Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Organic agriculture: an approach to African food security

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development released a policy brief stating that organic agriculture could boost African food security. The brief begins:
“the way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse”.
It is often argued that Africa needs to follow the agro-industrial “Green Revolution” model implemented in many parts of Asia and Latin America in previous decades. Using strains of crops that required agrochemical fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, these methods increased yields. But they also damaged the environment, caused dramatic loss of agrobiodiversity and associated traditional knowledge, favoured wealthier farmers and left some poorer ones deeper in debt.

This can not be sustainable in Africa, a continent that imports 90 per cent of its agrochemicals, which most of the smallscale farmers cannot afford. It will increase dependencies on foreign inputs (agrochemical and seeds of protected plant varieties) and foreign aid. Africa should build on its strengths – its land, local resources, indigenous plant varieties, indigenous knowledge, biologically diverse smallholder farms and limited use (to date) of agrochemicals. It is time for the African Sustainable Green Revolution – to increase agricultural productivity by using sustainable agricultural practices that minimize harm to the environment and build soil fertility.
The brief defines 'organic agriculture' as "a holistic production system based on active agroecosystem management rather than on external inputs. It builds on traditional agriculture and utilizes both traditional and scientific knowledge. It is a form of sustainable or ecological agriculture that involves production according to precise standards."

I know some big agro-companies that won't be too thrilled about this brief, especially to hear the research (that has obviously not been funded by them):
"research shows that organic agriculture is a good option for food security in Africa – equal or better than most conventional systems and more likely to be sustainable in the longer term. The study’s analysis of 114 cases in Africa revealed that a conversion of farms to organic or near-organic production methods increased agricultural productivity of 116 per cent. Moreover, a shift towards organic production systems has enduring impact, as it builds up levels of natural, human, social, financial and physical capital in farming communities."
The brief does not avoid the challenges facing African agriculture. Building production capacities, market access (against a buy local movement), lack of government support for alternative methods, expensive certification processes, and lack of research and awareness are all major noted hurdles.

A few of their recommendations, according to the UNCTAD–UNEP Best Practices for Organic Policy: What Developing Country Governments Can Do to Promote the Organic Agriculture Sector include:
• Setting sustainable agriculture as a priority;
• Assessing current policies and programmes, and remove disincentives to sustainable/ecological/organic agriculture – for example, subsidies on agrochemicals;
• Training extension workers in sustainable agricultural practices;
• Encouraging farmer-to-farmer exchanges;
• Compiling and disseminating indigenous agricultural knowledge and varieties;
• Funding research on sustainable agriculture, building on indigenous knowledge in response and in partnership with farmers; and
• Promoting development of local and regional markets for organic products.

The international community should;
• Reverse the decline in development aid to African agriculture
• Increase support to African sustainable agriculture;
• Reduce organic market entry barriers, including by recognizing African standards such as the East African Organic Products Standard.
• Explore schemes to make payments to smallholder organic farmers in Africa for carbon sequestration and ecosystem services.
Cross posted from Epicurean Ideal.

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