Threat from gene technology tops agenda at organic farming meeting

Cabinet minister Joseph Deiss, (left) and former minister, Otto Stich, (right) examine an organic apple Keystone

Switzerland is this week hosting the biggest-ever meeting of the organic food industry to discuss ways of improving standards for the labelling of organic food and dealing with the threat posed by genetically modified (GM) seeds.

This content was published on August 29, 2000 minutes

The gathering, which kicked off on Monday in Basel, is the world's largest of its kind to date, with over 500 scientists and experts attending.

Experts, farmers' representatives and consumer organisations are holding four days of talks at the 13th Scientific Conference of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

The meeting, sponsored by the Swiss government, was organised by Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) near Basel, and was opened by the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss.

In his speech, he told the conference that organic agriculture was an important aspect of international co-operation with developing countries: "Many traditional practices and experiences have their origins in developing countries."

He said was important that such practices were preserved and given "the value they deserve". He added that modern research could play a vital role in adapting organic crops and methods to different regions of the world."

IFOAM, which today combines 750 organisations from 107 countries, was founded in 1972 and serves as a platform for the exchange of knowledge. Another of its purposes, and which has become increasingly important, is the setting of international standards, not only in organic farming but also in the processing of organic food.

Worldwide, the amount of land converted to organic cultivation is growing at a staggering rate of 20 per cent annually, according to IFOAM President, Linda Bullard.

She told swissinfo that Switzerland and Austria lead the world in the relative production of organic food, with between eight and ten per cent of farmed areas under organic cultivation.

However, the number of conventional farms that have converted to organic farming in Switzerland has levelled out, according to FiBL director, Urs Niggli.

This is surprising, given that organic producers are struggling to meet demand. "Swiss farmers lack an entrepreneurial spirit," Niggli told swissinfo.

The global growth in organic production has increased the need for reliable standards and control methods. To this end, IFOAM has introduced a two-tier certification system. The system is to be fine-tuned at this year's conference, partly to take account of regional particularities.

Bullard told swissinfo that organic farmers and processors wanted such checks and balances backed up by governments. She said both Switzerland and the European Union have laws that protect genuine organic producers from imitators "but enforcement leaves much to be desired".

Apart from labelling and certification issues, scientists and experts are debating issues concerning organic plant production, farming animals, biodiversity and training.

Swiss scientists are expected to make a major contribution at the conference. "We have to find ways to protect ourselves against genetically modified seeds and to develop policies, so that organic seeds are not threatened in 20 years because big industry will all have turned to GM technology", Niggli told swissinfo.

He also stressed the need for research in the field of animal health. "We have focused on biological pest control of plants in the past. Now we need to find ways to develop more natural medicines for animals, for instance through the use of homeopathy," Niggli said.

by Markus Haefliger

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