If it’s organic, it must be good, right?

Can organic agriculture deliver the food production increases that Africa and the world needs? A newly released book by FAO on organic agriculture adds fire to this debate. Photo: Moraes
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Sep 10, 2013


Paul Neate (Freelance science writer)

Can organic agriculture deliver the food production increases that Africa and the world needs? This has been a long-standing debate between farmers, researchers and policy makers. Now we are taking a closer look at this topic.

‘Organic agriculture’ has long been promoted as offering a wide range of environmental, economic and health benefits, particularly in the developed world (see, for example, the UK Soil Association). A new book from FAOOrganic agriculture: African experiences in resilience and sustainability—sets out to show that it can do the same in Africa.

What is organic agriculture?

For many in the developed world, it is about producing ‘certified’ organic food within strict rules and regulations that restrict or preclude the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, veterinary drugs and other ‘artificial additives.’ And indeed, some of the chapters in this latest book use the term in exactly that way. But others use it in a more-inclusive sense, more in keeping with the FAO/WHO definition, which focuses on use of management practices and locally available resources.

Will it help us deal with climate change?

Broad-sense organic agriculture does have much to offer in mitigating climate change and helping farmers adapt to its effects.

For example, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Replacing them with organic fertilizers—manure and green-manure crops, for example—increases soil organic-matter content and water-holding capacity and improves many other soil properties. This build-up of organic matter also sequesters considerable amounts of carbon in the soil.

Can organic agriculture really deliver the goods?

But can organic agriculture really deliver the increases in food production that Africa—and indeed the rest of the world—needs?

A field trial started in 1844 (yes, 1844) has shown that applying ‘farm yard manure’ can deliver the same yields as applying synthetic fertilizers, year after year. But that required 35 tonnes of farm yard manure every year. Which means an awful lot of land is going to have to be set aside for livestock, and a lot of work has to go into collecting and spreading their manure, not to mention the methane emissions that come with livestock.

manure is a cheap, accessible and Organic fertilizer. boosting manure-use however will mean that farmers will need more Cattle - a high emitter of emissions: F. Clay (WorldFish)

As human population has increased, fallow periods have shortened, giving the land less time to recover. Growing green manures or forage crops in rotation with food crops can replace fallowing to some extent, but reduce the amount of land that can be cropped in any one year. Rotations mean that land lies idle more often than in ‘conventional’ farming systems, and still require inputs of synthetic or organic fertilizer. Again, the system depends on integrating crops and livestock, with all the implications for food supply and environmental impact.

One review suggests that “leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use” in temperate and tropical agro-ecosystems, but another review from Sciencedirect notes that “the options for the resource-poor small-holder to efficiently utilise biologically fixed N as a N supply for cereal grains are more limited...”.

More work, especially for women

Another potential drawback is that organic farming practices—using organic fertilizers such as animal manure and green manure, diverse crops and crop rotations, integrated pest management that does not rely solely, or even mainly, on chemical pesticides and such like—are time-consuming and labour-intensive. This risks adding to women’s burdens—women provide at least half of all agricultural labour in sub-Saharan Africa, and this on top of providing 85–90% of labour for food preparation and taking care of children and other household chores.

Promoting organic agriculture could mean more work for women farmers who are already battling a long list of multiple work-tasks. Photo: K. Trautmann

Are we simply reinventing the wheel?

Interestingly, the overwhelming impression of the case studies presented in the FAO book is of re-engaging with local, indigenous knowledge and practices, of re-learning what was once common knowledge among farmers: how to get the best out of their local resources while nurturing and preserving those resources and the wider environment.

The chapter on Managing community-based rangelands in Namibia, for example, shows how the holistic range management practices promoted by Allan Savory in Zimbabwe have boosted livestock productivity in Namibia while also restoring vegetation diversity on the range and improving soil fertility on farmers’ plots. And all from a system that mimics the communal herding practices pastoral people used in Africa and elsewhere for millennia. (That’s not to say that everyone agrees with Savory’s approach—many do not.)

The chapter on the Old Orchard Organic Farm in Zambia notes that one of the ‘organic’ practices being used—intercropping maize with a leguminous green-manure crop—was used on over 1 million hectares in Alabama, USA, in 1917.

If traditional practices are so good then, why have many been dropped?

Given that many of the practices promoted under the heading of ‘organic agriculture’ seem to be based on traditional practices that have since been dropped—as in intercropping maize with velvet bean in Alabama—one has to ask why did farmers and pastoralists give up these practices if they were so successful? Has anyone looked into this? Is it that the human population exceeded the capacity of these practices to support them, or something else? Have people lost the knowledge needed to make them work (or the understanding of why they worked and were worth the effort)?

Managing a complex rotation involving several different crops and livestock unquestionably requires more and diverse knowledge than growing only one or two crops, and few extension systems have either the knowledge or the capacity to help farmers implement these complex systems. And more crops may mean the farmer needs several different sets of tools to work them (especially in mechanised systems), which will mean more investments.

Many questions, what about answers?

Will organic agriculture be able to feed us all in the future? Opinions differ. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel-prize-winning plant breeder, once famously said, "We aren't going to feed 6 billion people with organic fertilizer," but the Worldwatch Institute begs to differ.

What is clear is that broad-sense organic farming will have to be part of the solution, particularly for resource-poor subsistence farmers. But as a 2008 paper put it most succinctly, “There is a need to refocus the debate ... from the simple question ‘can organic feed the world’ to the question of which farming and food system can deliver healthy food, including to those in most need, within the constraints of limited energy availability and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

This and many other pressing questions related to producing more food under a changing climate while protecting our ecosystems, are what we will be discussing during the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum on 16-17 November. The Forum will be held in parallel to the UNFCCC climate change conference COP19 in Warsaw, Poland.

Watch video: A ‘wider view’ on our planet’s most pressing issues: