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Making global agriculture sustainable: IFOAM turns 50

The Bonn-based association IFOAM – Organics International turns 50 this year. On this fine occasion, we spoke to Executive Director Louise Luttikholt on IFOAM’s past achievements and particular challenges for the future.

Louise Luttikholt, Executive Director IFOAM - Organics International

We also wanted to learn a little about the association’s International Office in Bonn and about IFOAM’s partners and networks on site. 

IFOAM – Organics International was founded in 1972 with the goal of bringing true sustainability to agriculture across the globe. From your perspective, would you say that your organization has made headway over the past fifty years? Has global agriculture, to a greater share, become organic and sustainable?

Allow me to explain that IFOAM – Organics International is an association according to German law (e.V.). Our members are about 700 very active organisations in over 100 countries. At global level, we support them, bring their knowledge together and represent our common interests at UN level. Our board is composed of 10 people coming from all over the globe. Our members do wonderful work in their areas. For instance,  Timbaktu Collective (opens in a new tab) in India, which is led by our Vice President Mr. Ganguly, organizes 31’000 families in Andhra Pradesh to work on social change, based on sustainable agriculture. Or  Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania (opens in a new tab), led by a young couple, concretely transforms farming practices in Tanzania through proper knowledge dissemination and building capacity of farmers. Or the well-known company  Rapunzel (opens in a new tab), which is importing and processing organically produce so that we can enjoy organic food products right here in Germany. These are just a few examples to show that our organization can draw on so much good work from our members; those in the field, caring every day for our common planet earth. 

Back to your question: did we made headway over the past fifty years? Yes, we certainly did! Organic practitioners are no longer considered as strange hippies. Rather, these frontrunners provide a lot of expertise and lessons learned, they are an example on how we can live sustainably, each of us; and as collective how we can stay within planetary boundaries. These ideas resonate and have been taken over, for instance by the European Union which has set a goal for 25% of agricultural land to be transformed to organic land by 2030 in its strategy ‘from farm to fork’. Our  colleagues in Brussels (opens in a new tab) have done a great job to influencing policy! 

What are the particular challenges that sustainable agriculture is faced with today?

Unfortunately, there are many challenges and their severity depends on where you are located as farmer and community. Climate change is an obvious one, which makes it difficult to continue farming in the way farmers traditionally are used to. But even bigger is the challenge of biodiversity loss. Natural biodiversity as well as crop biodiversity are endangered by pesticide use, monocropping, forest clearing and climate change. However, Biodiversity provides for the context in which farming is possible in the first place. 

Do you know the game ‘Jenga’? in which the players remove blocks out of the wooden tower until in the end it tumbles over? With Biodiversity it is similar: Due to negative human impact important building blocks of biodiversity are being removed from an ecosystem or even get extinct. The effect is that the overall system is less stable and is more susceptible to stress like drought or heavy rain, which again causes depletion of soils. Over time, due to human influence like pesticide use, biodiversity and agrobiodiversity systems are less firm and have lost resilience. 

We know of course that organic farmers do not use pesticides. What is more, we also know that in climatic zones of e.g., Germany, organic soils hold more humus. This has been researched by the German Thünen Institute. And we know that due to sustainable practices, organic production systems are more resilient to shocks like drought. So, there is a triple advantage of organics in halting and coping with climate change.

Now, some people would say that organic, due to its higher price at the (super)market is not in reach for everyone. Well, the challenge is that as society we have not calculated the extreme high price, we altogether pay because of biodiversity loss and climate change damage. Unfortunately, last year in July we saw a sad example of that in the Ahrtal region. Let us please prevent more of those cases in future. For this we promote a way of looking at our production system and natural environment which includes external costs in its pricing. We call this true or full cost accounting. 

Do you have a vision for our global agriculture of the future?

Agriculture, as I pointed out above, causes many of the problems farmers and society are facing. But the good news is that agriculture, when done differently, is at the core of the solutions! Let me quote professor Johan Rockström, who is the Director of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and professor in Earth System Science at the University of Postdam. He spoke at our  Organic World Congress (opens in a new tab) in 2021 where he said, “The only way to do agriculture in future is organic. All other ways of agriculture actually undermine doing agriculture in future, due to their destructive character. And we can produce enough for all to eat if we reduce food waste and change our eating habits by reducing a lot on meat and animal products.” He continued further sharing that, “there is very good news: the related diet that goes with a production system that stays within our  planetary boundaries (opens in a new tab), the so called  planetary health diet (opens in a new tab), is exactly the one promoted by the World Health Organisation from the United Nations!”

What are the tasks that your International Office performs from Bonn?

Our work, which we base on the  principles of organic agriculture (opens in a new tab), is enabling others, mainly our members, to do their work. We support with capacity building,  provide leadership courses (opens in a new tab) and support national movements in their organizational development. We help with raising awareness by organizing a yearly action day ‘ #IGrowYourFood (opens in a new tab)’. We create the right messaging for our members to pick up on, to, at their turn, approach their policy makers, for instance during last year’s  food system summit (opens in a new tab). We make sure farmers voices are heard at international level and advice policy makers who are interested in transforming their food systems.

Would you say that you have found partners and synergies here in our city?

Surely, we have. We are sharing our offices with the Global Landscape Forum with whom we collaborate a lot. Also, 4C and the World Wind Energy Association is located at the same venue in the Rheinaue. We exchange with other international NGOs in the so-called BINGO Group at various levels. We have common challenges as international focused organisations in a German setting. And not the least are we working with the city of Bonn, which has declared itself as organic city! We appreciate much the support we have received so far. The city is strengthening the ‘Bonn ecosystem’ for us international organisations with international staff. 

Have you made any special plans for the 50thanniversary of your organization?

As global association we are celebrating in a decentralized manner. We have declared 2022 the  Year of Organics (opens in a new tab). Our regional structure in Europe celebrates its 20th anniversary and in Asia its 10th! By offering a media toolkit we allow all our members and structures to celebrate in their regions and localities. There will be events in Bordeaux, Haus der Bauern in Kirchberg an der Jagst, as well as in the region of Goesan in South Korea, just to name a few. We will of course use all these events to point to the necessary need for change and offer our practices and experiences to make sustainable change happen.