Organic Production….where’s the profit in that?




Christina Gomba

Originally uploaded by Find Your Feet

“I like using compost because it’s cheaper than fertiliser. The manure helps to keep the nutrients in the soil. I like to farm organically. I think it’s better for the health of my family.

When I compare the yields before I learnt these new techniques from (FYF partner) LOMADEF with yields afterwards – things have improved so much!” Christina Gomba, Ntcheu, Malawi

Organic Production……

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a briefing paper earlier this month titled “Sustaining African Agriculture: Organic Production.”

As the paper states, a Green Revolutioncannot be sustainable in Africa, a continent that imports 90 percent of its agrochemicals, which most of the small-scale farmers cannot afford. It will increase dependencies on foreign inputs (agrochemical and seeds of protected plant varieties) and foreign aid.”

Meanwhile UNCTAD’s research reported field trials finding that organic agriculture’s production was equal to or better than conventional systems. UNCTAD’s analysis looked at 114 cases in Africa that had converted or near-converted to organic and saw an overall increase in agricultural productivity of 116 percent. The brief also cites a number of other benefits of organic agriculture for Africa.

Despite this organic agriculture faces a number of important challenges. A lack of government investment, policies that support agrochemical subsidies, the lack of extension services and general misinformation are all preventing African countries from seizing the opportunities that organic agriculture presents.

…Where’s the profit in that?

Maybe the biggest challenge of all has not been explicitly cited here however. As Ben Lilliston puts it in the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Blog ‘Think Forward’, a major obstacle to organic agriculture in Africa is the fact that “the big agrochemical and biotech companies haven’t figured out how to profit from it.”

It is possible that this is pure cynicism. However the fact that, whilst the food crisis last year was spiralling, the share price of two of the world’s biggest agribusinesses – Monsanto and Syngenta AG – almost doubled, would seem to suggest that something is not quite right.

Let us explain

A brilliant NI spoof ‘advertorial’ gives ‘voice’ to agribusiness arguments in favour of increased external inputs such as fertilizers and GM seeds. With the Green Revolution “small, inefficient farmers gave way to fewer, more efficient farmers who could afford the chemicals and irrigation our Green Revolution package demanded.

Is driving farmers off the land and increasing use of external inputs really the way to produce food?

What about the fact that increased fertilizer use over the past century has actually prevented us from confronting the key issue – namely the erosion of the natural productivity of the soil as a result of industrial agriculture: “while fertilizers can temporarily offset the effects of soil erosion, the long-term productivity of the land cannot be maintained in the face of the reduced organic matter and thinning of soil that characterize industrial agriculture.” (NI 418)

Meanwhile, as the UNCTAD briefing paper showed, small-scale organic agriculture can actually be more, not less productive than industrial agriculture.

Food sovereignty

La Via Campesina, asserts the right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international market forces.

Organic agriculture is, as the UNCTAD briefing paper states, a production system through which Africa can “build on its strengths—its land, local resources, indigenous plant varieties, indigenous knowledge, biologically diverse smallholder farms and limited use (to date) of agrochemicals.”

Visit our website to read about how we are supporting poor farmers in Malawi to become independent of external inputs such as fertilizers.

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