Organic Sense

The World of Organic: Protecting Small-Holder Farmers

by Katherine DiMatteo, President, IFOAM World Board  on February 17, 2011

IFOAM. What’s that? It’s not a new product to clean your counter or your teeth; it’s an acronym for the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements established in 1972. For the past four years, I’ve served on the board of directors, called the World Board. As the only North American on the 15-person board, I have had the opportunity to see the United States and its organic sector through their eyes, and I have been able to expand my awareness and understanding of the organic experiences of different countries and cultures. 

The good news: Organic agriculture is being adopted and embraced by farmers and consumers around the globe.

The sobering news: The struggles to overcome the conventional agri-business sector and reductionist thinking by those in control are much the same worldwide – be they individuals, corporations, non-government organizations or governments.  

For IFOAM, the role of small-holder farmers is essential to the viability of all agriculture sectors and vitality of rural economies. Ninety percent of farms worldwide are less than two hectares (five acres). These small farms provide employment to 1.5 billion people and, with fisher-folk and pastoralists included, nourish 70% of the world’s population. Small-holder farming is the backbone of agriculture and food security, not only in developing countries or rural areas, but in developed countries and urban settings as well. To illustrate, I would like to share two stories: one an example of the positive ripples caused by converting to organic, and the second about organic farmers striving for recognition and support. 

In Thailand, I visited a collective farm of 30 families, which is managed by the women and supports 100 people through its commercial organic rice sales, grown primarily for export. Previously, all had managed individual garden plots but had neither economic stability nor market access; thus, they all were living in poverty. Initial support to the collective came from a government program that provided organic rice seeds as an incentive to convert to organic, and the farms began saving the seeds for future crops. After years of success with both export sales and domestic vegetable sales, the elder women in the collective pointed out that the traditional vegetables of Thailand should be included in their production instead of the Chinese vegetables that dominated the market. When the traditional vegetables were brought to the farmers market in Bangkok, the city dwellers—especially young adults—did not know what they were or how to cook them. The women started giving cooking demonstrations, which led to selling meals as well as the vegetables. When a farmers market opened up near the local hospital, the women again offered cooking demonstrations, resulting in meals and vegetables sold. Today, this farm collective supplies vegetables to the hospital and once a week caters the hospital cafeteria. 

In South Korea, there is a different story to tell. The founders of the organic movement in South Korea are located in a province outside of Seoul along one of their four major rivers. The soil in this area is rich, both because of the river and the farmers who built up and maintained the soil with organic practices. In 2009, a major river reclamation and conservation project was launched by the federal government, which included relocating all farms from near the rivers. For the organic farmers, it meant major economic and social disruption for their community. These farmers appealed the government to allow organic farming to continue in the area as part of the river and watershed protection plan. Passions were ignited when the government began a public campaign against organic farming, claiming it caused pollution of the rivers. In defense of organic, demonstrations and protests by the organic farmers, consumers and religious leaders have been ongoing for over a year. Several times, IFOAM World Board members and I have mediated discussions between the South Korean farmers and the government. In the end, the organic farmers will have to move, but onto land with a permanent lease and resources to develop the land. The attacks on organic farming have ceased, and there are ongoing negotiations to include a public-access permaculture garden along the river to be managed organically. 

The United Nations (UN) declared 2010 as the International Year of Family Farming, but international policies are squeezing small-holders out of farming. IFOAM has launched an international “People Before Commodities” campaign to advocate for greater recognition and protection of small-holder farmers within UN countries where climate policies, mechanisms and funding could have a catastrophic effect on global warming, biodiversity and food security if industrial agriculture, rather than small-holder farming, is incentivized. 

The world of organic and IFOAM advocacy can be found at

Katherine DiMatteo is managing partner and senior associate at Wolf, DiMatteo and Associates, a consulting service specializing in organic and sustainable practices. She was the former executive director of the Organic Trade Association and was instrumental in shaping the outcome of the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP) Standards and securing Congressional support. She also helped shape the UN Codex Guidelines for Organic and the Global Organic Textile Standards. Katherine was a founding member and Secretary of the Board of The Organic Center and currently serves as the President of the IFOAM World Board.

Post a Comment

* (not displayed)


* - required field


Wendy from from LaFox, IL on February 18, 2011 at 09:38:24 AM
I appreciated reading the article today on protecting small farms and farmers. I live on the outskirts of Chicago and have ready access to local farmers and have joined a CSA for the first time this year. As I am in and out of the City on a regular basis I know that folks that live there are also very interested in cultivating both their own yards and also in maintaining access to local products - - some of which come from a family owned farm just down the road from us. Thankfully you are involved at an international level. Keep up the good work - it will take all of us to keep the fires lit on this topic.
Where to Buy Our Products
Search the Website
Animal Care
Beyond the Plate
Organic Valley on Facebook and Twitter Follow us on Twitter Friend us on Facebook
Where to Buy Our Products
Organic Valley