Organic farming not automatic best option for developing world

OECD Observer

OECD Forum, 15th May, 2001— SD Roundtable: Agriculture and Sustainable Development; moderator: Sophia Lambert

Organic farming is not always the best option to boost agricultural production in developing countries, Madagascar's Jean-Robert Estimé said. Estimé, the director of LDI, a programme designed to help farmers increase their production while sustaining natural resources, was speaking at a round table on agriculture and sustainable development at the OECD's Forum 2001 on Tuesday May 15. “In Madagascar, we have many rural, small farmers who have never used chemicals and some utilisation of chemicals may be necessary for development,” said Estimé. “Trade liberalisation and market reform is not enough. Farmers must have access to packages including technical assistance, credit and inputs.”

Hector Torres, from the Argentinian Delegation to the World Trade Organization, agreed that conventional farming should not be abandoned in the name of sustainable development. However, Torres chastised the current policies of OECD countries, whose subsidies and tariffs, he said, were at least partially to blame for problems and political unrest throughout developing nations.

“The OECD has calculated the total support estimate provided by member countries to the agricultural sector was in 1999 more than US $360 billion. That's more than the African continent's GDP, excluding South Africa,” Torres said. “And as a result, prices aren't reflective, harming competition.”

Torres said some have suggested the way out is to not reduce, but rather add new subsidies such as so-called green subsidies to encourage more environmentally friendly production. “But this is as foolish as turning on the air-conditioner while keeping the heat on,” Torres said.

From the floor, Pete Hardstaff, a trade policy officer with a U.K. conservation organisation, said he fully supported Torres' call for reform. “Conventional wisdom maintains that the most efficient farming is the cheapest. Yet, as a number of panellists have pointed out,” said Hardstaff, “it is not efficient to degrade and destroy the natural environment on which agriculture depends. How can truly efficient agriculture be promoted without being undermined?”

Torres said protecting the environment is always opting for the future. “In the short term, it is cost,” he said. “It rarely pays. And what producers tell you in developing countries is, ‘You must be mad. The long and the medium term are an extravagance. I am just coping to survive.’”

Torres said if European governments want to compensate farmers for not using pesticides, it can be done with direct and targeted measures – but not with price support.

Liz Hopkins, director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, from the Netherlands, said, “we need to develop indicators of monitoring biodiversity. Free trade is not 'free' if market prices don't reflect environmental and social costs.”

Former Korean agriculture minister Sun-hoon Kim agreed that sustainable agriculture needs to get on the international agenda. He said he has witnessed a growing number of organic farmers in his country. He pointed to a government survey that found that over past four years, Korean farmers have cut their pesticide and insecticide use by half, while actually increasing their average income.

Kim, now a professor at Seoul's Chung-Ang University, called on the forthcoming WTO ministerial conference to pay due attention to the growing importance of environmentally friendly agriculture.

Hans Joehr, as a food producer, echoed that call. Joehr, Assisant Vice-President of the Swiss food giant Nestle, said his business depends on factors he cannot control. The use of chemicals and genetically modified seeds, he argued, takes away consumer confidence – and what is at stake today is an issue of global concern.

Joehr said given the media attention and political treatment recent issues such as BSE and foot and mouth have received, Nestle does not see something so simple as organic food as an overall solution.

“In ancient times, the hunter or the farmer directly shared his food with his family. The producer and the consumer were part of the same family,” said Joehr. “Today, we have a chain … and things are getting complicated.”

©OECD Observer May 2001

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