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Environmentally friendly agricultural production and trade as a partnership

An african worker

Organic food exports offer developing countries the chance to reduce poverty and sustain a healthy natural environment. But they soon find themselves needing help in meeting the standards demanded. A Geneva institution under the umbrella of both UNCTAD and WTO works with national and international partners to give countries what they need.

Demand for organic, fair trade and other niche products is likely to make standards even more important in future.

Alexander Kasterine, International Trade Centre (ITC)

Consumers are increasingly demanding food that is safe, healthy and creates environmental benefits. For many, organic products fall into those categories. In developing countries this growth in demand for «green» or organic products at first looks like good news as farms and forests are often de facto organic and can compete on cheap land and labour. Trade in agricultural products is a fast track out of poverty for farm workers and smallholders who have access to these markets.

However, private standards, in particular retailers' own standards, can be tough and expensive for smallholders to meet.

With its partners ITC provides training in organics production and processing, marketing expertise and analysis, online access to information, and a showcase for organic exporters.

The International Trade Centre is the joint cooperation agency of UNCTAD and WTO for business aspects of development. As part of its range of technical assistance programmes, it runs an Organics Trade Development Programme which provides training and advocacy for trade support institutions and exporters of organic and natural products from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.

ITC works in partnership with other organizations in the field and Geneva to draw on complementary skills. For example, in Uganda ITC works closely with the government's Export Promotion Board and the National Organic Movement of Uganda in helping enterprises strengthen their marketing skills and access market information.

ITC is bringing together buyers and producers in Uganda with a Buyers' Tour where buyers meet producers on their farms with the objective of stimulating sales. Producers will also hear at first hand about quality requirements from the people who they most want to meet., In 2008 ITC, together with the Swiss Import Promotion Agency (SIPPO), will bring up to 50 African exporters to Europe to show their products in one large branded Africa stand at the world's largest trade fair for organic products called Biofach.

In addition to its business support in the field, ITC places a strong emphasis on market information and analysis. ITC is currently leading a joint project with UNCTAD and FAO to research the socio-economic impact of retailers' labelling products as «air freighted». This move by the retailers has the potential to cut many farmers in the South out of the EU food and vegetable market.

During 2006, ITC developed a new portal for the organics sector, which makes sector information and a database of buyers and sellers freely available on the Internet. ITC later decided to provide a market news service on organics, free to sub-Saharan Africa, due to start operations in 2007.

The next few years are likely to see a continued growth in demand for organic, fair trade and other niche products. The standards used to differentiate products will thus carry more weight in the market. The extent to which standards work in the interests of developing countries will be determined by how much the standard setters, retailers and policy makers are aware of the crucial issues at stake. It is the job of Geneva-based organizations to make sure these voices are heard.

Alexander Kasterine is a Senior Market Development Adviser at ITC. He has a PhD in Agricultural Economics from Imperial College, London. Prior to joining ITC in 2002 he worked as a consultant to the World Bank and EU based in Brussels and previously in Mexico for an NGO carrying out research into agricultural markets.