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Organic Transitions Need Some Push and Pull to Bear Fruit

By Marie-Eve Levert, Cristina Larrea on January 11, 2023

Farmers across the globe have been deeply affected by external shocks, including the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and inflating input costs. Smallholders are especially vulnerable to these challenges because they tend to lack the resources to cope with labour shortages, supply chain disruptions, cancelled contracts, and price volatility, which can reduce their crop sales and income. With many of these pressures slated to persist for the short to medium term, governments should take steps to reduce these vulnerabilities and mitigate risks—and do so in a way that supports smallholders, communities, and the environment.

Complying with organic and other voluntary sustainability standards can help farmers build resilience to shocks. For instance, these standards can help farmers access new markets while providing them with the chance to undertake training on how to enhance soil fertility and preserve water. Adopting these more sustainable production practices, in turn, can improve crop yields while also leading to higher-quality crops that get better prices and premiums in local and international markets. Developing an organic system presents a great opportunity for some developing countries, but success requires a careful approach.

The best way to ensure a smooth transition to organic agriculture involves adopting measures that support both organic supply (push) and demand (pull).

Sri Lanka’s recent experience is illustrative. In 2021, the country’s president announced a nationwide transition to organic agriculture and a simultaneous import ban for synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals. In theory, these plans had the potential to lead to positive environmental outcomes and improvements in agricultural productivity. Yet significant problems emerged when putting this transition into practice. Conventional farmers, notably producers of rice and tea, were largely unprepared for this change, and many were unable to adapt in time to achieve a good harvest. According to a survey circulated 2 months into the ban, 63% of responding farmers said they did not receive guidance on cultivating their crops without the banned fertilizers and pesticides. Sri Lanka lacked both the domestic capacity to produce the amount of organic fertilizer needed to support crop growth and a plan to import such fertilizers from abroad.

While organic standards are built on the principles of health, ecology, fairness, and care, the Sri Lankan case shows why these transitions need to incorporate the right support for farmers, should be rolled out over time, and should involve farmers themselves in the transition’s design and implementation. Otherwise, governments risk adopting measures that can hurt farmers’ livelihoods and food security, and thereby jeopardize the organic transition and its potential environmental, social, and economic benefits.

The benefits of organic systems are becoming increasingly clear across the globe, including in many developing countries.

As outlined by IFOAM – Organics International, the global organic umbrella organization, the best way to ensure a smooth transition to organic agriculture involves adopting measures that support both organic supply (push) and demand (pull). And since every jurisdiction has unique constraints and particularities, these measures must be adapted to the local context rather than being rolled out in a generic, one-size-fits-all style.

So how can national and sub-national decision-makers build a successful organic system that strengthens farmers’ resilience, improves food security, and enables greater access to local markets?

Support Decentralized, Inclusive, and Direct Advisory Services (push)

Peer-to-peer learning and advisory programs are valuable tools for supporting the organic sector and can be easily adapted to local needs and traditional social structures. In some countries, government-supported local farming organizations offer agricultural producers effective training, education, and other services.

For instance, in 2022, the United States launched the Organic Partnership Program, which funded more than 50 farming organizations so they could provide agricultural producers with technical assistance, paid mentorships, and other support as they adopted organic production practices. Demonstration farms are another excellent tool, allowing local producers to test and model sustainable practices for their farming communities. For instance, Teitei Taveuni, a non-profit farm organization in the Fijian island of Taveuni, has a network of diverse smallholder demonstration farms that undertake research and adapt organic production systems to improve soil health while enabling farmer-to-farmer learning.

Develop Local Organic Markets for Smallholder Farmers (pull)

Governments can play a key role in developing reliable local markets through policies and programs that support demand. For instance, public procurement policies in Brazil favour local organic producers and have created a guaranteed market for at least 120,000 farmer families across the country. And in 2012, the city of New Taipei introduced a food procurement program to offer students at least one organic lunch each week. As a result, the number of organic farms surrounding the city grew by 292% and the cultivated organic area grew by 186% from 2011 to 2020.

Extend Long-Term Funding for the Organic Sector (push and pull)

Developing a thriving community including organic farmers, processors, and researchers can take many years. Reliable long-term funding to support and build this community is therefore crucial. A good example is Costa Rica, where a fuel tax directly finances farmers’ forest conservation efforts (push) and consumer awareness activities (pull). Direct support to farmers can take many forms, such as extending payments for adopting agri-environmental practices, as seen in Mexico; providing subsidies for farmers to purchase or produce organic inputs, such as in South Korea; or covering the cost of attaining certification under a sustainability standard, as seen in Costa Rica. In any case, such measures must be implemented over a multi-year timeline to produce lasting results.

Take a Territorial Approach (push and pull)

Over the last 20 years, several rural areas have adopted an integrated approach to territorial development where the promotion of organic production is closely linked to that territory’s broader economic development. This concept was first developed in Italy’s Cilento Bio-District and France’s BioVallée in the early 2000s, and it has since been adopted in other countries, including India and Tunisia.

In these areas, also called eco-regions, local actors—including farmers, civil society, tourism operators, hotels, retailers, and governments—work together to promote economic development alongside the sustainable management of local resources. The latter is based on organic principles. As a result of these combined efforts, the growth of organic production and consumption becomes a shared responsibility among diverse local actors.

As shown by these examples, the benefits of organic systems are becoming increasingly clear across the globe. Many developing countries—including Madagascar, Pakistan, and Uganda—are working to support domestic organic production. And for those countries where decision-makers are still weighing the best way forward, there is a growing body of evidence from countries making the organic transition on what works well and what needs to improve. A careful approach, tailored to the local context and complemented by supportive push and pull measures, can lead to the development of successful organic systems that strengthen farmers’ resilience to shocks, support their livelihoods, and help ensure local food security.

This article builds upon the IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives' advisory work for the Government of Madagascar.