth taking place in the United States and Japan. In the context of these figures and forecasts, Denmark’s target of reaching a 20 percent market share of the total food market for organic products in the next couple of years sounds quite realistic.

An indication of the organic future ahead is the fact that McDonald’s (with organic milk in Sweden), Nestle, Sandoz, Lufthansa and, lately, with a lot of media attention and an ambitious commitment, Swiss Air (catering 25,000 meals per day), have entered the organic sector.


Many people may not see that organic farming will one day be so widespread that synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides become “endangered species.” I certainly do not want to have the farmers worldwide forced legally to stop using pesticides. But I do trust in the power of markets and consumer demands, as well as in the convincing fact that our organic and often-called “biological” way of farming is so logical.

The organic movement and the environmentalists are ready for the next struggle - genetic engineering, which is accelerating the already existing problems of pesticide use, and enters our environment with a new dimension of global risk. In the promotion of genetic engineering, we hear the same unrealistic promises as we heard when chemistry was introduced into farming. If we continue to manipulate genetic organisms, we will face problems, which we may quite likely never get under control.

Genetic engineering has to be rejected for many reasons: It is dangerous and not at all risk tolerant. It is absolutely not necessary for food production and processing, and it is not economically viable (which doesn’t mean that the big multinationals cannot reap huge profits).

If one has a basic understanding of the underlying principles of organic farming and knows about the power of nature, one will agree with the firm position of the organic movement that genetic engineering has no place either on organic farms or on any other field. I will continue to support the 76 percent of German consumers that are against genetic engineering in food and will work to ensure that the future of genetic engineering will soon become history.

During my first practical training in farming on a conventional farm which used all the chemical options available, I realized very quickly that this cannot be the future for farming. Most fascinating for me was that organic farming is not at all a “do nothing way” of farming and that it does not get its strength by being against something like pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming has at its core an attention to healthy soils and cycle economies, and it cares about the social aspects of agricultural pursuits.

If we continue with this positive approach, the organic movement will be the starting point, not only for healthier farmers and food, but also for a change in lifestyle and consumption patterns, thus helping to develop sustainable societies with a bottom-up strategy - namely, field to field, farm to farm, shop to shop, village to village, and region to region. Look more closely at what organic farming has to offer. Have the courage to be more “radical” (in the truest sense of the word, of going to the roots) and join the organic movement.

Bernward Geier, Executive director, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
He can be reached at Okozentrum Imsbach, D-66636 Tholey-Theley, Germany,
phone 49- 6853-5190.

(Reprint, ACRES U.S.A., February, 1999 edition)

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