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AFRICA: Organic Farming Could be Answer to Food Insecurity

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Jul 17 2009 (IPS) - Commercial farmers sometimes fail at organic farming because they switch over too quickly, ditching all chemicals, which is as traumatic for the soil as "a drug addict going cold turkey".

This is how Cornelius Oosthuizen, the head of the South African Biofarm Institute’s management team, explains why there are relatively few organic farming success stories in South Africa. The South African Biofarm Institute promotes sustainable and profitable biological and organic farming.

"Failure occurs when a farmer who has been using chemicals on a farm for a long time suddenly switches to 100 percent organic farming. If you have 1,000 ha of land, you cannot start monoculture organic farming on all the land. One first has to farm biologically.

"If you suddenly take away all the chemicals from land that has been chemically farmed, it experiences trauma. It is like a drug addict that goes cold turkey."

The soil has to be primed – the micro and macro minerals have to be brought into balance; the ecological system has to be reinstated (there has to be robust insect and worm activity in the soil); and soil erosion has to be countered in various ways. With biological farming, non-harmful chemicals are used while organic farming does not permit the use of any kind of chemicals.

This is one of the factors that need to be addressed if South African farmers are to make inroads into organic farming which is not only lucrative but will address the African continent’s perennial problem with food security.

The international market for organic produce is worth 50 billion dollars annually, but Africa’s potential in this field is still largely untapped.

Organic farming can be the answer to the continent’s food security problems. In June, the aid organisation Oxfam warned that sub-Saharan Africa will suffer great maize losses of up to two billion dollars annually due to changing global patterns.

The region is susceptible to water shortage, natural disasters and drought. Experts warn that Africa’s scarce resources have to be used carefully to ensure food security.

According to Raymond Auerbach, a well-known advocate of organic farming in Africa, research done by a number of organisations proves that organic farming can double or treble production in the developing world. It reduces non-solar energy use by 33 to 56 percent; it uses water up to 40 percent more effectively and organically produced food has higher levels of vital nutrients.

Auerbach is the director of the South Africa-based Rainman Landcare Foundation. The organisation teaches producers to farm in an ecologically sound way and to make optimal use of Africa’s scarce water resources. It also helps farmers to organise into effective groups and to develop markets.

A 2008 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) showed that in 114 projects in 24 African countries crop yields more than doubled when organic farming methods were used.

Yet ignorance and resistance to organic farming as well as the financial dominance of seed and fertiliser companies with their strong political links are some of the reasons why organic markets have not been fully developed. Auerbach told IPS that South African organic farmers face many obstacles. "First, there is little research locally to guide them. Second, the government will often not help farmers unless they use fertilisers and poisons. And, third, getting certified ‘organic’ is difficult and costly.

"Resistance to organic farming is fuelled by two factors – vested interests and professional ignorance. Companies support methods that help to sell their products. But who benefits from organics? Not companies, but farmers and their customers, as well as the environment," he argued.

"Professionally, those who have been trained in our (South African) colleges and universities have been told that fertilisers, poisons and GE [genetically engineered] seeds are scientific and progressive, while ‘old-fashioned’ methods are unscientific."

Yet the income potential from organic farming is enormous. According to Auerbach, organic farmers in Uganda are generating 22 million dollars annually in export earnings. They also provide food for local communities.

Oosthuizen added that commercial farmers are motivated by the profit motive, and that quantity is therefore more important to them than quality. "Farmers have to show a profit and they will use seed and fertiliser that help them attain this goal – even if the resultant product is poor in nutritional value."

Genetically modified seeds ensure huge crop yields and pesticides and herbicides are sprayed over crops in huge quantities. The multinational seed and pesticide companies, which produce these products, often have links to government officials. In this way they ensure that they have prime access to markets.

"Fertiliser, for example, is a by-product of the petro-chemical industry. Billions of dollars have been invested in these industries. Organic farmers do not buy from these multinationals, so of course there will be resistance from the multinationals to organic farming," Oosthuizen explained.

According to Auerbach, "food security lies at the heart of the organic movement. In general large agribusiness organisations are less interested in food security than in selling their products.

"Even some aid organisations at work in Africa boast that most of the money they invest in development goes back to the United States in the form of payment to American technical experts and provision of technologies and products."

For Oosthuizen the answer to food insecurity lies in returning farming to the local level in Africa. "Each village should have its own farms, and its own mill and bakery to feed its people. When the local people are being fed then only should one look to wider markets.

"This is where governments could play an important role. Marketing strategies should be centralised and co-ordinated. For example: a government could appoint 20 small holder farmers in a certain area to jointly supply five tons of maize to a specific client."

The empowerment of women farmers can be achieved when this model is followed. In Africa women form the backbone of the agricultural economy. The potential benefits to women are obvious if governments employ a gender equity principle in allocating projects.

Across South Africa poor urban and rural woman are already keeping hunger at bay with community food gardens. The resultant produce not only feed them and their families, but surplus food is sold at local markets, generating an income for the women who are often the sole breadwinners in extended families.

In rural areas women can benefit from organic farming in two ways, says Auerbach. "They can use the inputs that they find around the farm, so they do not have to travel far to buy expensive inputs. They are also the ones who use the food for their children, so both in production and in consumption no one will be exposed to poisons."

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