By Laura Reynolds 

Despite the growing worldwide demand for organic food, clothing, and other products, the area of land certified as organic still makes up just 0.9 percent of global agricultural land. In 2010, the latest year for which data are available, 37 million hectares of land were organically farmed—an area that has grown more than threefold since 1999.

Certified organic farmland still represents just .9 percent of all agricultural land. (Photo credit: Andrew Hyde)

There is large regional variation in the area of land farmed organically. Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island nations, leads the world in certified organic land, with 12.1 million hectares in 2010. In contrast, North America had 2.6 million hectares of organic land, and Africa had just over 1 million hectares.

Reliable data are lacking for land that is farmed using organic principles but that is not certified organic. Many farmers, particularly subsistence farmers or those selling to local markets, farm organically but do not acquire organic certification. Certified organic products have created a niche market in recent decades, allowing farmers to earn premium prices over conventional products, particularly when selling to supermarkets or restaurants.

The countries with the most certified organic producers in 2010 were India (400,551 farmers), Uganda (188,625), and Mexico (128,826), while the region that added the most organic farmland between 2009 and 2010 was Europe. Overall, the amount of organically farmed land worldwide dropped slightly, by 0.1 percent, between 2009 and 2010—due largely to a decrease in organic land in India and China.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements defines organic agriculture is a production system that relies on ecological processes, such as waste recycling, rather than the use of synthetic inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The benefits are myriad: organic farming can require up to 50 percent less fossil fuel energy than conventional farming, and boost on-farm biodiversity by an average of 30 percent. It can help soil retain water and nutrients, improving resilience to drought and other harsh weather patterns. And it reduces human exposure to chemicals or toxic residues, which have been linked to a variety of illnesses. Organic land can return higher yields than land farmed conventionally, particularly when the land has been farmed organically for several years running.

The modern organic farming movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s largely as a reaction to consumer concerns about the rising use of agrochemicals. The period after World War II and through the 1950s is commonly known as the “golden age of pesticides.” But as the health and ecological impacts of agrochemicals began to be understood, governments started to regulate their use and consumers began demanding organically certified foods.

Producing food sustainably, which includes farming without chemicals whenever possible, will be as important as ever in the coming decades, as the global population continues to grow and as climate change affects land quality worldwide. Organic farming has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and supporting livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously enhancing biodiversity and reducing vulnerability to climate change.

Laura Reynolds is a staff researcher with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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