5 Amazing Things I Learned from the World's Leaders of the Organic Food Movement

We can’t indefinitely blanket our farms with synthetic fertilizer or fend off pests and weeds with toxic petrochemicals.

A few weeks ago, at an international summit of the global network for organic agriculture, delegates from Fiji were excited to share the news that one of the islands in the tiny archipelago nation had gone 100 percent organic. The community had kicked out all toxic pesticides and imported, synthetic fertilizer. The impetus for the decision was clear: Surviving on an island makes living in balance with nature more than just a nice idea; it makes it an imperative for survival. The Fijian tale of a 100 percent organic island was just one of many stories of the spread of organic agriculture I heard at the Organic World Congress, a gathering of the world’s largest organic agriculture and advocacy network, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM).

Here are five surprising things I learned:

1. Organic is going global:In the United States, we have the misperception that the kind of people who choose organic food are driving Teslas to Whole Foods for over-priced fennel. This couldn’t be farther from the truth: Organic consumers here and abroad come from across the economic spectrum and can be found in every single country in the world. And organic farmers span the globe from wealthy specialty growers in some of the richest areas of the United States to smallholder farmers in Namibia, and everywhere in between. As of 2012, 162 countries reported acreage of certified organic farms covering 37.5 million hectares worldwide, a significant undercount of the total since not all farmers are officially certified. Although the United States has the largest market for organic food, 80 percent of all organic producers farm in developing countries, with India, Uganda, Mexico, and Tanzania leading the pack.

2.  Will the real innovators please stand up?“Disruption” may be a buzzword in Silicon Valley, but when it comes to food and farming, the chemical and biotech industry like to paint their chemical concoctions and genetically engineered seeds as the agricultural disruptors, upending antiquated practices. But the trip to Istanbul got me flipping that story on its head. Want to see real innovation? Visit Andre Leu’s 150-acre organic farm in northern Australia where he’s growing 100 varieties of tropical fruit and dozens of other species of medicinal herbs, oils, fibers, and more. Leu, the President of IFOAM, is doing all this while successfully returning 100 acres to native, tropical rainforest and creating a refuge for endangered species like Riflebirds, buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers and the six-foot tall, flightless Cassowary—all while creating a successful business.

3. Climate-smart farming is the next big thing:On the heels of the largest climate march in history, more and more of us are thinking about how to address runaway climate change and ensure we can still feed ourselves as extreme weather events become the norm. Organic agriculture may have our answer—or at least part of it. New research, some shared in Istanbul, is showing two things that are great about organic agriculture and the climate crisis: organic agriculture can reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated on the farm and foster greater on-farm resilience to droughts and flooding.

4. Eco-smart solutions right under your nose: Many of the cool organic solution to the pests and weeds that can devastate crops come from the farm itself. That’s good news for farmers because it means they don’t have the costly burden of synthetic fertilizer or potentially toxic chemicals. I loved the example from Mustafa Akyuz of Etko, an organic certified in Turkey. He described working with 12,000 organic cotton growers in northern Ugandas Lira district. Unfortunately for the farmers, the local monkeys had a crush on their cotton bulbs. To the monkeys, Akyuz said, “they were like Turkish delights.” Colonies of monkeys destroyed entire fields. So what to do? Akyuz noticed fields of African bird’s eye chili peppers nearby and created a natural spray from the peppery stuff which they used on the cotton fields. After the spicy treatment, the monkeys were much less interested in the cotton. Akyuz shared the story to show the elegant beauty of this way of farming: “We didn’t have to wait for an international institution to discover a solution for us. The solution,” he said, “was right next to the problem.”

5. Organic food builds community:In Istanbul, we were welcomed by Bugday—meaning wheat in Turkish and pronounced roughly like BOO-Dye—a local organization that has been a key force promoting organic agriculture in Istanbul and beyond since the early 1990s. I had a chance to visit one of the organic-only farmers markets that the association has created in the city. It was filled with more than 100 vendors, selling everything from organic shampoo to organic walnuts and vegetables. I spoke with a number of farmers about what they liked most about the direct sales and they all shared versions of the same sentiment. They love knowing their customers; they love the connection. “See that woman there,” said Leyla Bigici who, with her brother Ayhan Bigici, sells under the Elhambra label and had one of the largest stands in the market. “She started coming here when her first daughter was born. Now she’s pregnant with her second. I’ve helped to feed her and her family all these years. That’s what I love.”

As I reflect on these lessons, I think back to the Fijian delegation: What makes our planet so much different from an island in Fiji? We, too, face limits. We can’t indefinitely blanket our farms with synthetic fertilizer or fend off pests and weeds with toxic petrochemicals. In so many ways, Earth is an island, too, and organic food is the best way to ensure we can feed ourselves and our future generations on this small island we call home.

Anna Lappé is an author and educator, known for her work as an expert on food systems and as a sustainable food advocate. The co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to ten others, Anna’s work has been widely translated internationally and featured in The New York Times,Gourmet,Oprah Magazine, among many other outlets. Named one of Timemagazine’s “eco” Who’s-Who, Anna is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund. She is currently the head of the Real Food Media Project, a new initiative to spread the story of the power of sustainable food using creative movies, an online action center, and grassroots events.