How organic agriculture is creating new export opportunities for African farmers
The staunchest supporters of each of the two sides in what I call Africa's 'agro-ideological debate' are unlikely to see eye to eye any time soon, so deep is their suspicion of each others' motives.
To advocates of intensive 'green revolution' revolution methods, Africa's low use of inputs like fertiliser and over-dependence on age-old low-tech agricultural practices is the problem that prevents the continent from feeding itself.
They scoff at the idea that low-inputs methodologies, such as favored by proponents of organic agriculture, are actually the most accessible, realistic and 'sustainable' key to African agricultural progress. The green revolutionists accuse the supporters of various kinds of 'sustainable farming' of being dreamy-eyed romantics who generally reject modernity and want to keep Africa in a 'backward' state of unrealistic natural pristine-ness.
Proponents of organic agriculture,on the other hand, say Asia's green revolution of the 1960s might have improved yields dramatically, but in the process set into motion many greater problems whose full effects are only becoming clear now. Among those cited are farmer dependence on expensive inputs like fertiliser and hybrid seed. Expensive in the best of times, during periods of crop failure due to flood or drought they have resulted in farmers in India committing suicide because they could not repay their debts for inputs obtained on credit.
Then there are the effects of soil and water pollution from excessive use of chemicals and a litany of other arguments passionately made by opponents of high-inputs agriculture.
By and large this lofty debate takes place in certain elite policy circles, in various NGOs and so on. Generally speaking, most farmers are too pre-occupied with just trying to break even to worry too much about weighty matters of agro-ideology. If and when fertiliser and hybrid seed can be made affordable, as with Malawi's much talked about inputs-subsidy program, farmers flock to avail themselves of them.
But even the absence of these inputs can create different kinds of opportunities for African small scale farmers. An increasing number of people in Europe, the US and elsewhere are willing to pay extra if necessary for food that is certified as having been grown organically. Among other things, this means the exclusion of most of the synthetic chemicals that have become a normal part of 'conventional' farming.
This market niche has developed in response to increased awareness of the environmental and health effects of the over-use of chemicals in modern farming, as well as broader concerns about the general conditions in which food is grown an a desire to see small scale farmers globally benefit more from their toil.
For produce to be marketed as certifiably 'organic' it must meet often stringent standards, and small scale farmers usually require training and other assistance to meet and maintain them. Cost factors have already excluded most African farmers from obtaining fertiliser and other chemical inputs even if they wanted them. Promoters of organic farming argue that this provides one of several strong incentives for African farmers to be trained in growing crops organically for a European market hungry for organically-grown tropical produce.
It is further argued that the traditional farming methodologies of most African farmers are close enough to the principles of certified organic farming that with the right support, they are ideally suited to adopt those techniques. Apart from then having access to a growing export market for selected crops, they also learn scientific techniques to obtain good yields for their traditional 'food security' crops, and to do so without the expense or the environmental and health costs of farming based on synthetic chemicals.
This is a simplified version of the stances of the main warring sides of the agro-ideological debate in which Africa is ground zero because of the continent's pressing food security problems. Each of the two sides has plenty of ammunition to throw at the other on each of the many points of disagreement.
The debate will keep raging, but the market imposes its own imperatives. Many African small scale farmers are finding that the combination of their lack of access to synthetic chemicals and the European demand for organically-grown produce puts them in a unique position to benefit from learning to meet the demands of this market niche.