Director, International Relations


This is the transcript of a video interview produced and directed by Michael O'Callaghan at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, in 2002.
Full transcript (2,523 words, slightly edited for clarity).
© 2002-2019 Global Vision Foundation.
At the time of this video interview, Bernward Geier was Director for International Relations at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (, the global umbrella organisation for the worldwide organic movement, with over 750 member organisations in 116 countries.
He lives on a small organic farm in Germany and is now Director of the COLABORA consulting agency in Germany.
He also chairs the jury for One World Award.
How has organic farming progressed in the 10 years since the first Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992?

Looking at the development of organic farming world-wide, we have certainly made remarkable achievements and progress. It truly can be said that organic is on its way out of a niche to the mainstream markets. You can see this by the sheer volume of organic certified products traded, that have reached between 20 and 25 billion dollars or euros a year. I can give you an example from Germany where I'm living and working: the baby food sector is almost exclusively organic; you'd have a hard time finding non-organic baby food! I expect that now 80% of the baby food is organic. What's interesting is the rationale behind this and the reasoning for it. Obviously mothers (maybe fathers also doing shopping) want the very best for their children, so if the very best in their opinion is organic, I think this is a very good base. We just need to talk with them so that they get the very best for their children also when they get older, and for their husbands and themselves and the whole family, and we would really compare the markets. The organic dairy proportion of the total market in Denmark is in the range of 20%. If I look at the spread of organic farming on the field and on the farms, we have a very healthy rate of European countries setting targets of 10, 20 or even 30 percent of organic agriculture for their respective country within the next 8 to 10 years. Already today in reality we have a number of countries that have reached a level of 10% organic or beyond, namely Switzerland, Austria, Sweden is in the range of 14% organic. And if you look at some of the regions, the largest canton in Switzerland is the Graubünden: 43% of the whole land in this canton (it's a beautiful canton) is organically farmed! So these little examples, this selection of examples, give you an idea that organic farming is growing. But I gave only examples from the North. The same can be said of the South: you see fascinating development. Actually the second largest area on the national level is in Argentina, you see prosperous organic farming in Brazil, you see it in countries in Africa, in Uganda in connection with cotton, same with Mozambique; South Africa has huge export potentials in the food sector. Asia is doing very well. As a matter of fact, one of the strongest growing countries in the world is China, in terms of organic development, and other countries like India are following suit.

How important is buying locally-grown food to the spread of the organic movement?

For me personally, but also for the Federation and for our movement at large, it's part of the principle of organic farming that we want to have short distances for food. If we have a closed cycle approach, naturally speaking local and I would say regional marketing is absolutely getting preferential treatment in terms of what we develop for marketing. There is a need for global markets. I mean our coffee will not come locally or regionally, neither will our tropical foods, or our bananas or our tea, but there is a clear commitment. If you look at the reality, how we develop box schemes, how well farmers' markets do, how well farm gate sales develop, you can see that there is a lot of innovation coming from organic farming in local marketing, and that it is growing.

As I usually like to say, we should not allow ourselves to get caught by this globalisation trap: we should not ship staple food around which can be grown in the regions, we should not sacrifice our principles on the altar of market expansion, which we have done, being a market-driven sector and having all over the world problems to get the organic food on the shelves. One example that shows you what we face is in England: 70% of the organic food consumed there is imported because of lack of local production. So we need to encourage local production, or regional marketing, and IFOAM is committed. We have promoted three major themes in the last years, the first is biodiversity, the second is food security, and the third – without ranking among them – is local markets.

Will the proposed changes in the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) help would-be organic farmers and those who haven't converted yet? And what can we do to ensure that the actual changes are even better than the proposed ones?

Well I must say that at the last CAP reform, the organic movement was not prepared and was not ready to have an impact. This has changed now. We have positioned ourselves. There is a very interesting position document from the IFOAM EU Regional Group on CAP reform. We are engaged in very important meetings, we bring the message across, and it is remarkable because the new discussion, I think, is a very good base. The CAP reform clearly shows that a big change will happen, a big change away from just payments for quantity, to payments for quality, and for all the extras – all the extra benefits organic farming, and farming as a whole, is delivering. So actually I hope that the impact of the new CAP reform will not only benefit organic farming; it should give preferential treatment because we are the most consequent sustainable way of doing farming, but it should also benefit all farming. As you know farming is in crisis, we should make sure that conventional farming has a possibility to survive. When it comes to family farming, we have to stop the trend towards industrialised farming, to monoculture farming, to corporate farming, which we can see coming up. So the CAP reform seems to open a door, quite widely open. It's a process at the moment, we have to be engaged in the process, we are engaged in the process. What we need to do is actually to position organic farming even more upfront, to show the full potential of solutions we have when it comes to landscape, when it comes to biodiversity, when it comes to rural development! As we are multifunctional, indeed we have a lot to contribute and I am quite optimistic that CAP reform will respect this and take this into account, and consequently offer organic farming a brighter future.

Do you see the trend towards organic accelerating in the next decade?

Yes, organic farming will continue. I mean you wonder how much acceleration we can take, because we have already a problem of delivering! We have the consumers increasingly on our side, they go for it, and very often they find empty shelves, so we must actually be careful that we achieve healthy growth. Organic farming is a healthy business, its a healthy way to do farming, but we need also healthy growth. It's not a boom because it has already been growing 20 or 30 percent a year for the past decade. Now show me any other sector that has achieved such a growth rate over such a long period. So we can build on this. We need much more farmers to convert. This will eventually also bring the cost of organic food down, which is an obstacle. Not that the farmers have to pay the price, we should not cut prices; farmers need a fair price, but its a question of economies of scale, of transport, of volume, so if we spread out, if we go indeed out from the niche to mainstream, that also gives us the opportunity to cut some of the fringe costs, the related costs, to make organic food more affordable. It always should be more expensive because it's a premium product. At the same time we really need to get some progress in internalising the environmental and social costs of conventional food, so that that conventional food prices tell the real story and don't lie to us, as they do nowadays.

Can businesses, government agencies, local authorities, schools, and hospitals help promote organic food by procurement schemes? Can you give me any examples of this?

They can and they do! I know from many examples how governments and schools support organic farming. You must realise more and more people eat not at home, they eat in canteens! If you are employed you eat in a canteen, in school you are fed, and there are interesting developments: in Italy, in terms of schools; bringing organic food to hospitals; you can go to a train in Switzerland, any train in Germany, if you go to the dining car you have every day always the choice of an organic menu. These are the types of partnerships we need. It's ready, more and more governments realise that they have actually a very concrete way to support the development, because we want organic farming to develop around the market, not on subsidies, but by selling the products, giving them a fair price, giving the farmers the opportunity to grow the food which obviously people more and more want.

Contributing to this will be – and I don't like it but its also reality – that the next food scandal is around the corner, and this will certainly wake up more people. The GMO issue will also contribute a lot; people want to express their "no" to GMO by going for the alternative: GMO-free food. And there actually is an enormous potential for organic farming. Let me say this is just one aspect. We should not scare people about organic food, it should not be our strategy, we should not sell only the message "eat organic and you will get healthy to heaven", we should communicate all the benefits around organic farming as I have already outlined, the biodiversity, the landscape, and then we will be much safer because then people will have many reasons to go organic. One further example is that we should combine much more organic food and marketing with fair trade, because for me a good cup of coffee is not only good because it's organic. I've lived a year in Mexico: I know the fate of child labour and exploitation of farm workers. A good cup of coffee that doesn't taste bitter has to be organic and fair traded!

Why should we avoid genetically modified food production?

Well, GMO for me is the ultimate attempt to manipulate nature instead of working with nature. I'm not so much scared actually of GMO residue in food these days, I don't see that as an immediate danger. In the long run, we cannot accept such a risk from our technology. We should learn the messages from pesticides, we should learn the messages from atomic energy, which all have proved that we will never be able to control these kinds of technologies. They don't allow us to make errors. Making errors is human. I want to be a human, I want to be able to make errors that can be fixed, that we can learn from. Genetic engineering will not give us this tolerance. And see how far it has already advanced! We have crossed human genes to bulls, we have crossed human genes to pigs with crippled pigs as the result, we have crossed human genes to fish, to carpfish, we have gone beyond any ethical and moral barrier. And the big difference between GMO food and, let's say, pesticides in food, is that with pesticides, we still may discuss how long does it takes till they disappear, till they break down. But with GMOs the question is: once they spread out, who is going to call them back? Nobody! Nobody will call them back, we cannot get it back once the problem is out! And we cannot afford a GMO Chernobyl disaster. That would make the Chernobyl disaster actually a little environmental catastrophe, as big as that catastrophe was, if a GMO Chernobyl happens. And that's what the genetic engineering industry is asking us: where is the evidence of the danger? they ask for the Chernobyl, and that shows already how ridiculous the whole debate is. The most important thing to understand is that there no need for GMO! I have not come across a serious argument why we need GMO! We have the biodiversity, we have a whole range of food, we can grow enough food; we grow enough food actually to feed everybody in the world, we just must give people access to the food, and enable them to afford to grow their food – preferably – or buy their food. The only reason I come across again and again is to make a profit, and that should never be the reason for GMO to take over the world!

Tony Blair, for example, is saying "we won't make a decision about GMOs until we do more tests about the health effects", meaning field tests. But the ecogical threat of genes escaping in the field could be far greater than the health threat! What is your view of the ecological risks of GMOs?

The ecological risks are enormous, because we have cross-pollination! We have already the situation in Canada, where there is a lot of rape seed or canola grown for oil production, that GMOs are now all over Canada. You can't actually grow organic canola anymore because you're not able to keep your fields protected. And we have seen some evidence of the impact on insect life, the butterfly, the Monarch butterfly. So there is evidence. I don't accept the demand that we need more evidence to show that GMO is safe or not safe. I mean, all the pesticides have been tested to an enormous extent, and they all have been called "safe", all the "evidence" was that they are safe, and you know how many pesticides have been taken back because they are now banned! DDT is the most famous of them. Now we still find DDT residues, decades after it was used, in the penguins in the Arctic, and this should not be repeated with GMOs because then it's too late.

But again this is just one side of the argument. Why should we do all this testing? Why should all these resources go to develop a technology which we don't need, which is not user-friendly, which makes no sense except in trying to make profit. Even that promise is not delivered: Monsanto is in deep shareholder trouble because they have not reaped what they hoped to reap with going all the way, putting all their eggs in the basket of genetic engineering. So if this is apparent, there is no need for it, it does not benefit anybody, why should we make all these investments and put all these brains of bright researchers and scientists into this? I would rather see 10% of this money spent to develop sustainable alternatives to solve our problems that we still have in organic farming, for example in pest control. We would be in a much better world.