Back to the future?
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CTA. 2000. Back to the future?. Spore 85. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/46654
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore85.pdf
The spotlight should soon shine on organic agriculture, according to its backers. They believe that the future of food consumption and agricultural practices is organic. True, consumers in industrialised countries have learned to their cost that for...
The spotlight should soon shine on organic agriculture, according to its backers. They believe that the future of food consumption and agricultural practices is organic. True, consumers in industrialised countries have learned to their cost that for years they have been eating veal from calves stuffed full of hormones, beef and beef products from 'mad cows' and chickens that had fed on dioxin; the current craze for organic food is driven in part by a desire to eat safely, and well. But there is also a belief, is there not, that organic practices will save the planet for future generations to feed themselves? Will, and should, ACP farmers and consumers be swept along by the organic wave? In the beginning, all agriculture was organic. Then came the pressure sprayer, the sack of fertiliser and the Green Revolution. And agriculture became intensive , to meet the challenge of feeding mankind. In the end, the ecological pyramid got skewed and pushed off-balance. Any farmer in the world who knows her or his land can tell you that, as Joël de Rosnay1 put it, 'an ecosystem which is off-balance will spontaneously seek to become more complex, increasing its load of insects and weeds, which farmers in turn will seek to control by increasing their use of pesticides and weed-killers'. Not all farmers do it though. Four out of five farmers in the world, mainly in the South, are subsistence farmers and only have the means to plant their crops and hope that their harvest will feed their family. And one farmer in a hundred, mainly in the North, has deliberately chosen not to use chemical inputs and to sell their organic output to a few well-to-do and well-informed consumers. A question of definition Organic agriculture means that the use of chemically-produced fertilisers and of pesticides against weeds, insects, fungi and bacteria is strictly controlled, if not entirely forbidden. Going organic means going along with the recent guidelines issued by the Codex Alimentarius commission of the FAO: 'organic agriculture which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. In this regard, the greatest possible use of cultivation methods, whether biological or mechanical, is preferred to the application of synthetic products, in order for the overall system to function fully.' Could it be that many ACP farmers are farming organically anyway, given their lack of resources or information? Could they indeed, naturally, have access to an interesting market opportunity? It is not as clear-cut as that there are several paradoxes and obstacles on the way. Eat more soundly, when you can afford it Eating organically, or put another way, more soundly, is an important concern of consumers in the West. But where do things stand in ACP countries? There are signs of a shift towards organic. The opening of an organic produce market in Dakar, Senegal (see Spore 83) points to a promising niche for some. But such initiatives are very local. The reality is elsewhere : the domestic and regional ACP food market is driven relentlessly by a basic need : people need to eat soundly, but above all in sufficient quantities and cheaply. The export market for organic products is in practice really for the big guys who can invest in the certification process that will allow them to sell well, and well labelled. You cannot just sell a crop of maize as organic simply because it was grown without chemical fertilisers! To be able to sell organic , you need to have the entire production certified, by an independent body. Such procedures are almost always carried out by organisations in the North, and are costly. Produce more soundly, when you can But the costs of certification are not the only problem to be overcome. A survey by FAO showed that 63% of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa mentioned the lack of information as the greatest obstacle to adopting organic production. In some cases the techniques are known, but they are too expensive. In 1998, the banana producers of Santo Antão, a small island in the Cape Verde archipelago, met to see how they could increase their production of organic bananas (see Spore 74). They left their meeting disappointed: they would have to invest heavily in importing germplasm which was resistant to viruses, and they could not find any scientific body which had developed a method to biologically control the mil pès, a local insect which attacks the pseudo-stem of the banana plant. Similarly, organic methods are not always compatible with socio-economic aspects of production. In Ghana, coconut production has been significantly increased with the application of mineral fertilisers, at relatively low cost. The same result could be obtained, and in a much more sustainable way, by placing wads of coir around the foot of the coconut trees, instead of selling the coir to mat-makers as is the tradition. Another method which has literally borne fruit is to place animal hornmeal at the foot of young fruit trees. However, there are few farmers who can go without the immediate income they get from selling coir or buffalo horns. The long-term is a luxury indeed Organic agriculture is a long-term affair, but few farmers can wait the two to three years needed for removing chemical residues from their land, for recycling vegetable and animal wastes and for setting up crop rotation systems. Furthermore, tenant farmers are not keen to switch over to organic methods if they are unsure of having access to the land in years to come, when the advantages of organic production will have become tangible. These problems were raised during the fifteenth meeting of the Agricultural Committee of the FAO in January 1999. That body proposed setting up networks for researchers to communicate, promoting regional certification bodies and starting farm schools which could undertake field trials to assess the contribution of organic agriculture to food security. Overtly organic, or simply sound ? In any event, many of the best cultivation methods practised in organic farming (mixed cropping, crop rotation, mulching with organic waste, and combining crops and animal production) are routinely recommended by most agricultural scientists as ways to maximise the sustainability of crop yields. In the north of Côte d Ivoire, for example, the GEPRENAF project for the participatory management of natural resources and fauna has encouraged the local community to build and use compost pits, without explicitly going organic . In the same vein, it makes sense to try to minimise and improve the use of synthetic fertilisers and chemical insecticides. This makes for an agriculture and a range of products which is sound . It is an attractive approach, based simply on a set of best farming practices, and one which appeals to more and more farmers, and to consumers. In many cases, the quality of the products is guaranteed by a system of labelling that states that they have been produced in an area where farmers have committed themselves to certain practices which enhance the hygiene quality, and the taste, of the product. Whether the talk is of organic or of sound , what matters is that there is a clear movement towards an agriculture which is more respectful of all living species, and towards real food . The best news would be to receive confirmation that these methods can indeed feed six billion people on the planet today, with more to come. What has to be permanently kept in mind is the message of André Lwoff, winner of the Nobel prize for medicine in 1965 : 'Something is good when it helps to maintain the entirety, stability and beauty of the biotic community (i.e. the living part of the ecosystem), and when it helps something other than that, it is not good.' [summary points] Put simply The market for organic produce is a promising one, but it is limited. Organic farming methods carry no miracles, but they do, by and large, help sustainability. Sound agriculture is a way of applying these methods pragmatically, and profitably, for the benefit of the largest possibe number of farmers.. For further information: Codex Alimentarius Secretariat of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme Food and Agriculture Organization Viale delle Terme di Caracalla 00100 Rome, Italy Fax : +39 06 5705 4593 Website : www.fao.org IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) c/o Ökozentrum Imsbach 66636 Tholey-Theley, Germany Fax : +49 6853-30110 E-mail : IFOAM@t-online.de Website : http://www.ifoam.org/ Director of Development at the Centre for Science and Industry of La Villette, France 2 Based on the draft guidelines for the production, processing, labelling and marketing of organically produced foods, 23rd session of Codex Alimentarius of the FAO, June 1999