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OVERVIEW

Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system

Organic farming is one of several approaches to sustainable agriculture. Indeed, many of the techniques used in organic farming - such as inter-cropping, mulching, and integration of crops and livestock - are practiced under various agricultural systems. What makes organic agriculture unique is that, under various laws and certification programs, almost all synthetic inputs are prohibited and "soil building" crop rotations are mandatory. Properly managed, organic farming reduces or eliminates water pollution and helps conserve water and soil on the farm. A few developed countries (e.g. Germany, France) compel or subsidize farmers to use organic techniques as a solution to water pollution problems.

Although still only a small industry, organic agriculture is becoming of growing importance in the agriculture sectors of many countries, irrespective of their stage of development. In Austria and Switzerland, organic agriculture has come to represent as much as 10% of the food system, while USA, France, Japan and Singapore are experiencing growth rates that exceed 20% annually.

The demand for organic products has also created new export opportunities for the developing world. Since demand for a variety of foods year-round makes it impossible for any country to satisfy all its organic food needs domestically, many developing countries have started to tap lucrative export markets for organically grown products - for example, tropical fruit to the European baby food industry, Zimbabwe herbs to South Africa, African cotton to the European Community, and Chinese tea to the Netherlands and Soybeans to Japan.

Typically, organic products are sold at impressive premiums, often at prices 20% higher than identical products produced on non-organic farms. The ultimate profitability of organic farming varies, however, and few studies have assessed its long-term prospects. Nevertheless, under the right circumstances, market returns from organic agriculture can contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes.

Entering this lucrative market is not easy, however. Farmers and agribusinesses seeking to sell their products in developed countries must usually hire an organic certification agency to annually inspect and confirm that they adhere to the standards established by various trading partners. The cost for this service can be expensive, especially since few developing countries have certification organizations of their own. In addition, farmers who adopt organic management can find their access to developed country markets blocked for up to three years under certification procedures that require "purging of chemical residues".

Whether the intent is to sell organic products domestically or abroad, reliable market information is almost always difficult to obtain. In particular, no projections for the market in the developing world have been made, nor have markets systematically been identified for developing country exports.

Typically, farmers experience some loss in yields after discarding synthetic inputs and converting their operations to organic production. Before restoration of full biological activity (e.g. growth in beneficial insect populations, nitrogen fixation from legumes), pest suppression and fertility problems are common. Sometimes it may take years to restore the ecosystem to the point where organic production is possible.

In these cases other sustainable approaches that allow judicious use of synthetic chemicals may be more suitable start-up options. One strategy involves converting farms to organic production "in installments", so that the entire operation is not put at risk.

Most studies have found that organic agriculture requires significantly greater labor input than conventional farms. Therefore, the diversification of crops typically found on organic farms, with their different planting and harvesting schedules, may distribute labor demand more evenly, which could help stabilize employment. As in all agricultural systems, diversity in production increases income-generating opportunities and can, as in the case of fruits, supply essential health-protecting minerals and vitamins for the family diet. It also spreads the risks of failure over a wide range of crops.

Nevertheless, organic farmers face huge uncertainties. Lack of information is a major obstacle to organic conversion. Extension personnel rarely receive adequate training in organic methods and studies have shown that they sometimes discourage farmers from converting. Furthermore, institutional support in developing countries is scarce - professional institutions capable of assisting farmers throughout production, post-production and marketing processes are non-existent in many developing countries.

Land tenure is also critical to the adoption of organic agriculture. It is highly unlikely that tenant farmers would invest the necessary labour, and sustain the difficult conversion period, without some guarantee of access to the land in later years, when the benefits of organic production emerge.


 
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