Mercator Foundation Switzerland Grantee Highlight

Q&A: Building Bridges at the 18th Organic World Congress

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IFOAM is a grantee of Mercator Foundation Switzerland, which is also the funder of our coverage on “Organic Solutions in Global Food Affairs.”

The 18th Organic World Congress, organized by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, will take place Oct. 13-15 in Istanbul. It is held every three years, each time in a different country, and is the largest event of its kind. During the three-day conference, over 2,500 stakeholders from all over the world will come together to discuss global issues related to organic farming.

The program is divided into three tracks: for practitioners, for scientists and a general one, in which pressing issues, such as organic certification, food security and the future of family farming, will be discussed. This year, the conference boasts a diverse array of keynote speakers, from athletes to politicians, all chosen for their unique backgrounds and approaches and their engaging messages. The OWC is an opportunity for the movement to tighten its coherence by bringing together different kinds of people who are all interested in organic farming.

Markus Arbenz, the executive director of IFOAM, is looking forward to a conference that will inform and inspire. Our student reporter Amy Jeffs spoke with Arbenz about this year’s theme, “Building Organic Bridges.”

How were the topics and framework for the conference decided and by whom?

Arbenz: We try to identify the most burning issues in the sector by looking at what is most heavily debated and developing the topics from there. There are several levels of topics. On the one hand, we have the theme of the conference, which is “Building Bridges,” which is rather general and intended as a platform for everybody. It is also meant to signal that we are not only looking inside, from stakeholder to stakeholder, but also outside—building bridges into the wider agricultural community. It also acknowledges the location of the conference in Istanbul, on the Bosporus, bridging the divide between Europe and Asia.

In your opinion, what are the highlights of this year’s Organic World Congress?

Arbenz: For this conference, the highlight is the keynote speakers, I would say. I am quite happy to present this time people that are quite interesting. For example, Will Allen, who was a famous basketball player in the United States and became, after his sports career, quite famous for urban gardening. He has a great ability to motivate people to do urban farming. We are looking forward to hearing him step out of the American urban environment into the organic movement and bring his message here. So that is one highlight.

Another one, with a totally different message, is Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji, who is minister of agriculture and forests in Bhutan, the first country to declare a 100 percent organic agricultural policy. It was declared by the previous government of Bhutan, then he came into office about one year ago and was convinced by the previous opposition government to continue this policy. He will report how they did that in Bhutan and in the Malayan countries.

We have also, for example, Christian Felber, a writer and a lecturer at the University of Economics Vienna. He’s a very successful speaker with a busy schedule, and he brings new economic approaches. Kathleen Merrigan, formerly the U.S. deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is one of the most influential people on the board. She is now executive director of sustainability at George Washington University.

There are more speakers, and together they bring a wealth of inspiration.

It takes some financial backing to attend the OWC. Has any provision been made to enable practitioners at the grassroots level to come, especially given this year’s emphasis on “building organic bridges”?

Arbenz: Well, this is an issue, of course, and we have to consider all opportunities, given what is available. In this respect, it was better three years ago when we had a very generous Korean government. This year it is a bit more difficult; you may be aware of the difficult situation Turkey is in right now, in terms of its economic situation but also its political situation, so we are having to rely on our sponsors, firstly to make the event happen and secondly to provide opportunities to make sponsored participation possible.

We have funds from the INOFO [Intercontinental Network of Organic Farmers Organisations], which is mostly for small farmers. Then we have several smaller sponsored participations through institutions, individuals or various other projects. Many people make quite an effort to create opportunities for subsidies in their own institutional environments, so there are a lot of grants given that we are not even aware of. We try to motivate groups to send their stakeholders, as we want a high representation of countries and to enable as many people to come as possible.

What role do you think organics can play in bridging the gap between rich and poor?

Arbenz: It [organic agriculture] plays a role in the empowerment of the poor by building on what has been developed over centuries and ensuring sustainability, rather than going for quick fixes or quick solutions. What we can also do is foster methods that are adapted to local conditions, and I do not mean just ecological conditions but also education or social systems and economic possibilities. All these kinds of things should be included.

Could you tell me about the different “tracks” around which the conference is organized?

Arbenz: Each track addresses a different purpose. The scientific track is very much needed for inspiration, but also to provide evidence, derived from good science, that is taken seriously. The scientific track is reviewed by scientific institutions.

The practitioners track is where practitioners exchange, and I think that is probably more interesting for practitioners who want to get experience from peers and listen there.

What is new this time is the main track. This is not so much to do with exchange but with developing together. So we launch debates for exploring things that need to be developed, such as certification. What role will certification play in the future? How can we reform certification so that it becomes more accessible? Or how can we make local adaptation while retaining global coordination? How can we emphasize it more without actually losing coherence, without losing trust between countries?

For example, the EU often says that produce coming from Africa or other countries is not trustworthy. How can we develop so that farmers can adapt locally and that certain nations will trust other nations? Or, in other words, that richer nations trust the export nations and have confidence [that] their systems are also credible?

What issues do you expect to hear raised when it comes to organic certification?

Arbenz: There is a lot of debate going on about whether we are on the right track with [certification] or not. And as is shown by organizations like the Rainforest Alliance, organic is not just about certification. [See Berry Kennedy’s recent piece on the organic certification debate.] I know, for example, you have to be certified if you want to go on the market, but we are not just representing the market—rather, the whole movement. We welcome initiatives that are taking sustainable agriculture further and take their organic principles very seriously, as well as those who seek organic certification and want to go on the market. There are actually a number of models, such as certain cooperatives, that we totally support, which are not actually certified. This does not mean they are against certification. You need certification when there is a large quantity of products presented in shops—something to guarantee what is claimed.

What does organics owe to traditional farming methods?

Arbenz: Old is not always good. It can also be called “agriculture by default.” However, new approaches also need to be questioned and adapted locally. There is the Organic Farming Innovation Award, which rewards new ideas in this area. However, sometimes inspiration for the new idea comes from the past. The system of rice intensification is an innovation that originated in Madagascar in the ’60s but was disseminated widely in the ’90s. It enables farmers to get much higher yields with fewer inputs.

What effect does the OWC have on mainstream suspicion of organics, especially among conventional farmers? Does its exclusivity (i.e., stakeholders only) inhibit wider discussion?

Arbenz: It’s always difficult to assess the impact of a conference. We think it galvanizes the global organic movement. It is necessary that once in a while—in this case, every three years—people meet in an environment where there is a certain energy to keep the movement together.

As for the effect outside, personally I think organic has a more sustainable and environmental impact beyond its movement than within its movement. Methods that were quite normal 20 years ago are not possible anymore, because there is a movement that challenges things. DDT, for example, was widely accepted, and they even received Nobel Prizes. There needed to be a critical mass of people who were critically observing it and wanting things better tested. It’s very important that there is a certain pressure on conventional farming culture. This questioning has a big impact on actual improvement.

There is a thing these days in some countries called “integrated agriculture.” It is taking big steps forward, it is even becoming mainstream. These guys draw a lot of their inspiration from organics, although, as ever, inspiration is derived from many sources. We are part of a movement that is bringing about more sustainable agriculture.

How will conclusions from the Organic World Congress feed back into mainstream agriculture? Has it affected policy in the past?

Arbenz: When thousands meet, go back home and bring something home with them to their work by changing something in their policies, then the impact is very real. I think it is better, however, to look at the impact of the chain of conferences [related to organic agriculture]; there isn’t just the OWC. Together, they greatly motivate people to engage. African and Latin American farmers learn from each other, for example.


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