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EAST AFRICA: Green Agriculture Growing in Leaps and Bounds

Isolda Agazzi

NAIROBI, Apr 21 2010 (IPS) - Organic agriculture using natural farming methods rather than fertilisers and pesticides has made significant gains in African countries – not just among farmers but among consumers too.

Agnes Mbuvi from Ebukanga village near Lake Victoria is one of Kenya's growing number of farmers using green "push-pull" technology.  Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

Agnes Mbuvi from Ebukanga village near Lake Victoria is one of Kenya's growing number of farmers using green "push-pull" technology. Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

Africa needs to triple agricultural productivity by 2050 to keep pace with population growth.

It is difficult to say what the correct level for a country’s food security is, stated Hans Herren, a Swiss agronomist, but if a country could ensure at least 50 percent of the calories its people need, it would be doing well.

Herren, former director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), was participating in a round-table discussion organised by the Media 21 Global Journalism Network in Nairobi, which ended on Friday Apr 16. Icipe is a research institute based in Mbita, Kenya, that studies insects as they “often cause the loss of entire crops and destroy about half of all harvested food in storage”.

According to Food and Agriculture Organisation research by 400 scientists and co-chaired by Herren, small farmers and organic agriculture are the best way to ensure the continent’s food security.

The research report added that large-scale agriculture could help, provided it does not deplete the soil and contribute to climate change. Moreover, trade must become the exception and not the rule.

Some 52 countries were in agreement and adopted the report, called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), in 2008.

The IAASTD seems to be largely forgotten, probably because it calls for a radical paradigm shift in agriculture. The report maintains that the world needs a new “green revolution” completely different from the Asian one 40 years ago that increased agricultural productivity with mechanisation, pesticides and fertilisers.

That pathway has proven unsustainable. “Agriculture is responsible for 32 percent of greenhouse emissions,” Herren pointed out. “Today, with climate change and soil depletion and erosion, we cannot continue with business as usual. We need to turn to sustainable or organic agriculture.”

Eustace Kiarii, CEO of the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN), added that, “we must change the export-led, free trade-based industrial agricultural model of large farms to instead develop sustainable local, national and regional markets.” KOAN is the national coordinating body for organic agricultural activities.

In a country where 99 percent of farmers own between a quarter and two hectares of land and cannot afford to buy pesticides and fertilisers, organic agriculture seems to be the way out.

Prof. Zeyaur Khan, an Indian scientist from Icepe, believes this. To increase agricultural productivity he developed the “push-pull technology”, a technique to control pests. A plant called desmodium “pushes” striga and stemborers outside the field where they are “pulled” (neutralised) by napier grass.

Explained Khan: “The green revolution in Africa will come through the adoption of low-cost technologies like push-pull which exploit basic and applied science. These technologies will address food security and the livelihoods of smallholders without requiring extra resources for hybrid seeds, crop protection and soil improvement”.

But others differ. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a nongovernmental organisation funded by the Rockefeller and Bill Gates foundations, promotes fertilisers and seeds to produce more food rapidly.

“But if food production increases too quickly, in two years’ time we will have too much food and prices will go down,” argued Herren. “We need the opposite: for farmers to get enough income, the prices of agricultural products must increase.”

Khan believes that farmers must earn at least two dollars a day to stay in agriculture – revenue achievable through the “push-pull” technique.

AGRA’s Joan Kagwanja confirmed that her organisation “wants to increase the use of fertilisers in Africa. On this continent, farmers use eight kilograms of fertilisers per hectare compared to 300 to 500 kg per hectare in Europe and North America. It is still very low”.

Do they also promote genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? “I cannot say yes or no. We don’t promote the use of GMOs but of evidence-based technology. We do support research to increase productivity. We are not opposed to GMOs and we would help countries or organisations that ask for assistance in this matter,” she replied.

But United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) spokesperson in Nairobi, Nick Nuttall, warned against a one size fits all approach in agriculture.

“One doesn’t have to choose between small and big agriculture. True, sustainable or organic agriculture employs more people than intensive agriculture.

“In the past organic agriculture was seen as a luxury, not as something for small-scale farmers. But productivity has increased: in East Africa, yields have jumped by 128 percent. Organic farming allows better retention of water and improves soil fertility. We have to be smart and not dump lots of chemicals in the fragile soils of Africa.”

Su Kahumbu, founder of Green Dream Ltd that promotes organic agriculture, added that “the demand for organic products in Nairobi is growing. It allows better income for farmers. However, the challenge is to add value to the products by transforming them into fruit juice or marmalades, for example.”

Does her organisation target the foreign market? “Our primary responsibility is to feed the people in Kenya. Export may come later,” she replied.

African heads of state’s 2003 decision to allocate 10 percent of gross domestic product to agriculture has only been implemented by four countries, concluded Herren.

“This issue is about governance, here and on the other side of the ocean.” He believes that the main problem is that the western world spends one billion dollars a day to subsidise agriculture.

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