The Swiss Import Promotion Programme (Sippo) says farmers in poorer southern and eastern countries should switch to organic production and sell their crops to the west. A new report by Sippo points to the expanding market for organic produce in countries like Switzerland and Germany.
Sippo brought together agricultural economists, organic farming specialists, and representatives from the big Swiss retailers such as Migros and Coop to look at the potential for importing more organic food from developing worlds.
"The fact is there is just not enough organic produce to go round," said Markus Stern, director of Sippo, "and we're not talking just about potatoes anymore. People want organic tea and cocoa, and organic tropical fruits."
Food producers in other countries who want to supply organic produce to Switzerland must abide by the standards set by the Swiss government on what constitutes organic.
"Ideally we need an agreed set of international standards," said Stern, "but because there are so many different standards around, and so many different certifications, we ask for the Swiss standard."
Switzerland now sends advisers to countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Ghana and India to help local farmers satisfy the conditions.
"It can be a bit of problem" admits Stern. "Producing organic food is a philosophy and there are no half measures. So our advisers are running workshops in developing countries so that farmers can learn how to produce and export organic food successfully."
The big Swiss retailers say they are ready to expand their range of organic foods, as long as they can get the quality they require. But Stern says persuading farmers in developing countries to move over to organic can be difficult.
"At first many farmers are afraid," he said. "They are used to using fertilizer and so on, and they worry that their crops may fail, or may be much smaller. But recently I met an Indian tea farmer who has turned organic, and he told me his crop is actually bigger and healthier.
"This is because moving to organic meant he actually had to tend his crop, and really watch it, instead of just putting fertilizer on it now and then."
Another hurdle to overcome is the reluctance of consumers in developing countries to pay the higher prices demanded for organic products. Farmers in these countries cannot sell all their produce to the west, so they still rely at least in part on the domestic market.
"This is a difficulty", admits Stern. "In many of these poorer countries the purchasing power is very small, so people may not be able to pay for organic items. What we hope is that, if enough farmers do switch to organic, the prices will come down."
"In the end, though, what we really want is people in these poorer countries too to become more aware of what it means to produce organically, and the positive effects it can have."
by Imogen Foulkes