By Elizabeth Henderson
Aware of the rumbles of violence on Turkey’s borders and the urgent pressures of global warming, mounting social inequality, hunger and fear, the IFOAM Organic World Congress (OWC) assembled in Istanbul to consciously lay out a vision of hope, cooperation and justice.
“We, the organic-minded people of the world, have come together to assist society with innovative ways to manifest the Principles of Organic Agriculture to help humanity sustain itself on Earth. Committed to showcase how we can meet the challenge of sustainability, we extend ourselves to build bridges to other people, organizations, and institutions. During the 18th Organic World Congress we have come together to make a step in developing Organic 3.0, a new concept for how we define our agriculture system, how we design our lives, and how we strategize our future.” (OWC Declaration on Building the Bridge to Organic 3.0)
At the opening plenary, the lovely and modest Gunesin Aydemir, one of the leaders of the Turkish Bugday Association that organized the OWC and widow of its beloved founder Victor Ananias to whose memory the Congress was dedicated, sketched a broad frame for the week of workshops, meetings and networking:
Building bridges between:
“The land and the people…
The East and the West…
The consumer and the producer…
The tradition and technology…
The past and the future.”
IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, unites over 800 affiliates from 117 countries with the mission of “leading, uniting and assisting the organic movement in its full diversity.” Some of the same people who started the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) have been involved since its founding in 1972. Summarizing what goes on at an OWC is worse than trying to cover all of the workshops at a NOFA summer conference. There are 16 or 17 choices at almost every slot - three double or triple tracks (practitioners, scientists and a main track) and a series of specialized sessions all running simultaneously as well as ancillary meetings. Fortunately, the conference organizers provide a CD with proceedings, 2 – 3-page written versions of the hundreds of presentations delivered in person. Enough for a whole winter of reading. You can order a copy from the IFOAM head office
I have had the honor and pleasure of representing NOFA at most of the OWCs since 1996. This time, I was very pleased that Connecticut organic farmer Steve Munno came too, and I hope he got a taste for this level of international dialogue. The next OWC will be in India in 2017.
Each day, the OWC opens with inspirational talks by keynote speakers. (Video recordings will be available.) Kathleen Merrigan talked about the growth of the US movement for change in the food system. Christian Felber stood on his hands to illustrate the inversion we must effect to turn the economy into a positive force for the common good. Japanese organic farmer Seiji Sugeno, displaced by the Fukushima catastrophe, brought a powerful appeal that nuclear power and organic farming are not compatible. Cameroon farmer Elisabeth Atangana made a moving case for empowering women and youth. Anna Moore Lappe gave a brilliant summary of all the work being done to spread organic beyond a niche for the affluent. Will Allen dazzled the audience with a lightning slide show of the remarkable accomplishments of Growing Power, recycling an old set of greenhouses into a center for urban agriculture, harnessing worm power, raising fish, training youngsters and selling organic food to the city school system.
After his talk, I introduced Will to Shi Yan Sina, founder of the first CSA in China (see my article on “The CSA Movement in China,” on the Urgenci.net website). They talked for two hours - I loved hearing the exchange between these two dedicated and creative innovators. Shi Yan and her husband Cunwang Cheng have left their first CSA, Little Donkey, and initiated another with less government support. Now in its third year, Share the Harvest Farm has grown to 500 shares. As at Little Donkey, a team of village peasants farms together with Shi Yan, Cheng and 3 other college graduates. Cheng is production manager while Shi Yan runs the CSA. The annual Chinese CSA conference that they coordinate has grown to 500 CSAs. Together they are also organizing the next International CSA conference in November 2015. (For more information, see here
I was particularly moved by a few of these remarkable speakers. Patrick Mooney, Executive Director of the ETC. Group in Canada, warned that we have one last chance and must have the guts to unite the whole food movement to force governments to take decisive action to stop climate change. A hopeful symbol that governments can listen, the Bhutan Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Lyonpa Yeshey Dorji, explained his country’s decision to be 100% organic by 2020. Closest to my point of view were the words of Gursul Tanbul, a Turkish woman farmer, who laid out the terms of the on-going struggle between ecology and economic globalization. 90% of the world’s people want another economic system, she insisted and, in angry tones, asked “How long will it take for farmers to enjoy the fruits of our work?” In closing, Gursul appealed to the soul of Victor Ananias for help and concluded by wishing good luck to us all in the work that lies ahead.
In final messages, researchers Uygun Aksoy and Gerald Rahmann pleaded for increased contact and cooperation between scientists and practitioners. They explained that research funding for organic is not yet adequate and must be apportioned more evenly around the globe. Andre Leu had the last words, thanking Bhutan for inspiration, asking the critical Rasl Petrev from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) how organic can do better. Summarizing these three intense days, Leu said we’ve looked at climate change, pollution, GMO contamination, the need for social justice. IFOAM wants to continue hearing from the people assembled in Istanbul and hopes we will take home what we have learned.
When there are so many enticing choices, you just have to plunge in and make the most of each moment. I would have liked to have followed the entire seeds and breeds track, but will have to look to the reports from Holli Cederholm of OSGATA, my roommate for the week. Since I had participated in the Sustainable Organic Agriculture Action Network process (See Winter 2013 TNF for my article on SOAAN), I had the exciting chance to take part in the Main Track. This was a series of discussions and “fish bowl” sessions designed to allow a long list of chosen speakers as well as volunteers from the audience to contribute to creating “Organic 3.0,” the future direction of the organic movement. With Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, from FAO, Beatte Huber, of the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Matthew John, World Board member from India, Urs Niggli, also of FiBL, and Alan Savory, creator of wholistic management, I was on a panel that discussed “Organic Visions and Trends,” tackling some big questions - “What does the Organic World today look like in a nutshell? How are we to understand sustainability? What are our main achievements? What are the shortcomings of Organic agriculture?” My main points were that the organic world still reflects too closely the inequalities of the larger economy. I asked that a critical indicator of future success be the number of family-scale farms and their prosperity. As in the chant “No Justice, No Peace!,” I said that “there cannot be a truly sustainable food system without justice for the people who grow, pack, ship, process and sell the food and also those who eat it.” And I concluded by quoting California organic farmer Jim Cochran, “if we are worried about insects and the environment, for God’s sake, what about the people?!”
At the final Main Track session, “The Roadmap to Sustainability: the Organic World 2017 and 2020,” George Siemon, founder of Organic Valley, argued that feeling a sense of community is just as important as the marketplace as a measure of organic growth. Roberto Ugas pointed out that in Peru growth has been fastest in non-certified organic and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). Former World Board presidents Katherine diMatteo and Gunnar Rundgren both urged that we be more radical. “We sold ourselves to the devil of the marketplace,” Gunnar exclaimed, “We need a new story, the story of food as a human right, and a philosophical shift to managing the planet as common good.”
Besides the Main Track, I attended sessions on CSA around the world, always trying to keep up with the many new projects in new countries. I listened to a discussion between the IFOAM Standards Committee (SC) and Will Allen on aquaponics. Unlike the high tech recirculatory systems, Will’s approach involves growing plants in pots of soil fertilized by worm castings together with fish tank effluent. A biosecure method of raising the fingerlings is a critical aspect of his approach and his system can only be used for selected breeds of fish. The SC did not come to a decision, but concluded that they need to judge and evaluate the entire system. I gave a paper for the Practitioners’ track – “The IFOAM Principle of Fairness: How to bring it to life on a farm or food business,” and was deeply inspired by Medina Charita’s report on the work of Masipag: “The Practice of Biodiversity Conservation and Agroecology to Enhance Climate Change Resilience of Organized Small Scale Organic Farmers in the Philippines.”
I was NOFA’s official delegate to the IFOAM General Assembly, the membership meeting that takes place every three years after the OWC. Members guide organizational policies through the election of the World Board and by proposing and voting on motions. To enable fuller discussion of motions than can take place on the floor of the GA, there is a “motion Bazaar,” where proposers and challengers can hash out controversial issues and specific wording. This time, the Motion bazaar took place in the evening on a boat that cruised around the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Istanbul really struts its stuff at night, the facades of historic buildings and bridges illuminated with colored lights. Another advantage of meeting on a boat - no one could leave early. I wish we could try this process for policy development at NOFA annual meetings!
By the time motions get to the General Assembly, many of the votes are unanimous. We voted for motions favoring a campaign on the importance of Organic Agriculture in building soil health and carbon storage during the 2015 UN International Year of Soils, and for clarification and strengthening of the IFOAM position on GMOs. We voted for IFOAM to be an advocate of nuclear phase outs and their replacement with renewable energy, for the establishment of an international beekeeping group and an animal husbandry alliance. We also voted to recommend that the World Board strengthen its ties with like-minded movements like CSAs, peasant movements and permaculture, and lead the world debate on “improving the life, welfare and justice for farmers and farm workers.” You can read the full texts of all the motions in the next edition of IFOAM in Action.
Through intentional efforts to achieve diversity, the membership has spread around the globe. Most continents have “self-organized structures” – IFOAM Asia, Africa, and Latin America - and there is also a farmer group – the Intercontinental Network of Organic Farming Organizations (INOFO) which has an IFAD funded project to train more farmer leadership. At the General Assembly that followed the OWC, we elected a World Board that includes one North American (Peggy Miars, of OMRI), three Europeans, an African, two Latin Americans, two Asians and the President, Andre Leu is a farmer from Australia.
IFOAM priorities have shifted over the years from leading the world in creating organic standards, to harmonizing the many different sets of standards for smooth international trade, to the current focus on strengthening and empowering smallholder farmers as the path to ending world hunger and creating a sustainable future. The recent declarations from the UN Rapporteur on World Hunger and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that the best way to feed the world is by improving the organic practices on millions of tiny farms are evidence that IFOAM has been working behind the scenes for decades with other civil society representatives to make the case for this crucial policy focus.
The weekend before the OWC, I participated in three pre-conferences at the Yeditepe University of Istanbul. The first, Building Food Communities was a full day of presentations and discussions of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) in ever more countries. Our goal was to showcase outstanding examples and stimulate more local organizing of primary producers, their customers and communities. The theme attracted 170 people including organizers and farmers from Turkey, the Philippines, Latin America, China and Europe. In his welcome, Andre Leu reiterated his conviction that empowering small holder farmers all over the world is IFOAM’s most important commitment. I introduced the CSA theme, laying out the shared values that unite the many different ways it is brought to life. There were presentations on Urgenci and its work spreading CSAs in Eastern Europe and North Africa, and on CSAs in China, the US, Ireland and Croatia. In the breaks, I met the founders of the first CSAs in Turkey, an urban farmer from Bangkok who reviewed the newly published Thai translation of my book Sharing the Harvest, and had lively exchanges with farmers and organizers of CSAs in Australia, Switzerland, and Peru. You can read a full report of Building Food Communities on the Urgenci website
The meeting of INOFO, the self-organized group of organic farmers, brought together farmer organizations representing hundreds of thousands of small scale farmers from Africa, Latin America, and Asia with only a few Europeans. Once again, I was the only North American. Andre Leu underlined the official IFOAM position that farmers do not have to be certified organic to be included. His opening speech set the tone for the day – “Production,” Leu stated,”is easy. The hard part is getting paid for our work. We need to take control of marketing.” By the end of the day, INOFO had selected new “convenors,” responsible for communicating with other farming groups in their part of the world, and set up working groups on such themes as cooperative marketing, farmer training, and farmer-scientist research. IFAD is providing funding for a 3-year project to build capacity and train more farmer leadership in Asia, Africa and Latin America. You can read more about this project on the IFOAM website
The third pre-conference was a meeting of the Technology Innovation Platform of IFOAM (TIPI), a research action network initiated by the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in collaboration with other research institutions around the world. I was one of five farmers from five continents invited to present farmers’ research needs. At this gathering, we reviewed the first draft of “A Global Vision and Strategy for Organic Farming Research.” This will be an extraordinarily important statement defining an agenda “to advance organic agriculture through research, development, innovation and technology transfer” that prioritizes farmer-researcher cooperation, whole farm and integrated multi-disciplinary projects that foster rural development, and “provide food for the health and well-being available to all.” Urs Niggli, a Swiss researcher and one of its main architects, makes the hopeful argument that organic agriculture has the greatest potential to balance the trade-offs between productivity and the sustainable use of the environment and limited resources as well as the trade-offs between productivity and the social/ethical aspects of farming,
By the time this pre-conference ended, the roads to the center of Istanbul where most of us were staying were totally clogged with traffic. Instead of 3 hours in a bus, the organizers proposed that the buses drop us off on the Asian side of the Golden Horn where we could take a ferry to the dock closest to Taksim Square. My companion on this adventure was Pascal Gbenou, the African farmer in our team of five. During our scenic voyage, he told me the story of his farm, SAIN (Solidarites Agricoles Integres) in Kakanitchoe, Benin and later showed me photos. (You can view these on the website
) Born the youngest and only male child to a farming family, his father was determined Pascal should attend a university. Much to his parents’ displeasure, he wanted to farm. In their village of 1200, he developed a diversified organic farm with vegetables, fruit, rice, chickens and fish, selling his produce to local people. Dissatisfied that village children could only attend school if they moved to a city, Pascal went on a campaign to persuade every parent to chip in little money so that they could buy a small piece of land and start a school. This year, much to Pascal’s delight, the first graduates of the school went off to universities. On his farm, he has established a more advanced educational center for local youngsters to learn ecological farming; to fund this school, he built cottages on the farm where he welcomes international eco-tourists. The same age as my son, 43, Pascal has never married, devoting his energies to building this successful farm, the schools, organizing other farmers in a national association and also completing university studies. I was grateful for the traffic jam.
My trip to Istanbul has filled my memory with positive images and leaves me full of hope. The final OW Congress declaration shows that I was not alone in calling for social justice and fairness: “We call on all stakeholders to join with us to affirm our interdependence and assume shared responsibility for the collective health and prosperity of humanity. We call for policy reform that empowers the organic paradigm and supports it with positions, educational campaigns, and tools. We reach out and build bridges to others to reduce farm practices and inputs that have adverse effects, to build diversity, to create fairness, and to improve nutrition and health.”
Now, back to work…