The questions are from my friend and customer Selina Gan at Country Farms, Malaysia and the interview will be also published in their Newsletter.
Q&A-; Interview with Erkki.
1. What’s the purpose of Organic Certification?
The purpose of certification is to protect the integrity and trustworthiness of organic production and products. By having a reliable inspection and certification system we ensure that consumers are getting the pure organic products they are paying for. Likewise we are protecting the farmers and producers against unfair competition.
2. What is behind an organic label such EU logo and Finnish certifications,
Organic certification must be based on a common understanding of what organic production is. Therefore organic standards have been developed in different regions since the 1940’s and formal third party certification schemes were started in 1970’s in Europe. IFOAM was founded in 1972 for cooperation between organic associations in different countries and for harmonization of the standards. An important step was taken in 1991 when the European Union Organic Regulation came into force and harmonized European organic standards and certifications. Importantly it states that all food products marketed as organic (in all member state languages) or as Bio or Eco must be third-party certified. It includes an organic standard and stipulates that organic products must be certified either by third-party certifiers that are accredited by the member state government or by governmental authorities. The EU organic logo can be used on all organic products that have been certified organic in an EU member state. Therefore the EU logo is guarantee that the product has been produced according to the EU organic standards and it has been certified in the EU.
In Finland we have a governmental certification system run by the Food Safety authorities (Evira).
3. How do organic farmers fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds?
An underlying idea of organic farming is that chemicals that are foreign to nature are not used. Therefore chemical fertilizers and pesticides are prohibited. But it is wrong to say that organics would be going back to old farming methods. Farmers benefit from the progress in our technological and biological knowledge and apply them in a sustainable manner. Chemicals, genetic modification, hormone-treatments and routine medication of animals is not sustainable and is not accepted.
Organic farming methods must be adapted to different climates and environments. In Finland fertilizing is primarily based on crop rotations using clover lays to bind nitrogen biologically from the atmosphere and animal farms take advantage of the animal manure. Limestone, rock phosphate, stone meal etc can be used if the fields pH is too low or they are deficient in specific nutrients.
Many pest problems result from use of easily soluble chemical fertilizers and specialized monoculture farming systems (growing only one crop in large areas for several years). Organic farming strives to maintain a healthy soil and ecosystem on the farm and therefore the farmer has less pest problems to start with. In organic cereal farming in Finland weeds are controlled mainly with a well-planned crop rotation. The most important method to fight diseases is to use clean disease-free seeds – however seeds may not be treated with fungicides. If pests are a problem different methods might be used based on an understanding of the biology and life-cycle of the pest.
4. How does public response to Organic certification?
Earlier – especially before organic certification was required by law – the consumers main question was: “How do I know your product is really organic – that you are not cheating”. The only way was either to know the farmer personally or trust a certification label. Now that the EU organic regulation has been enforced for over 15 years the recognition of and the trust in the organic label is very high.
5. Why there are some producers and farmers resistant to Organic Certification?
There are 2 main points the producers complain about – and I can understand they do so. The first is the cost of inspection and certification. Especially for very small producers it does not make economical sense to bear the costs. The second reason is the burocracy that is involved. The producers must adopt very detailed quality and documentation systems. Farmers complain they are not farmers anymore – they feel they are office workers. However strict documentation is necessary for the inspection to be reliable. So unfortunately both the cost and the paperwork is necessary for the integrity of organic farming.
6. Can organic farmers produce enough food for everybody?
This is a big question but I think the answer is and must be yes. From a global perspective we should compare organic farming to two other systems of food production: modern chemical farming methods that are predominant in the West and introduced to the developing countries as the “Green Revolution” and less developed traditional farming methods that are still predominant in many parts of the developing world.
There is no doubt that organic farming does not match modern chemical farming systems in terms of yields per hectare. However chemical farming is totally oil-driven and a major contributor to climate change and pollution of the watershed. We all know that the world will be running out of oil in our lifetime and that excessive use of oil and other fossil fuels is the main contributor to climate change. Therefore we must go back to a sustainable farming systems based on biological processes and local resources – and that means organic farming. We must also bear in mind that the bulk of agricultural research has been done for chemical farming and organic farming has developed despite this. We must focus research on developing sustainable organic farming systems and this must be done with tax-payers money. Business is interested only in farming systems that depend on inputs: fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid or gmo seeds etc. They are not interested in self-sufficient sustainable farming systems because there is no business for them.
On the other hand adopting organic farming methods instead of traditional farming methods can – according to professionals – easily raise productivity 50-100% in developing countries. Organic farming is based on the important innovation of crop rotations, mixed farming and using leguminous nitrogen binding organisms in the farming system. These basic innovations have not been widely adopted yet in most developing countries although it is mostly a question of education because organic farming is not dependent on commercial inputs.
Organic farming is often referred to as an alternative farming method. Personally I don’t think we have an alternative to organic farming if we are to feed everybody – certainly not when we run out of oil. We must also think of what is enough food? When people get more wealthy they tend to eat more meat. Bear in mind that producing 1 kg of meat requires 7 kg of cereals and other plant origin fodder that could be eaten by humans as well. The less we eat animal products the more there is food for everyone.
7. How can IFOAM ensure the Organic Certifications are authentic?
In the world of organic certifications we have both legislative and private certification systems. For example in the European Union, the USA and Japan organic certification is based on legislation and is compulsory. In most other regions organic certification is still enforced by private third party certification bodies. While the understanding of what organic means is broadly the same in all legislative and private systems, the devil lies in the details. The word for coping with this is harmonization. IFOAM (short for International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) has long worked for harmonization of organic standards and certification systems so that trade in organic products would be possible. IFOAM is also a very important lobbyist for the organic movement towards legislative systems. On the private side IFOAM has developed an accreditation system which is a kind of certification of certifications. Certification bodies that have been accredited by IFOAM (or actually IOAS) are recognized as complying to the Organic Basic Standard of IFOAM and to the requirements for the inspection and certification system. Most private certification bodies are IFOAM accredited because that enables their certified producers to go into export and be recognized by the certification bodies in the target country. So you might want to check that a certifier is IFOAM accredited unless it is a EU or USDA certifier. You can find a list of accredited certification bodies on IFOAM’s web-site www.ifoam.org. The EU or USDA certifications are not IFOAM accredited because they are legislative systems and all certification bodies issuing EU or USDA certificates are accredited by their respective governments. However IFOAM basic standards and IFOAM lobbying have had a great influence on EU and USDA as well as FAO’s Codex Alimentarius organic standards. We need the legislative systems for protecting organic standards but we also need to keep the initiatives to develop organic farming in the hands of organic NGO’s – and that is why IFOAM is so important.
8. Can you tell us the organic issue in Asia?
95% of organic products are sold in Western Europe and North America. Most of the remaining 5% of the market is in the Far East. The main production areas are also Europe and North America but also South America and increasingly Asia, especially China and India. South America and Asia are producing mainly for the export market although the local market is emerging rapidly. For Asia I believe it is important to spread a deeper and wider understanding of organic farming as a solution both for consumers and farmers – and the environment. A consumer is initially mostly worried about her own health and food security and chooses organic products for her own immediate benefit. It can be difficult to understand the environmental benefits especially if organic products are imported. But the fact is that promoting sustainable organic farming methods in Indonesia would make it easier to breath in Kuala Lumpur. Even converting more field area to organic in Finland will decrease climate change and benefit people in Asia on the long run. However I think the most important issue is to stop the chemicalisation of agriculture in Asia and adopt sustainable farming methods instead. As a consumer you can have your say but of course this is also a political issue.
9. How can IFOAM become popular in Asia?
IFOAM brings together all people and organizations working with and promoting organic farming and production. IFOAM members include national organic movements from all over the world, other NGO’s close to organic farming and also businesses committed to organic farming. My company is an IFOAM member. IFOAM is extremely important in defending the integrity of organics against big business and governmental forces and should get the support of all who work with organics and want to support the development of a sustainable farming system locally and globally.