Organic Awakenings

The world is waking up to the promise of organic. Yes, the statistics are quoted quite often: an annual growth rate of 20%, and anticipated market of $30.7 billion by 2007 in the United States alone. Organic is the fastest growing segment of the world food economy.

Consumer awareness remains a significant obstacle to the organic movement. Few people are aware of the massive investment in time and money involved in making the risky transition to organics. Most times the farmer has to relearn the subtle tricks of land husbandry, which stand in stark contrast to the war-like, brute force approach of chemical intensive agriculture.

Ask the slightly informed consumer: “What is an organic product?”, and they will most certainly reply: “Oh, that’s something that was produced without chemicals.” But the organic label is much more than the elimination of chemicals. Organic certification involves innovative soil management practices, protection of local biodiversity, and rigorous record keeping. In its purest and most original form, the organic movement represents a complete shift in the agricultural psychology of both consumers and producers.

In Bolivia, the few farmers and producer groups who have a heightened awareness of these issues are also trying to jump on the organic’s bandwagon. Yesterday I went to the annual International Trade Show in Cochabamba. There was no shortage of products with labels like “100% Organic”, “Agroecological Product”, or “Produced without any chemicals”.

Its hard to say whether these labeling changes are a positive development. On the one hand, they certainly demonstrate a growing awareness of consumer demands for organic-like products, and the environmental and economic necessity to reduce our dependence on input intensive agricultural models.

Yet developing countries must now confront the very same problem that the US organic movement had to confront so many years ago. Without any guarantee of third party inspections, or inspections poorly conducted under loosely defined standards, consumers of Bolivian products, both locally and internationally, will soon lose faith in the organic label. Certainly this loss of faith, currently a worldwide phenomenon, is a serious threat to the future of the organic marketplace.

The organic awakening of Bolivian producers and consumers must take place in the presence of serious-minded education campaigns. Such campaigns must answer the most basic questions: What is organic? What does it mean to be certified? What are the certification requirements? How do I get certified? Why should I consume organic? Why should I produce organic?

As the reader will notice, these questions aren’t answered with a simple yes or no. The idea is to create dialog, to encourage critical thinking, and to promote a true organic awakening.


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