Global network for organic farming research announced at Rio+20

The network aims to mainstream organic farming Copyright: Flickr/Bioversity International

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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Organic agriculture researchers are fighting back against what they see as a lack of support from mainstream research funders, by creating a global network to foster research capacity in developing countries.

The Global Organic Research Network (IGORN), developed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, will showcase organic science and farming practices, in an attempt to garner funding for establishing a series of research centres in the developing world, and mainstreaming organic research and farming. The network will be launched in 2013.

The move follows the failure of the Organic Research Centres Alliance (ORCA) — initiated in 2009 — to establish an organic farming centre coordinated by the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR), and to set up research centres across the developing world.  

Although the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) funded a website for the project, the idea made little progress.

This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20

This was because the "CGIAR at that time was not very welcoming", said Urs Niggli, director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and a professor at the University of Kassel-Witzenhausen, both in Switzerland. He was speaking at a side event on organic agriculture research at the Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation for Development last week (11–15 June).

Niggli said recent reforms to the CGIAR economic landscape had removed the possibility of funding such a network.  

Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, in Washington DC, United States, said at the same event that the CGIAR was stuck in its "system-wide programmes" framework, which focuses on boosting yields through conventional, industrial-type agriculture and monocultures.

This ignored issues related to soil health and an integrated and holistic approach to agriculture, he said, which the new network is hoping to address.

Although Europe has increased funding for organic research —becoming a global sector leader over the past ten years — Australia, Canada and the United States have been "very sceptical of supporting organic research", Herren said.

"Donors think organic [agriculture] is not opening the way for new technologies; this seems to be a major obstacle," he added.

Yesterday, speaking at an event in Rio de Janeiro called the 4th Agriculture and Rural Development Day, Frank Rijsberman, the new chief executive officer of the CGIAR Consortium, said that all approaches to agriculture had to address the tensions of balancing food production for hundreds of millions of people, with the need to do so in an environmentally-responsible way.  

"Rio+20 is an expression that we actually take this responsibility very seriously," Rijsberman said.

"Our new portfolio represents a new commitment to environmental stewardship."

Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) said:  

"Organic agriculture is ideal for some locations, crops and food systems. But in other places, where more inorganic fertilizers are required — for example, land with poor soil quality in Africa — farmers are hard-pushed to attain higher organic standards.  

"If you remove inorganic fertilisers from these farmers, you are committing them to poverty," Campbell said.

But he added that there probably should be more investment in organic agriculture.

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20. Read more in our live blog.