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Accueil > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > July 2012 > Promoting Organic Agriculture in Africa: The Need to Lead by (...)

Promoting Organic Agriculture in Africa: The Need to Lead by Example

Sunday 1 July 2012, by Geneviève Lavoie-Mathieu

“Organic agriculture can offer an impressive array of food security, economic, environmental, and health benefits for developing countries, including in Africa,” declared Petko Draganov, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) deputy secretary-general last May at the second annual African Organic Conference.

The conference’s theme, "Mainstreaming Organic Agriculture in the African Development Agenda", sought to emphasize the importance of food security, sustainable agriculture, and a transition towards a ‘green’ economy according to Draganov.

The three hundred conference participants urged governments of Africa to include organic agriculture as a core element in their policies and programs.
Paradoxically, there are currently more organic farms (certified and non-certified) in Africa than in any other continent. At the same time it has been proven that conventional agriculture as practiced in most of the Americas and Europe is not sustainable, characterized by its emphasis on productivity and not on health, environmental and social benefits.

Knowing that the main markets for organic products are in Europe and North America, would an increased production in Africa mean that all exports are leaving with little or no benefits for small-scale farmers? Is the emphasis on the ’green economy’, just another excuse for western organizations not to turn to ’green solutions’ but rather to impose their view of sustainable development on the Global South?

Keeping science away from African nations?

Wellesley College professor Robert Paarlberg,argues that Western donors, NGOs and governments have been advocating for the use of costly organic farming techniques as the alternative to chemical fertilizer use.

In his book Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa, he argues that while only one percent of America and four percent in Europe is being farmed organically, African nations are told they should farm organically.

Bill Gates is another advocate of biotech in Africa as a means to increase food security. He said that in order to “develop crops that can grow in a drought; that can survive in a flood; that can resist pests and disease… [w]e need higher yields on the same land in harsher weather. And we will never get it without a continuous and urgent science-based search to increase productivity”.

On the opposite side, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded after four years of research that genetically modified crops do not help small-scale farmers, and that to reduce hunger, investment is needed in rural infrastructure (roads, markets, irrigation development, rural schools and colleges).

The IAASTD also found that sustainable agricultural development "will require investment in systems such as organic agriculture, which build on traditional knowledge and give traditional farmers the tools they need to thrive without becoming dependent on expensive external inputs".

Organic agriculture makes sense in African nations, argues Manjo Smith of the IFOAM because it builds on available resources. In fact, the continent of Africa holds around sixty percent of the world’s available and unexploited cropland, numerous indigenous plant varieties, and proven indigenous knowledge. Farmers often have limited use of agrochemicals.

The UN goes further by arguing that African nations have a certain comparative advantage in organic agriculture, as they possess relatively abundant labour and would save on cost using relatively fewer agrochemicals in production.

Marketing as the main obstacle

One of the conference’s main conclusions was that while major markets for organic products are growing at rates of between ten and twenty percent organic agriculture is not given enough credit and the organic market is mostly restricted to North America and Europe, which constitutes an enormously untapped potential.

Roughly eighty percent of organic producers (a significant proportion of them women) are in developing countries, while ninety-seven percent of sales revenue for organic products are generated in industrialized countries, according to UNEP.

To address this, participants at the Lusaka conference ’’requested [that] the European Union and other actors of the global trade partners to take all possible steps to facilitate the participation of Africa in global organic markets."

Another conclusion of the conference was that there is an urgent need for African governments to advocate for the benefits of producing organic as an opportunity for value added production to increase income from sales, locally and abroad. Organic agriculture methods such as crop diversification, increased crops, and soil fertility management would be especially well suited for areas where there is low soil fertility and erosion. In western Kenya, for example, bean output has increased by 158 percent using organic agriculture.

This is also valuable in the rest of the world, including North America and Europe. In the United States alone, for example, the damage to farmland, waterways, infrastructure and health because of soil erosion was estimated to cost over fifty billion dollars a year.

Increasing research and access to markets

Rather than promoting organic agriculture solely as a developmental path in Africa, a vast effort should be made to promote better agricultural practices, including organic agriculture worldwide, especially in times of climate change, a global economic crisis, water scarcity and increased soil erosion. Organic agriculture represents rural jobs, and offers a vast array of environmental and health benefits, both for customers and producers. But in order to achieve the "mainstreaming of organic agriculture’’ increased access to markets, an increase in research focused on organic agriculture technologies and training for farmers is desperately needed.