The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, part of the United Nations Environment Programme, has put out a 61 page study on organic agriculture and food security in Africa. The results may surprise some. Focusing primarily on East Africa, the study finds that "organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term."
This was the same finding of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 2007.
This finding is important if we are to be able to feed the over 6 billion people on the planet, and help the appalling number of people suffering from hunger and food insecurity, a number which has increased every year since 1996 and is currently at 923 million people . 75 million of those people were added between 2005 and 2007 as a result of increasing food prices and reallocation of land for biofuels instead of food crops. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people going hungry has increased by 20% since 1990.
According to the report, "The conventional wisdom is that, in order to double food supply, efforts need to be redoubled to modernize agriculture." This theory is flawed. First, most people going hungry are not being fed by commercial farms, they are subsistence farmers that live on what they can grow themselves and are "marginalized from the product market". Second, the technological advances in agriculture have not led to a reduction in hunger in the developing world. Third, modern farming techniques often involve inputs that are costly and not locally available.
According to the report:
In developing countries, evidence from research and from this study shows that agricultural yields in organic systems do not fall, and at least remain stable when converting from systems that us relatively low amounts of synthetic inputs (many of which were bypassed by the earlier "green revolution") such as those frequently found in Africa. Over time, yields increase as capital assets in systems improve, thus outperforming those in traditional systems and matching those in more conventional, input-intensive systems. Food availability increased in all cases centered on food production where data were reported examined in this study. Others, such as Gibbon and Bolwig (2007), have also found that organic conversion in tropical Africa is associated with yield increases rather than with yield reductions.
In addition to higher yields, organic agriculture takes away some of the financial barriers to food production. Food surpluses can be sold at local markets, allowing for increasing financial stability and providing fresh, organic produce for the community.
The idea that developing countries benefit more from organic agriculture than they do from modern agriculture directly contradicts the assertions from companies like Monsanto that claim that it will take their technology (genetically modified seeds, pesticides and herbicides) to feed the 9 billion people expected to inhabit earth by 2050. But in this study, the U.N. finds that it is not new agricultural technology that will produce more, conserve more and improve farmers' lives, but some very old wisdom that will accomplish that. In fact, the study found that "the vast majority of the case studies in this research showed improvements to the natural capital base - their local natural environment - with 93 percent of the case studies reporting benefits to soil fertility, water supply, flood control and biodiversity. These improvements included increased water retention in soil, improvements in the water table, reduced soil erosion, better carbon sequestration and increased agricultural diversity. These improvements allow for growing more crops for longer periods and with higher yields. Take that genetically engineered crops!
There were also a number of other benefits from making the switch to organic agriculture; improved community organizations and partnerships, increase in education, skills and health, improved infrastructure and markets, and increase in household income. All of this makes organic agricultural methods ideally suited for poor farmers with small land holdings. The report reads:
All case studies which focused on food production in this research where data have been reported have shown increases in per hectare productivity of food crops, which challenges the popular myth that organic agriculture cannot increase agricultural productivity.
The question remains whether these findings will translate into policy. Currently, agricultural policy in most African countries hinders organic agriculture. The same can be said of U.S. aid policy. With so many going hungry not in spite of, but perhaps because of modern agricultural practices, we can only hope that science and research will trump business interests. And sooner rather than later.