Organic farming offers Africa the best chance of breaking the
cycle of poverty and malnutrition it has been locked in for
decades, according to a major study from the United Nations
to be presented today.
New evidence suggests that organic practices – derided
by some as a Western lifestyle fad – are delivering
sharp increases in yields, improvements in the soil and a
boost in the income of Africa's small farmers who remain among
the poorest people on earth. The head of the UN's Environment
Programme, Achim Steiner, said the report "indicates that
the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the
world maybe far higher than many had supposed".
The "green revolution" in agriculture in the 1960s –
when the production of food caught and surpassed the needs
of the global population for the first time – largely
bypassed Africa. Whereas each person today has 25 per cent
more food on average than they did in 1960, in Africa they
have 10 per cent less.
A combination of increasing population, decreasing rainfall
and soil fertility and a surge in food prices has left Africa
uniquely vulnerable to famine. Climate change is expected
to make a bad situation worse by increasing the frequency
of droughts and floods.
It has been conventional wisdom among African governments
that modern, mechanised agriculture was needed to close the
gap but efforts in this direction have had little impact on
food poverty and done nothing to create a sustainable approach.
Now, the global food crisis has led to renewed calls for a
massive modernisation of agriculture on the hungriest continent
on the planet, with calls to push ahead with genetically modified
crops and large industrial farms to avoid potentially disastrous
Last month the UK's former chief scientist Sir David King
said anti-scientific attitudes among Western NGOs and the
UN were responsible for holding back a much-needed green revolution
in Africa. "The problem is that the Western world's move toward
organic farming – a lifestyle choice for a community
with surplus food – and against agricultural technology
in general and GM in particular, has been adopted across the
whole of Africa, with the exception of South Africa, with
devastating consequences," he said.
The research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests
that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased
yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial
farming, without the environmental and social damage which
that form of agriculture brings with it.
An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found
that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic
practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to
128 per cent in east Africa.
"Organic farming can often lead to polarised views," said
Mr Steiner, a former economist. "With some viewing it as a
saviour and others as a niche product or something of a luxury...
this report suggests it could make a serious contribution
to tackling poverty and food insecurity."
The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional
methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also
found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil
fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.
And the research highlighted the role that learning organic
practices could have in improving local education. Backers
of GM foods insist that a technological fix is needed to feed
the world. But this form of agriculture requires cash to buy
the patented seeds and herbicides – both at record high
prices currently – needed to grow GM crops.
Regional farming experts have long called for "good farming",
rather than exclusively GM or organic. Better seeds, crop
rotation, irrigation and access to markets all help farmers.
Organic certification in countries such as the UK and Australia
still presents an insurmountable barrier to most African exporters,
the report points out. It calls for greater access to markets
so farmers can get the best prices for their products.
Kenyan farmer: 'I wanted to see how UK did it'
Henry Murage had to travel a long way to solve problems trying
to farm a smallholding on the western slopes of Mount Kenya.
He spent five months in the UK, studying with the experts
at Garden Organic a charity in the Midlands. "I wanted to
see how it was being done in the UK and was convinced we could
do some of the same things here," he says.
On his return 10 years ago, he set up the Mt Kenya Organic
Farm, aimed at aiding other small farmers fighting the semi-arid
conditions. He believes organic soil management can help retain
moisture and protect against crop failure. The true test came
during the devastating drought of2000-02, when Mr Murage's
vegetable gardens fared better than his neighbours'. At least
300 farmers have visited his gardens and taken up at least
one of the practices he espouses. "Organic can feed the people
in rural areas," he says. "It's sustainable and what we produce
now we can go on producing."
Saving money on fertilisers and pesticides helps farmers
afford better seeds, and composting and crop rotation are
improving the soil. Traditional maize, beans and livestock
farming in the area have been supplemented with new crops
from borage seeds to cayenne peppers and honey, with buyers
from the US to Europe. Now he is growing camomile for herbal
tea, with buyers from the UK and Germany both interested.