Organic farming sustainable agriculture and the modern agrofood system

A related theme within both conventional and alternative agriculture over the past decade or more has been the need to make agriculture more sustainable. Sustain-ability has proven to be a universally embraced and appropriated concept, and consequently its meaning is highly contested. Jules Pretty (1998), as an advocate, has identified some key principles for sustainable agriculture; firstly, a thorough integration of natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration and pest-predator relationships into agricultural production processes; secondly, a minimisation of external and non-renewable inputs that damage the environment or farmers' health; thirdly, full participation of farmers in problem solving and greater use of farmers' knowledge and experience in seeking technical and technological solutions. Lastly, wildlife, water, landscape and other public goods of the countryside should be enhanced in terms of quantity and quality. Sustainable agriculture needs to draw upon, and in turn sustain, both natural capital and social capital. Natural capital (including soil, water, air, plants, animals and ecosystems) has to be integrated in agricultural systems in the form of regenerative technologies such as: use of nitrogen-fixing plants for soil conservation, use of natural predators for pest control and integration of animals into cropped systems. Social capital entails utilising farmer and community labour, knowledge and experience and underpinning community cohesion.

The importance of greater reliance upon natural organic inputs, farmer participation and reduction of external and non-renewable inputs is also reflected in the development of agroecology as a model for poor farmers in developing world agriculture (Altieri 1995; Pinstrup-Andersen et al. 1999). Similarly, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in concert with the Convention on Biological Diversity has become an advocate for the importance of an agro-ecosystems approach in developing countries, embracing many of these principles of sustainable agriculture (Aarnik et al. 1999).

Notwithstanding the pre-eminence of the conventional agriculture model as presented, farming within the EU includes a wide diversity of practices, with a large amount of land subjected to more environmentally benign low intensity and traditional farming practices. A nine-country study from within the EU estimated that 38% of usable agricultural land (about 56 million hectares) is farmed with low-intensity and traditional practices, mostly in so-called marginal agricultural land and more remote, sparsely populated areas, yet providing important countryside and wildlife habitat conservation (IEEP & WWF 1994). Hence, the conventional model is more muted in its application in such areas.

The general impulse towards more sustainable practice within European agriculture might suggest a continuum of approach from conventional highly intensified systems to more environmentally aware integrated farm management systems to low intensity farming through to organic agriculture. Yet, it can be misleading to adopt such a linear approach. In the case of organic farming, a more holistic approach is advocated, setting it apart from such linear linkages. Organic farming sees 'the farm as an organism, in which all the component parts - the soil minerals, organic matter, micro-organisms, insects, plants, animals and humans - interact to create a coherent, self-regulating and stable whole', rather than in terms of external inputs (Lampkin et al. 1999).

Organic farming has its origins in the first half of the twentieth century, gaining momentum from the 1940s. There are acknowledged to be different pioneers across different European nations who developed their philosophy and principles under different titles. These included: Steiner and Pfeiffer and biodynamic farming originating in Germany and spreading across Northern Europe (including the UK); Hans Peter Rusch and Hans Muller and biological farming in Switzerland; and Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour and organic farming in the UK. In the UK there was early evidence of an evolution in thinking concerning organic farming. Balfour further developed Howard's work on soil management and his advocacy of adapting agricultural research to local farmer knowledge and local ecosystems into 'a powerful holistic approach linking the soil and its fertility to questions of animal and human health' (Clunies-Ross & Cox 1994). For a new generation of converts to organic farming in the 1960s and 1970s the emphasis upon locality, of local production for local markets, provided an attractive socio-economic alternative to conventional agriculture and the dominant agro-food system.

The standards of organic farming, derived from such principles, have not been immutable or set in scientific stone, but have evolved and adapted. Synthetic pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were introduced into the farm system subsequent to the early development of organic farming, but those setting standards for organic farming have formulated responses to them, prohibiting their use in each case. Today, a system based on soil management and mixed farming of livestock and crops needs to formulate standards for quite different areas such as fish farming and complex food processing.

Organic producers have sought to establish their own standards and certification, a quasi- or private regulatory system, that provided market credibility and branding while putting up potential entry barriers (Guthman 1998). The state has welcomed such voluntary standardisation by the private sector. However, with the UK state highly engaged in food production, it sought to rationalise the regulation of organic standards, and set up the UK Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) in 1987 to co-ordinate the setting of standards amongst the differing producer organisations. Regulation under the EC followed in 1991. According to Regulation EEC 2092/91 organic farming is defined as:

a system of managing agricultural holdings that implies major restrictions on fertilizers and pesticides. The method of production is based on varied crop farming practices, is concerned with protecting the environment and seeks to promote sustainable agricultural development. It pursues a number of aims such as the production of quality agricultural products which contain no chemical residues, the development of environment-friendly production methods avoiding the use of artificial chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the application of production techniques that restore and maintain soil fertility.

(CEC 1991)

These EU-wide standards were amended in 1999 to cover livestock. Under the EU regulations the role of UKROFS has become one of 'ensuring that organic certifying bodies correctly interpret and implement [the Community] legislation rather than actually setting standards' (House of Commons 2001). Nonetheless, the EU regulations are the result not of any concrete science but are 'an embodiment of traditional practice more than anything else' (House of Commons 2001).

Organic farming has evolved in its organisation in response to market demands and opportunities and emerging research and development. The organisation of organic farming, particularly at the stages which are off, but near, the farm, is evolving to meet market demands in terms of distribution, wholesaling and marketing.

This has led to concerns that organic farming and food production is taking on the characteristics of industrial or productionist agriculture, compromising its integrity as an alternative agricultural strategy for food production. This is a critique levelled by an analysis of the organic vegetable commodity chain of northern California where the organic food market, which is more mature that that of the UK, provides examples of agri-business strategies. Examples included the large-scale monocrop production of carrots (regulations in California relate to inputs, such as pesticides, not processes, such as crop rotations) across a variety of different climatic locations on a contract supply basis (Buck et al. 1997). This has led social theorists such as Watts & Goodman (1997) to reflect on corporate dominance and to question the depiction of organic agriculture in terms of small producers and alternative networks. Increased demand for organic products has gone beyond fresh farm produce to include an increasing diversity of goods processed and manufactured from organic products. The pressures of industrial processing and manufacturing, as well as the intervention of multiple food retailers, have come to bear on organic farming and organic foods. The EU's regulation of organic processing standards has been less strict than that of organic farming. Concern has been raised over the number of nonorganic processing aids and additives allowed, and the rules governing complex processing plants which make both organic and conventional foods using a continuous process (House of Commons 2001). The ingredients of the final manufactured food product may compromise the healthy food goal, and image, promoted by organic farming (Lobstein 1999).

Organic farming is trying to practise within agro-food systems affected by the contemporary pressures of globalisation, irrespective of the local and regional food economy-centred aspirations of some practitioners within the organic movement. In 1999-2000 an estimated 75% of organic food sold in the UK market was imported (Soil Association 2001a). The integration of organic food into large-scale and highly concentrated retailing was reflected in the UK organic sales through different outlets in 1999-2000. Supermarkets accounted for 74% of sales (up from 69% in 1998-1999), the independent retailers and health food shops sold 13% (down from 15%), and another 13% of products were sold through direct marketing schemes to consumer sources such as farm-gate sales, box schemes or market stalls (down from 15%) (Soil Association 2001). The more radical view of the role of organic farming as an alternative food system, linking producer directly to consumer, is stymied in part by the lack of local and national production and infrastructure to meet market demand.

The UK's retail market for organic food had rapidly expanded in the UK through the 1990s. Sales had been worth £105 million in 1993-1994; £140 million in 1996-1997; £390 million in 1998-1999 and £605 million in 1999-2000 (Soil Association 2001a). Germany remains the largest and most mature organic market in the EU (£1.6 billion in 2000) representing 25% of the total annual organic turnover. Over the next few years from 2000, further growth of 20% is estimated in Italy (from an estimated £600 million in 2000), France (from £500 million), Sweden (not available), The Netherlands (from £145 million), and 40% growth in Denmark (from £240 million) (Soil Association 2001a). Such growth in market demand can be explained by consumers' increasing lack of confidence in the safety and overall impact of conventional food production (in both health and environmental terms) and the search for an alternative. Various food scandals and uncertainties, from salmonella to BSE, from GMOs to dioxins, have fed negative perceptions of conventional agriculture. Organic food has been able to promote an alternative 'brand image' for environmentally sound food production, and as a more 'natural' and 'healthy' food, free from pesticide residues. Multiple food retailers have bought into and further supported the success of this branding, seeking contracts with producers, offering shelf space and even funding conversion, in order to help meet market demand for these type of products (van der Grijp in this volume). In turn, such promotion has led to a renewed scrutiny of this image by the conventional agricultural and food establishment. The head of the UK's Food Standards Agency criticised the safety and health claims of organic food, prompting a detailed rebuttal from organic producers (FSA 2000; Soil Association 2001b).

The post-War state, in the UK at least, has supported the development of the dominant industrial model for agriculture. Despite the variety of participants within the organic movement, organic producers who have sought to gain the support of the state in order further to develop their own systems of food production have had to seek entry into this dominant and somewhat contradictory paradigm. The result for many organic farming organisations has been a strategy of seeking to avoid directly challenging the dominant model of agriculture. This strategy has entailed downplaying the alternative or holistic challenge to the dominant model, adopting a more pragmatic and incremental approach to gain acceptance for organic farming in the wider agricultural policy community. In the 1980s key alliances were made with the supermarkets and the agricultural training and education institutions, further pressuring the government departments to support relevant research (Clunies-Ross & Cox 1994). The initial price of such entry was the acceptance of organic farming in the 1980s by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) as one possible solution to overproduction under the CAP. The result was 'the persistent presentation of organic farming as an extensification option' (Clunies-Ross & Cox 1994). Similar thinking was reflected, for example, in a European Commission document in the early 1990s which presented organic farming as most suitable for marginal agricultural areas (already low impact and extensive) where premium pricing would allow farmers to be profitable (CEC 1994).

The terms under which the utility of organic farming as an add-on to conventional farming evolved somewhat further in the 1990s through the introduction of the European agri-environment regulation (EEC/2078/92). Increasingly, the environmental benefits of organic farming are being acknowledged, gaining some official acceptance in the UK in MAFF, and more positive advocacy in the Department of Environment (DETR) (Meikle 2000). These government departments were merged, in part, as the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) after the General Election of 2001. Advocacy for organic farming emerged in parts of the European Commission, also (CEC 1996). In June 2001 the Council of Agriculture Ministers invited the Commission to analyse the possibility of a European Union action plan to promote organic food and farming and to present appropriate proposals (Council of Ministers 2001).

The promotion of organic farming as a provider of public goods, in terms of enhancement of biodiversity and conservation of the soil and of the traditional landscape, has found increasing currency in policy debates surrounding the possible reform of farming and food production (Azeez 2000). Conversely, this has not prevented state policymakers, entrenched in the conventional agriculture paradigm, from advocating selective adoption of organic practices to improve the environmental management of that paradigm (see House of Commons 2001). Once again, organic farming as a holistic alternative is largely ignored. The promotion of these public goods does provide, however, a key entry point for organic farming into the reform debates surrounding the CAP and the AoA. The structure of organic farming under the CAP and its recent reform, and the potential for further reform, are addressed in the next section.

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