Organic farming (including some aspects of agroecological approaches to farming as referred to by Altieri and Nicholls started as a heterogeneous set of alternative-management methods in agriculture. This explains the multiple origins of organic farming and the fact that certifications of organic-farming practices have been introduced separately in various times and places. Organic farming is now growing rapidly and becoming a viable industry in its own right. Harmonizing standards and regulations are being developed and imposed more or less strictly on organic farms, both by states, like California,and by national government agencies, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Today, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is serving to unite the various organic movements of the world, with members in 108 countries and support from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). IFOAM advances basic views on organic farming, such as the following four principles:
- Principle of health. Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
- Principle of ecology. Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them, and help sustain them.
- Principle of fairness. Organic Agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.
- Principle of care. Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.
Specific rules for organic agriculture are still the subject of international debate, given efforts to improve them, to find the right mix between regulatory strictness and diversity of applications. Some important documents in circulation intentionally go beyond the basic agreed-upon principles of organic farming 32, 33, 34, 35 in order to stimulate discussion and to propose targets.
The main Swiss rules for organic agriculture are as follows:36
- Natural cycles and processes are respected.
- The use of chemical-synthetic substances is avoided.
- The use of GMOs is not allowed, nor their derivatives, exception: products for veterinary medicine.
- The products shall not be treated with radiation, and no products having undergone irradiation shall be used.
Since 2005 an official definition document on organic agriculture37 has been in a process of transparent deliberation and elaboration. The latest language, which has not yet received definite approval, describes it as follows:
Organic agriculture, as defined by IFOAM, includes all agricultural systems that promote environmentally, socially and economically sound production of food and fibers. Recycling nutrients and strengthening natural processes helps to maintain soil fertility and ensure successful production. By respecting the natural capacity of plants, animals and the landscape, it aims to optimize quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment. Organic Agriculture dramatically reduces external inputs by refraining from the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, Genetically Modified Organisms and pharmaceuticals. Pests and diseases are controlled with naturally occurring means and substances according to both traditional as well as modern scientific knowledge, increasing both agricultural yields and disease resistance. Organic agriculture adheres to globally accepted principles, which are implemented within local socio-economic, climatic and cultural settings. As a logical consequence, IFOAM stresses and supports the development of self-supporting systems on local and regional levels.38
It is notable that debate over the very definition of organic agriculture persists. The problem is that top-down regulation of organic agriculture means coming to terms with standards met also in traditional agriculture, such as defining levels of toxicity for biopesticides, which is often not easy.39
Altieri summarizes agroecology, following Reijntjes, Haverkort, and Waters-Bayer,40 with the following principles:41,42,43,44
- Enhance recycling of biomass and optimizing nutrient availability and balancing nutrient flow
- Securing favorable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing organic matter and enhancing soil biotic activity
- Minimizing losses due to flows of solar radiation, air and water by way of microclimate management, water harvesting and soil management through increased soil cover
- Species and genetic diversification of the agro-ecosystem in time and space
- Enhance beneficial biological interactions and synergisms among agrobiodiversity components, thus resulting in the promotion of key ecological processes and services
Details of modern breeding methods are still controversial in organic agriculture communities. While genetic engineering itself is widely rejected, IFOAM agrees to the use of tissue culture and genetic assays, including genetic-marker-assisted breeding.45 Note that Altieri and colleagues do not explicitly exclude transgenic plants in principle, while they clearly do not agree with the practices of multinational corporations advancing this technology. Some organic rules do not take any position on mutagenesis (traits introduced by genetic changes resulting from exposure to radiation or chemicals). This may not be unusual, since many successful crop traits have come from this method in the past.
Another breeding-related controversy is that of new hybrid crops: whereas many organizations in organic agriculture accept hybrid maize, since this is a biological phenomenon that cannot be easily reversed or avoided, most are opposed to the introduction of more hybrids in other crops.
In summary, organic farming has strong roots in traditional-agricultural knowledge. Today, it is drawing more and more on scientific research. Finding the right balance between these two sources of knowledge will continue to precipitate discussion within organic agriculture communities. Furthermore, the spectrum of different variants within organic and agroecological farming continues to expand and widen, ranging from integrated-pest-management techniques, used in conventional farming, to mainstream organic forming, to agroecological farming, and even to extreme forms of biodynamic farming.
In a number of developing countries, there are clear intentions to develop transgenic plants for use in subsistence farming, as indicated by statistics published by Cohen46 and the FAO.47
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