New study finds organic sustainable agriculture increases food security in Africa

A study just released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the United Nations Environment Program, Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, provides a resounding vote of support for organic agriculture as a way of addressing food insecurity in Africa. Its conclusions have significant implications both for international donors and for African governments themselves.

The study notes that food security is not just a question of producing enough food to meet demand; more food does not automatically mean food security for everyone. “What is important is who produces the food, who has access to the technology and knowledge to produce it, and who has the purchasing power to acquire it.” (emphasis added).

Key conclusions of the study::

  • Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously.
  • 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. Organic production allows access to markets and food for farmers, enabling them to obtain premium prices for their produce (export and domestic) and to use the additional incomes earned to buy extra foodstuffs, education and/or health care. A transition to integrated organic agriculture, delivering greater benefits at the scale occurring in these projects, has been shown to increase access to food in a variety of ways: by increasing yields, increasing total on-farm productivity, enabling farmers to use their higher earnings from export to buy food, and, as a result of higher on-farm yields, enabling the wider community to buy organic food at local markets.
  • Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.
  • The recent food-price hike and the contribution rising fuel prices have made to it highlight the importance of making agriculture less energy and external input dependent. Enhanced transition to sustainable forms of agriculture in general, and organic agriculture in particular, needs to be part of an effective response strategy to escalating food prices.
  • Certified organic production for the export market, with its premium prices, can undoubtedly reduce poverty among farmers, which is a major contributor to food insecurity. However, monocropping farming systems for the export market, whether conventional or organic, still leave farmers vulnerable to export price fluctuations and crop failure. Where organic farming principles are adopted as a holistic approach for the whole of an integrated agricultural system, “organic” can be synonymous with “sustainable”, and increased food security in a region is more likely to occur, while also building up natural, human and social resources.

The study notes that its conclusions are confirmed by the April 14, 2008 report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) panel. This intergovernmental process, supported by over 400 experts under the co-sponsorship of the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and WHO, said that “the way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse.”