Monday, January 19, 2009

Africa Saved by Organic Food - Really??

In the 1970s and 80s, two well renowned CGIAR Centres - IITA and ICRISAT had major programs originally in India and then in Africa to examine crop production. A focus of much of the work was plant establishment and performance in the heavy but erratic rains of the monsoonal and similar tropical areas. Crucial issues to improved performance and crop yield were the use of soil mulches [often legumes] to reduce erosion and lower soil temperatures to mangeable ranges in which seeds could germinate and establish. Mulch also enabled soil moisture to be retained and thus allowed better establishment. Without satisfactory establishment and early growth, crops would fail to perform.

This system was very successful, and similar modified large scale systems have been developed for the tropics in Australia and Brazil, for example. Part of the Australian system involved a ley farming phase in which tropical pastures were used for animal grazing with the leguminous residuals aiding the next crop establishment, in the manner above.

This is not organic farming, although undoubtedly, using organic residuals over time will build soil carbon and enhance soil quality. In Africa, the tropical soils are often nutrient deficient, and yields are restricted by poor plant nutrition. Finding and adding those plant nutrients at low cost is near impossible, except for very small restricted areas - for example home gardens. Yes, it is undoubtedly true that soil mycorhiza can allow release of nutrients from otherwise non available sources, but the amounts are unlikely to be adequate to completely supply enough to grow good crops.

A new media release by the organic lobby in Australia uses a recent UNEP article that espouses the view that organic agriculture will radically improve African agriculture. Organic agriculture to be the saviour of Africa!

I am not so sure, except for those smaller areas. Yes, some of the soil carbon principles are important. BUT........this is not new for the tropics; it is nearly 40 years of old news, written up and published in eminent journals and as layman's reading, and acted on around the world in the tropics.

Read the media release and the link to the UNEP article.

It's Official: Organic farming provides answers to feeding Africa

A major study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concludes organic farming offers Africa the best chance of breaking the long inherent cycle of poverty and malnutrition. (1)

Research conducted by UNEP suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial high-tech farming, in addition to reversing environmental and social damages, leading to greater food security.

The head of the UN's Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, says the report "indicates that the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the world may be far higher than many had supposed."(1)

Dr. Kristen Lyons is a senior lecturer at the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University (QLD) and the director of Mukwano Australia, a non-for-profit group supporting the development of health care services in African organic farming communities.

"Organic agriculture offers an alternative - and sustainable - future for African farmers," says Dr. Lyons. She says the report provides a clear direction for reducing the current crisis in agriculture and food systems in developing countries - organic, all the way. "It demystifies the assumption that genetic engineering and other high-tech approaches to farming are required to feed the world.
"In contrast, it is organic farming systems that have demonstrated the greatest potential to feed the world's one billion starving people, and to ensure the long term sustainability of global food production," she says

The UNEP report proposes that African communities need to look to alternative methods of farming as genetic engineering is prohibitively expensive and therefore out of reach for most African farmers. (1)

Organic farming in Africa has lead to benefits to the natural environment, with the UNEP report showing a 93 per cent of case studies reporting benefits to soil fertility, water supply, flood control and biodiversity. (1)

Also, when sustainable agricultural practices, which covered a variety of systems and crops, were adopted, average crop yields increased by 79 per cent. (1)

Overall, the report found an increase in organic farming in Africa could lead to savings on production costs (due to no expenditure on synthetic inputs), promote economic viability and encourage food self-reliance. (1)

Data: (1) United Nations Conference on Trade and Development United Nations Environment Programme, Report: UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity-building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development, Organic agriculture and food security in Africa, Unite Nations, New York and Geneva, 2008
[media release by BFA Australia]
Of course this report is in contrast to recent publications about the need to boost food production, and fast in these areas.

The truth probably is somewhere in the middle. But I doubt, given the wide range of problems that interfere with accumulation of quality organic residuals in Africa, that enough can be accumulated to go totally organic. Embracing the work of the 70s and 80s to enhance establishment and reduce erosion is a vital start to improvement. The technology has been around for some time; getting it adopted widely is more difficult, and often social and machinery issues can interfere with adoption of promising technolgies. is not organic farming, as most people would define it.

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