Inside Organics Blog

IFOAM North America offers organic community forum to air diverse opinions

Brian Baker, President of IFOAM North America.

IFOAM Organics International, organized in 1972 to lead and unite the world’s diverse organic movements, is one of the oldest and most established organic agriculture organizations in the world. As such, it is recognized globally as the voice and conscience of organic agriculture.

The worldwide organization operates through regional bodies, including the recently formed IFOAM North America (NA), which has about 40 members from Canada, the United States, and the English-speaking Caribbean. These include farmers associations, trade associations, certification agents, for-profit companies, and nonprofit organizations that work in organic agriculture.

IFOAM NA will hold its annual membership meeting at People’s Food Cooperative in La Crosse, Wis., Feb. 20, just prior to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. This meeting will give members of the organic community an opportunity to come together and shape the future. Details are at

IFOAM History
IFOAM established a set of four principles of organic agriculture: health, ecology, fairness, and care. Soil health is key to the principle of health. The principle of ecology ties the organic and agroecology movements together. Fairness encompasses everyone in the organic community as well as all other living creatures. The principle of care, sometimes called the precautionary principle, requires a level of stewardship and an awareness that today’s actions have implications for tomorrow’s possibilities.

The membership of IFOAM has reflected the evolution of organic. In the early years, IFOAM members consisted primarily of farmers organizations, but also had a significant number of academics. As the market for organic food grew, IFOAM attracted more certification bodies, trade associations, and companies that traded organic food. Many of the certification bodies, such as the Soil Association, had their roots as farmer groups that provided certification as a service to members.

IFOAM has been approaching the world’s organic movement in phases. The first phase (Organic 1.0) formed the philosophical foundation of the movement, led by pioneering visionaries. Once the guiding principles were established, they were not enough to transform agriculture by themselves. This was followed by the establishment of a market for organic food, which required the development of formal standards (Organic 2.0). Formal standards took the ideals expressed by the early philosophers and made them practical guides for a healthier and more ecologically sound agricultural system.

IFOAM’s standards were influential in shaping certification programs, such as the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), Farm Verified Organic (FVO), and the Organic Growers and Buyers Association (OGBA). The European Union regulation on organic farming was largely a codification of the IFOAM Basic Standards at that time.

Current Approach
As the organic market has grown, we’ve faced pressure to compromise on the basic principles underlying the organic movement. IFOAM’s current phase (Organic 3.0) addresses this while moving organic from a market niche into the mainstream.

Organic agriculture is poised to take on global problems like hunger, poverty, and climate change. These issues require an approach that is not strictly market driven and goes beyond government regulations. IFOAM seeks to establish best practices, not compliance with the standards, as the goal. Adoption of organic practices will become more attractive if the market reflects the true and hidden costs of producing non-organic food. Wider interests in sustainability are accepted in a more inclusive approach, while still protecting the organic label.

Organic 3.0 requires that we set aside differences with like-minded movements and find common ground to work with them. We may not agree on everything but can still find common ground. It also requires fostering a culture of innovation and an openness to try new things. With that come many challenges and possible contradictions.

IFOAM Organics International consists of several self-organizing structures, of which IFOAM NA is one. In addition to regional bodies, IFOAM also includes various sector groups. One is the International Network of Organic Farming Organizations (INOFO), which is an umbrella group of organic farmers associations. Other sector groups include those for seeds, animal health and welfare, technology and innovation, and aquaculture and apiculture.

IFOAM North America
As a diverse membership organization, IFOAM NA’s activities are member driven. In a survey conducted last year, the membership identified providing more timely information about organic agriculture around the world as the top priority. One anonymous member said that IFOAM NA should “serve as a voice of the organic community on the national scene in the U.S. and provide an important source of information and contacts to the organic movement in the rest of the world.” Another member suggested that IFOAM NA needs to “be a source of inspiration and place to learn what organic agriculture is all about.”

In that survey, advocacy for the increased adoption of organic practices was a close second in terms of priorities. The members provided a clear message that IFOAM NA should work closely with its members, and not duplicate existing services or compete with any existing organizations. IFOAM NA has the potential to serve as an umbrella organization and bring together like-minded organizations operating on a regional or national basis to have a broader impact. Members surveyed thought that IFOAM NA had a responsibility to advocate specific positions on contentious and divisive issues that face organic, including hydroponics, GMO labeling, appropriate scale of production, and international competition.

As a newly formed nonprofit, IFOAM NA believes in standing up for the principles of organic agriculture, but lacks the resources to weigh in on every issue and avoids positions where the members are deeply divided. Issues must be framed within the context of the principles and have an international impact. Regional or national matters may have an international impact, but political intervention at the local, state/provincial, or federal level is avoided.

Instead, IFOAM NA seeks to be a forum outside of government where the different members of the organic community can share their ideas and hopefully reach a consensus that members can each take to different legislative, administrative, or judicial venues. Such a venue is needed in the U.S., where so much of the debate over the future of organic has taken place within the context of the National Organic Program at the National Organic Standards Board. IFOAM NA won’t replace the NOSB but can offer a safe place where members of the organic community can express their differences of opinion outside of a regulatory context.

From standard setting through genetic engineering to climate change and carbon sequestration, IFOAM-Organics International has been at the forefront of many of the important issues that organic agriculture has faced over the past 40 years. IFOAM NA can draw from this knowledge and experience, adapting it to North America’s unique situation. The membership can help steer the vision and set the priorities of IFOAM NA as it establishes itself. The plan is to transform from a loose-knit all-volunteer organization to one that has the capacity to be more responsive to its members. The program and its projects will be member-driven and will depend on collaboration among its members.

Brian Baker is board president of IFOAM North America.


From the January | February 2019 Issue

Leave a Reply