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IFOAM: Agricultural self-sufficiency has priority

Christchurch - "If you look at what is happening on the farms, we do not earn the label 'clean and green'. We are probably one of the most polluted Western countries." This statement refers to New Zealand and was made by Chris Wheeler, president of the local "Soil and Health Association" at the 10th International IFOAM conference.

Every two years the «ecological agrarian world" - the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements - meets, in different locations, to exchange practices, advice and research on the topic of ecological farming. In December 1994, more than 800 researchers, practitioners and advisors in ecological farming from 55 countries met at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand. The topic of the meeting was «agriculture - ecology - people" and the question of how to bring these three into harmony.

In the host country - which at first glance seems to be a perfect place for an exchange on agro-ecological questions since it is well known as the 'green paradise' - ecological farming has a difficult status. This applies not only at Lincoln University, where a brave minority are fighting for ecological gardening; but also in the thinly populated island nation in the South Pacific as a whole, which has for decades favoured industrial agriculture and lives from agri-exports of kiwis, apples, lamb meat and wool.

Official agricultural policy only started to take note of ecological farming very recently. Financial incentives to switch from traditional to ecological farming do not exist. Recently the agricultural ministry (MAF) announced publicly that it considers ecological farming as environmentally friendly. More support could hardly be expected, said Gill Rusbridge, a former member of staff of MAF. Therefore, less than half a percentage point of the agriculturally-used land is ecologically farmed. The majority of the roughly 300 eco-farms have switched to eco-farming in the last couple of years. The New Zealand eco-producers group (NZBPC) has been a member of IFOAM since the late 1980s.

IFOAM, the umbrella of ecological agricultural movements, which was founded in France in 1972 and today represents 500 organisations in 95 countries, provides not only regular international and regional exchanges of experience. It also supports networking, with regional associations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Through these the producers hope to develop improved possibilities for marketing their products. «We have to take care however" according to IFOAM general secretary Bernward Geier, "that the local food stock of the population has the absolute priority and that no biocolonialism develops."

Indeed, the question of a concept of a sustainable agriculture and sustainable development is not answered by the switch towards ecological farming. In particular the delegates from countries of the Third World relate sustainable development to the necessity to be self- sufficient with food and not to be dependent on imports.

The conference called unanimously for world-wide minimum standards in ecological farming and rejected gene-manipulated plants and animals. They proposed better information for consumers, improved public relations and information for example in schools. Priority should also been laid on training and advice for farmers who still represent the majority of the world's population.

The eco-producers also participate in the UNCED follow-up process. "All member groups of IFOAM are asked to lobby their governments in order to highlight the topic of ecological farming in the run up of the next meeting of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development" stresses Bernward Geier. Yvonne Mabille