By Elizabeth Henderson
Each Organic World Congress (OWC) feels like a series of intense, vivid conversations. I renew acquaintance with people I have come to know over the years since 1996 when I attended my first OWC. And then there are the startling discoveries, encounters with people and projects I had no clue existed. Way too much happens to report it all, blow by blow. Since I know I will not be able to encompass it all, I will focus on a few themes and a few intense encounters.
At the OWC this year, I attended the plenary sessions, helped conduct a pre-conference on CSA in Asia, spent a few moments at INOFO meetings, gave a short talk on succession planting for CSAs in the Farmers’ Track and attended as many farmer talks as I could manage, participated in a panel on CSA networks, and contributed to a discussion on Fairness for All. I will share some highlights; if you would like more detail on elections and motions, here are links to the account of the General Assembly by Brian Baker, President of the IFOAM NA board (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1466284576825331/permalink/1512770165510105/), and the official IFOAM report, The Insider https://www.ifoam.bio/en/search?find=the+insider The Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI), the OWC hosts, promise to post all of the farmer track presentations on their website in 12 languages (http://ofai.org/ ).
I attended the OWC and the GA as a representative of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) which has been a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) for decades. Our relationship with IFOAM reaches back over 40 years – In the early years of IFOAM’s existence, back in the 1970’s and 80’s, IFOAM was the world leader in the development of organic standards. When NOFA folks decided to engage in organic certification, we used the IFOAM Basic Standards as our template and adapted them for our region. Sam Smith, Willie Lockeretz, and Judy Gillan, Massachusetts NOFA members and Eliot Coleman, were active in IFOAM in the early days. Since the 2008 elections to the IFOAM World Board, the majority of the board has been people deeply committed to promoting “small-holder” organic agriculture as IFOAM’s top priority, placing IFOAM solidly in alignment with NOFA’s mission and goals.
Wildly conflicting impressions tore at me throughout my short stay in Delhi. I learned that there are over 600,000 organic farmers in India and 1.18 million hectares of land that are farmed organically. The Himalayan State of Sikkim is 100% organic! In the hallway to the OWC plenary and workshop sessions, Indian farmers put on a spectacular display of biodiversity, one of the main themes of the congress. Dozens of tables with seed collections lined the hall with colorful posters draped along the walls. Some seeds were for sale, others just for show. Excited conversations buzzed all day. Along the 100 foot long rear table in the plenary hall, I watched a man set out hundreds of small dishes of rice seed, each dish a different variety, each with a vivid name. On a special platform, a woman demonstrated the traditional method of spinning and weaving.
The OWC inauguration ceremony united us through dance and music and brief words of greeting from IFOAM President Andre Leu who welcomed us to one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the planet. And then divided us when the Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare gave a lengthy harangue entirely in Hindi that even many of the Indians in the audience could not understand. I later learned that Modi’s government is indeed supportive of organic agriculture and the appearance of his minister was intended as official recognition the significance of the gathering. An explanatory hand out in English would have made all the difference. A chilling reminder of the undercurrents of violence that tear at Indian society, soldiers armed with automatic weapons flanked another government representative when he addressed the closing ceremony, again in Hindi.
And then there was the pervasive acrid smell hanging heavy in the humid air and nowhere to get relief.
The food at the conference was extraordinary – supplied by Indian organic farmers. They introduced us to grains and combinations of vegetables and herbs I had never tasted before.
Transportation on the other hand was hair-raising. Despite poor visibility due to fog and smog, Delhi drivers dart from lane to ill-marked lane while people on motor scooters weave in between. The occasional bicycle skirts the edge of the road, driven into the faster lanes to avoid stopped cars and groups of pedestrians who seem oblivious to the chaos. Along roadsides, people live in makeshift shelters, hanging their laundry to dry on public fencing. At a red light, a child the age of my grandson (7), wove between the stopped cars selling balloons and begging while his mother sat under a tree on a small grassed division in the middle of the 10 lanes of traffic.
The three days of the OWC begin with plenary sessions, inspirational cameos of outstanding projects and voices in the organic world. These plenaries are where values are shared and connections made across borders. We could not be in India and not hear from Vandana Shiva.
Her speeches set the tone for both the OWC and the 2017 IFOAM – Organics International General Assembly (GA). In her remarkable decisive manner, she spoke at the plenary about biodiversity as exemplified by the extensive seed saving spearheaded by her organization Navdanya and reminded us of the role of Sir Albert Howard in spreading traditional, indigenous Indian organic practices to the English speaking world. Never one to soft peddle harsh realities, Vandana charged that Greater Noida, the still under construction neighborhood of Delhi where the OWC was taking place, was built on the blood of Indian farmers. News reports were blaming Delhi’s acrid air, heavy with particulate matter, on Punjab farmers burning rice crop residues in preparation for planting wheat, but Vandana placed the blame squarely on industrial agriculture and the violence it commits against farmers, reminding us of the hundreds of thousands of suicides. She concluded by saying that with an agriculture based on biodiversity and native seeds, it would be possible to feed not one, but two Indias. In her opening for the GA, Vandana asserted that “IFOAM is the strongest democratic voice for the earth!” Nothing is more important for the people of the earth than food, she explained and the organic approach, “circular economics based on diversity” is the antithesis to extractive, industrialized monocultures, and the only way for human beings to continue living on this earth. Congratulating IFOAM for keeping organic integrity alive, Vandana pointed out that there is no one problem we need to address; all the problems of poverty, war and the environment are interconnected. And concluded: “This is about the future of the world.”
A new voice to me was Farida Achter, founding Executive Director of UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative), from Bangladesh, a country that has experienced some of the most violent impacts of climate change with September 2017 floods covering one third of the land. A 2000 mile wall separates India from Bangladesh and Indian border guards have shot thousands of Bangladeshis who sought to cross that wall. A diminutive woman with a gentle, modest manner, Farida spoke about the importance of maintaining traditional varieties. She reported that the local almond trees survived the latest flooding, while the modern cultivars died. Thirty percent of the food that sustains the poorest of her people is collected from weeds and from uncultivated land. “We can call ourselves poor when we lose seeds,” she observed. Farida lashed out at her government for distributing gmo seeds after the floods without identifying them to farmers. UBINIG has organized over 300,000 smallholder farmers, mainly women, into a farming system called Nayakrishi Andolan, the New Agriculture Movement, based on ten simple rules that combine farmer control of seed and land, family self-sustenance, a refusal of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and guidelines for water use and animal husbandry. A slim brochure describes it as “the farmer-led movement in Bangladesh for Shohoj way to Ananda, or simply, joyful living through the practice of biodiversity-based ecological agriculture. Nayakrishi Andolon represents peasants’ resistance against the corporate takeover of global seeds, food, and health chain, an assertion that it is not multinational corporations but the farming communities of small holdings, that feed us.”
Longtime acquaintance Katsu Murayama, founder of IFOAM Japan and former president of Urgenci, urged me to vote for Shimpei Murakami, a Teikei farmer and educator from Japan who was running for the World Board, so I was looking forward to meeting him and I was amazed at his dramatic life story. Shimpei is the eldest son of one of the first Teikei farmers and grew up helping his parents. As he explained it, his mother did most of the growing and his father was in charge of organization and deliveries. They converted their farm to organic in 1970. When he got to be a teenager, his parents sent him to a special boarding school, organized by organic farmers, where he studied organic agriculture. I do not know of another school of this kind on the planet! Shimpei is a student of Masanobu Fukuoka, natural farming with faith in nature. Deeply influenced by a stay in an ashram in India, Shimpei spent twenty years doing rural development work and left his younger brother to take over the farm. After counseling farmers in Bangladesh and Thailand on organic methods, he decided to return to his family’s farm in Fukushima. Then the tsunami hit. The very next day, Shimpei moved with his wife and three children to another part of Japan. He was able to get a job teaching at the school where he had studied and now heads up the school. By spring, he hopes to purchase land to start over again at farming and Teikei.
One of the first people I ran into upon passing through the metal detectors to get into the OWC was Joy Daniel, Director of the Institute for Integrated Rural Development (IIRD). I had met Joy’s father at earlier congresses; Joy took over the work his father had begun. This time, he brought four women farmers with him, members of the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) he had helped set in motion. The members created their own organic oath. IIRD has trained a few of the women in literacy, and they visit the farms of the others to both verify and help them adhere to their group oath. I sat next to them during the inaugural ceremony and witnessed that they understood as much of the minister’s Hindi as I did. Later we share a meal together and I was able to learn that they grow most of the crops that were on the menu – dal, several varieties of millet, vegetables and beans.
INOFO, the Intercontinental Network of Organic Farmers’ Organizations, held a General Assembly the day before the OWC. Representatives came from countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America and a sprinkling from Europe.
Yanna Muriel, from Organización Boricua de Agricultura Ecologica in Puerto Rico, was the only US farmer in attendance and she took a seat on the council which includes representatives of each region. Organic farmers within IFOAM have been struggling to establish an international farmers’ organization since the 1996 OWC to represent the voice of farmers in the organic movement. INOFO was established formally as an autonomous professional body in 2008. Resources are scarce. The main concerns have been to empower farmers as a class in order to restore food sovereignty, to establish communication among grass-roots farmer organizations and to map them. Since the 2014 OWC, there has been some funding for organizing and training for farmer leadership in Africa and Asia. Representatives from INOFO have been able to attend meetings of the Civil Society Mechanism and FAO. Anton Pinschoff, from FNAB, French goat farmer and a founding member of IFOAM, has served as secretary and maintained continuity. Masipag, a farmer-scientist organization in the Philippines, and ANPE in Peru have provided leadership. Since I was the only mainland US farmer in attendance at the founding meeting, I was asked to serve as “Convenor” for North America. With no resources, the best I have been able to do was to create a list of organizations and forward information about IFOAM to this list from time to time. I hope that the new OFA will agree to join and send a representative to the INOFO council or endorse Yanna as their representative.
Together with Jocelyn Parot, the director of Urgenci, the international CSA network, I organized a pre-conference workshop on CSA in Asia to enable experience sharing and to begin to map existing projects. (We met in the same building as INOFO, so I was able to peek in on their deliberations a few times during the day.) Attendees came from six Asian countries – India, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Japan and the Philippines, with an observer from Kenya and Thomas Harttung, from Denmark, CEO of Aastiderne, a CSA that grew into a food delivery service with 54,000 customers. In each country, there is a diversity of initiatives that come under the heading of CSA.
Perhaps the most accurate terms to cover the range of approaches to creating producer-consumer alliances would be direct sales (what Europeans call short circuit) combined with solidarity economics. A common thread is the development of Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), where a community establishes standards and then enforces them through education, producer empowerment and market development.
In the Philippines, the Haiyan typhoon of 2013 and the flood of dis-coordinated funding that followed set back efforts to initiate solidarity projects. In both India and Sri Lanka, organizers are focusing on creating farmers’ markets where farmers qualify to sell by joining PGS groups. Taiwan was represented by an organizer of a PGS for indigenous farmers. In Japan, where CSA was born as the Teikei movement in the 1970’s with clubs of consumers linking up with farmers, the younger generation still relies on the 10 Principles of Teikei, but consumer clubs have faded away leaving farmers to take the lead in projects that more closely resemble CSAs in the US. The most impressive growth of CSAs is taking place in China where the first CSA formed in 2008 and by 2017 there are over 1000 with over 2000 farms involved. I have been following this striking development through my contacts with Shi Yan Sina, who started the first CSA in 2008 and translated by book Sharing the Harvest into Chinese. (The first edition of 10,000 sold out quickly and they are on the second edition.) Shi Yan brought four other CSA farmers with her to the OWC.
They represent the range of Chinese projects from Shi Yan’s Shared Harvest Farm in Beijing that provides weekly packets of vegetables, rice and other products to 600 families to Tan Lian, who learned about CSA by working for Shared Harvest and then returned to his family land to create a CSA for 30 members.
CSA in China is part of an important grass roots social movement for Rural Regeneration that has gained support from the highest levels of the Politburo. The most recent Chinese Congress approved Rural Regeneration as a program for the next five years. I wish I understood enough about China to report what that means. Along with the Chinese Communist Party endorsement of ecological civilization, I am hoping Rural Regeneration will prove to be a significant alternative to the highly chemical agriculture that has dominated in China.
Like IFOAM, Urgenci has been making headway with the food policies of the United Nations. Years of “advocacy” – steering committee members attending meetings in Geneva and Rome to argue over the wording of “high level” documents, participation in the Civil Society Mechanism and the Committee for Food Security – is finally bearing fruit. President Judith Hitchman announced the signing of an MOU with FAO that will provide funding for Urgenci to continue its swarming missions to new countries to spread CSA and solidarity economics. « This will open up many possibilities to work in all corners of the world and strengthen our networks, explains Isabel Alvarez, Advocacy Officer for Urgenci. “It will also reinforce the collective agroecology and food sovereignty dimensions of our collective work with other social movements ».
The General Assembly (GA) left me feeling very optimistic about the future of organic agriculture. There were more members in attendance than ever before. Worldwide, the number organic farms and acres are increasing steadily. Seventeen impressive candidates competed for the ten positions on the World Board and eleven countries made serious proposals for the site of the next OWC.
Under the leadership of Andre Leu and Executive Director Marcus Arbenz, board and staff have put the organization in sound fiscal order and there are four major projects underway with support from FAO and other funders to expand organic agriculture. Representatives of IFOAM participated in the COP meetings on climate change and, together with other groups, have convinced FAO that organic agriculture has an important role to play in addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of reducing world hunger and malnutrition, poverty, water use and climate change. In support of smaller-scale organic farms, WB members have facilitated the spread of Participatory Guarantee Systems and helped them gain recognition by governments in several countries. IFOAM has adopted Organic 3.0 as the future direction of the movement for truly sustainable farming and consumption (https://www.ifoam.bio/en/organic-policy-guarantee/organic-30-next-phase-organic-development). The World Board completed a new strategic plan that replaces the mission to “lead, unite and assist the global organic movement in its full diversity,” with “leading change organically.” The new vision of IFOAM – Organics International is “the broad adoption of truly sustainable agriculture, value chains and consumption in line with the principles of organic agriculture.”(https://www.ifoam.bio/en/news/2017/10/04/new-strategic-plan-ifoam-organics-international).
In these dark times for our planet, made palpable by the acrid particulate matter in the air of Delhi, I came home buoyed by good feelings. If there is any hope of a brighter future of peace, justice and fairness , this team of so many creative, wise and determined people will find a way.