Organic agriculture is a highly sustainable form of crop and livestock production[1] defined as a “system of farm management production that combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, the application of high animal welfare standards, and a production method using natural substances and processes.”[2] Organic agriculture (OA) shares similar values with conservation agriculture (CA) by emphasising the return of organic matter to the soil and using agroecological methods such as multiple cropping and crop rotations. OA and CA differ in that CA may allow for the use of inorganic inputs and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s),[3] whereas OA has strict regulations on the amount and nature of inputs that can be applied and prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds, synthetic fertiliser, herbicide and most insecticides and pesticides, with the exception of various “natural or simple” chemicals. OA also bans the routine use of antibiotics and wormers. However, natural pesticides are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic pesticides,[4] and may not be safer for human use or cause less damage to the environment.

Data related to OA in Africa are sometimes approximate and incomplete. A 2007 study by IFOAM estimates that around 1% of the world’s certified organic land is in Africa, whilst African farmers comprise almost 10% of certified organic farmers. OA appears most prevalent in east Africa; 50% of Africa’s certified organic farmers are located in Uganda and 20% in South Africa; 19% are in North Africa, and 5% are in the West. [5]

Contribution to Sustainable Intensification

Organic agriculture (OA) aims to ‘mimic nature’ by making use of natural ecological processes and resources to provide nutrients that sustain soil fertility, control pests, diseases and weeds. By building natural capital in this way, farms can be more resilient against shocks and stressors and more productive in some circumstances. The potential of OA is considered to be significant in developing countries and in areas faced with degraded soils or a lack of financial capital,[6] allowing farmers to increase their yields and incomes in a sustainable way.

Benefits and limitations
Soil quality

Organic agriculture (OA) has the potential to increase the level of nutrients and biological activity in African soils compared to conventional agricultural systems.[7] Organic soil management can improve soil quality due to increased soil organic matter and macrofauna that builds soil structure. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is 14% higher in organic soils.[8]

Techniques such as multiple cropping, crop rotation or the application of compost or animal waste increase the soil organic matter (SOM) content, allowing soils to better capture and store water. This enables crops to better withstand stress induced by low water and drought conditions and reduces the vulnerability of land to erosion[9] or waterlogging.[10] However, increasing nitrogen levels in the soil through organic methods can be more challenging than with the help of a targeted and prudent use of inputs.[11] Organic waste has other competing uses, such as fodder for livestock, that may reduce a farmers desire to use organic waste as mulch. Further, collecting organic waste for use as fertiliser may take additional time and effort compared to non-organic fertiliser.

Pesticide use

Organic agriculture (OA) minimises the risks that pesticides pose to farmers. Globally, toxic chemicals from various sources are estimated to cause more than 355,000 unintentional deaths every year, 2 in 3 of which occur in developing countries.[12] A significant number arise from exposure to pesticides (pesticides are also commonly used in suicides).[13] Farmers sometimes apply banned pesticides or apply pesticides without due care. Whilst the number stands as an indicator of the potential dangers that can result from using agrochemicals, much of the misapplication occurs because farmers do not get adequate ‎‎instruction. Although hazardous, more can be done to improve ability of poor farmers to properly use and target approved agro-chemicals. Synthetic pesticides may also kill pests’ natural enemies leading to pest outbreaks.[14]

Agricultural emissions

Organic agriculture (OA) has been proposed as a mitigation strategy against climate change due to the increased capacity of soil to reduce N2O (Nitrous Oxide) and CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) emissions by limiting soil erosion.[15] When plants photosynthesise, they integrate carbon into their tissue. When the plants die and decompose their tissue becomes part of the soil in the form of organic matter. An increased organic matter contributes to a healthy soil that can sequester more carbon than degraded soils.[16] However, controversy around the effect of soil erosion on CO2 emissions remains. There is a limited understanding of the fate of eroded soil organic matter (SOM) during transport and after the soil is deposited in landscape sinks.[17] As a result, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers lateral carbon movement as the greatest cause of uncertainty in the global carbon balance. CO2 emissions may be lower in OA systems as pesticides and fertilisers produced from fossil fuels are not used.[18] However, mechanical weeding, if used, will increase energy requirements that such as fuel for machinery and contribute to increased CO2 emissions.[19]


The Environment for Development initiative (EfD) (a capacity building programme in environmental economics focusing on research and policy interaction) asserts that organic farms are typically more diverse than conventional systems.[20],[21] Greater crop diversity encourages a wider range of varieties and species, including natural enemies that can help to control pests. By diversifying their crops, farmers can also diversity their income streams, leading to increased economic stability through risk spreading. However, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that in developing countries, the costs to become certified organic are too high for most farmers. Some farms are also becoming less diversified and produce a few high value organic commodities such as coffee and sugar cane to maximize income generation.[22] Where farms do diversify, there is a need to ensure that accessible markets exist for the additional products.[23]


The question remains whether the yields gained through organic agriculture (OA) are enough to ensure food security and at what price.[24] Productivity is specific to the management and local environment. A study found that under subsistence systems, switching to OA resulted in increased maize yields of up to 180% in regions of moderate productivity and produced yields comparable with conventional systems (92%).[25] Generally, wheat produced under OA yields 30%-40% less than with the use of inputs. This also seems to be the approximate ratio for other crops.[26] Due to lower yields, more land is required to produce the same amount of crops that could otherwise be produced with the ‎prudent use of inputs. Under these circumstances, deforestation may occur to clear additional space for agricultural land.

The need for additional land for organic agriculture raises concerns about potential environment and ecosystem damage and the loss of biodiversity in areas where suitable land is scarce. However, OA may improve local food systems capacity to grow adequate and appropriate food where it is most needed and otherwise unavailable, such as in remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa that may be disconnected from markets.[27] With greater investments in conventional breeding for African staple crops in diverse and harsh environments, organic crop varieties bred to make more efficient use of scarce resources and increase pest and disease resistance as well as to perform well in their specific environments are needed.[28]

Financial return and labour

Price margins in markets are often low, so production costs have a significant impact on income. This makes the productivity of farm production a particular concern.[29] Although the use of inorganic inputs is prohibited, the production and application of compost and biological fertiliser can still be costly. Considerable extra labour is needed; weeds have to be removed either manually or mechanically[30] and additional labeling and separate handling of organic products is also required.[31] Whilst the production costs of organic produce may be higher, farmers may also fetch a premium on their produce. Certified organic farmers will require a higher price to compensate for the costs of certification. In the organic market, price premiums may be available to organic farmers depending on their crops and linkages to markets. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that in Uganda, farmers receive a 20% price premium for organic cotton.[32] A 2005 study by the UN found that Ugandan organic farmers received price premiums ranging from 10% -100% for their products, which include pineapple, coffee, cocoa, and sesame.[33]

Adoption of organic agriculture

The cost of conversion from conventional to organic agriculture (OA) is one of the biggest hurdles to greater adoption of organic farming practices, even in developing countries where traditional agricultural practices are often organic by default. In South Africa, certification can cost a farmer between 9,000 Rand (US$ 746) and 15,000 Rand (US$ 1244.5) per year.[34] Financial and logistical support with the certification process and linking farmers to both internal and external markets would enhance the benefits of becoming certified organic producers for smallholder farmers.

For example, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes may be used to support farmers in converting to OA. The agri-environmental policies[35] in the European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries support PES schemes for the development of OA, but potential problems arise where the agri-environmental incentives conflict with the marketplace. For example, schemes designed to encourage conversion to OA may result in an increased supply of organic products above current demand, resulting in falling prices, with all producers being worse off.[36]

There is a wealth of knowledge about organic agriculture, especially in EU countries; however, this knowledge is specific to certain climatic circumstances and usually cannot be transferred to other regions such as sub-Saharan Africa without caution and modification.[37] Additional attention is needed to build the capacity of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, providing them with peer-to-peer training to ensure that the information is locally adapted to suit their land, needs and preferences. In Africa, the absence of secure land rights means that many poor farmers are unlikely to take on additional risks and efforts to gradually build up the natural capital of their farms beyond a 1 or 2 year horizon.[38] To ensure that farmers invest in the transition to sustainable agriculture on a long-term basis, major efforts to secure land rights for smallholder farmers are needed.[39]

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Case Studies

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Case Study 3: Organic management practices in Ethiopia
Field training for farmers in Tigray, Ethiopia. Credit USAID

Field training for farmers in Tigray, Ethiopia. Credit USAID

The Tigray Region was once widely considered to be the most degraded area of Ethiopia, contributing to low agricultural production and exacerbating rural poverty. By 1975, the dryland forest and woodland vegetation in the region suffered from overgrazing, demand for fuel wood, and increased cultivation. Tigray also experienced record low rainfalls in the mid-1980s,[1] one of the triggers for the devastating famine from 1983-1985 that led to more than 400,000 deaths.[2]

Originally named ‘Sustainable Development and Ecological Land Management with Farming Communities in Tigray,’ The Tigray Project was founded by the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) in 1996. It is a broad-based, open-ended experiment by farmers and local experts that began in just 4 communities. By 2011, the majority of communities in Tigray were participating in the project with benefits accruing to 6 million of the 12 million smallholder farming households in Ethiopia.[3]

The project is farmer-led and builds on local technologies and knowledge, supported by the Tigray Agricultural Development Bureau which deploys more than 3,000 extension officers to provide support. Their main activities include soil conservation through terracing and agroforestry consisting of compost making, restricting free-range grazing, water conservation, bee keeping and the use of bio-pesticides developed with local knowledge. Each adult community member offers 40 days of free labour to help with soil and water conservation, gully rehabilitation, and improving community infrastructure. Women-headed and elderly families have benefitted particularly from receiving seeds to grow spice plants and training in how to raise fruit trees and sell the saplings. Girls are also supported by the project to complete their formal schooling.

More than 6 million formerly degraded hectares are now considered rehabilitated. Water table levels and permanent springs have improved and soil fertility and biodiversity have increased. Furthermore, data collected in 2002, 2003 and 2004 showed that on average, composted fields produced higher yields, sometimes double, than those treated with chemical fertilisers.[4] The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) continues to support more than 32 different farmers organisations in the Tigray region to implement a wide range of fruit nurseries.[5]

The FAO now considers Tigray to be approaching household and regional food security, although there is still progress to be made. A 2009 World Food Programme report on food security in Tigray in found that 14.5% of households had poor food consumption, 28.3% had borderline food consumption and 57% acceptable food consumption.[6]

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Case Study 2: Organic vegetables in Mkuranga District, Tanzania
Leafy vegetables in Tanzania. Credit WRENmedia

Leafy vegetables in Tanzania. Credit WRENmedia

Farmers from the Mkuranga region in Tanzania traditionally earn their income from rice and cassava production. Since 2004, women from the region have formed groups to collaborate on organic vegetable production and processing activities.

A 2-year project was initiated in the villages of Sotele and Kitomondo in Mkuranga District using participatory approaches to transfer organic vegetable farming technologies. First, 60 women farmers were randomly selected, 30 from each village and trained in organic vegetable production though the use of on-farm demonstration plots. The women learned techniques for seed-bed preparation, sowing, transplanting, plant protection and soil replenishing using natural and locally available materials. Neemcake was used as a pesticide and marigold and desmodium as repellents; farmyard crop residues and crop rotation helped to improve soil fertility.

The women produced okra, sweet pepper, and Amaranthus (African spinach). With the support of the project, their average yields increased significantly from 1,225kg per hectare to 11,550kg per hectare. The average area under vegetable production per household increased from 300m2 to 10,000m2, indicating that women benefitted from the production and sale of organic vegetables. Indeed, their income from vegetable sales in Sotele and Kitomondo villages increased from TSh250,000 (US$126) to TSh3,365,000 (US$1,528). Although the marketing system was not well organised, the women were able to sell their produce to schools and teachers, at village markets and to neighbouring villagers, motivating the women to continue growing organic vegetables.[1]

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Case Study 1: Certified Organic cotton in Uganda
Organic cotton in Uganda. Credit Organic Exchange

Organic cotton in Uganda. Credit Organic Exchange

Cotton farming was introduced to Uganda in the 1940s, but slowed almost to a halt between 1972 and 1986 due to low prices and an unfavourable policy environment, attributed to armed rebellion and insecurity. Since the end of the civil war in 1986, peace allowed the new government to focus on the modernisation of agriculture.[1] A revival in agriculture and cotton farming followed which opened the way for small-scale organic cotton farmers in certain regions of Uganda. Between 1994 and 2000, the number of cotton farmers in Uganda grew from just 200 to 24,000.[2]

The Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa (EPOA) works with smallholder farmers – the majority of which are resource poor – through cooperative unions that provide technical advice on organic production methods and marketing. Soil fertility and pest management is maintained with traditional organic practices such as crop rotations and natural pest control, such as push-pull. Organic cotton production from this project achieves yields of 1,000–1,250kg per hectare of seed cotton, giving 300-320kg per hectare of lint.

Organic cotton receives premium prices compared to cotton produced through conventional methods, which translates to a 15-20% premium for farmers on farm gate prices. Finally, famers’ ‎social capital has improved through the formation of cooperatives and an increase in farmers’ knowledge of organic methods from peer to peer training.

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