Organic agriculture is a highly sustainable form of crop and livestock production 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.” 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), 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, 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. 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, allowing farmers to increase their yields and incomes in a sustainable way.
Organic agriculture (OA) has the potential to increase the level of nutrients and biological activity in African soils compared to conventional agricultural systems. 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.
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 or waterlogging. 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. 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.
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. A significant number arise from exposure to pesticides (pesticides are also commonly used in suicides). 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. However, mechanical weeding, if used, will increase energy requirements that such as fuel for machinery and contribute to increased CO2 emissions.
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., 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. Where farms do diversify, there is a need to ensure that accessible markets exist for the additional products.
The question remains whether the yields gained through organic agriculture (OA) are enough to ensure food security and at what price. 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%). 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. 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. 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.
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. 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 and additional labeling and separate handling of organic products is also required. 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. 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.
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. 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 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.
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. 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. 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.