September 2000


Producing organic food is a viable way of survival - and often the only way - for many resource-poor farmers in developing countries, says the following article.

By Carlos S Basilio

Organic agriculture (OA) has been increasingly promoted in developing countries to counteract the disastrous effects of industrial agriculture (IA). For OA movements, food security is measured in terms of the reliability, resilience and self-containment of an agricultural system.

Food security in terms of production totals is meaningless if the agricultural resource base that produces the gains is itself threatened. It is further undermined if agricultural production is dependent on external sources of supply without local control.

OA is a response to systems in distress

First, crop yields associated with chemical inputs are stagnating in intensively cultivated areas. For rice, yield growth began to decline substantially in the late 1980s, even under scientific management on experiment stations.

Second, increased genetic uniformity through large-scale planting of a few modern varieties (MVs) threatens diversity and increases the likelihood of crop vulnerability to pests and diseases. Pests have evolved into resistant forms. Chemicals that worked in low doses just a year ago, now fail completely, even in higher doses. Between 1928 and 1988, the number of pesticide-resistant arthropods increased from five to 504.

Third, every year between 5 and 7 million hectares of land are estimated to be lost through soil erosion, salinisation and chemical poisoning. Over-application of fertilisers when pyrite-containing soils are drained causes acidification on 5.7 million hectares of agricultural land, more than 4 million hectares in Asia alone.

Fourth, agro-chemicals pollute the wider environment, disrupt key ecological processes and harm organisms. They are reported to kill fish, poison cattle and reduce effective biological control agents in pollinators and soil organisms. Run-off from livestock and poultry farms makes surface and groundwater undrinkable.

Fifth, farmers, their families, domestic animals and wildlife are continuously exposed to the effects of use and abuse of hazardous chemicals. Worldwide, pesticides account for about three million cases of acute poisoning, with 220,000 deaths per year.

Aside from cancer risks, a variety of widely used pesticides have been reported to reduce the immune system’s ability to deal with infectious agents. This is important especially in developing countries where infectious diseases account for the majority of deaths and where at least two billion people living and working in farming areas are exposed to pesticides.

OA is a viable economic alternative

In the Philippines, farmers’ motivations to shift into organic rice farming are more economic than environmental. Price premiums are not a sufficient incentive. Farmers are more motivated by their desire for lower production costs, to obtain more stable yields and to enhance their access to production capital.

Evidence from around the world indicates that small, carefully farmed plots are more productive per hectare than large estates. In Madagascar, hundreds of farmers have increased their irrigated rice yields from 2 to as much as 8 tons per hectare by using local seeds, composts and innovative soil, plant, water and nutrient management practices.

Moreover, the export opportunities offered by industrialised countries have been a major stimulus in getting organic farming established in many countries. Demand for organic products is outstripping supply and an annual market growth rate of 20-30% is estimated. Organic products, however, must be traded fairly so that farmers can earn a decent income from a financially viable operation.

OA is high science

Agricultural problems are too complex and interrelated to be solved by linear, highly specialised technical approaches. Agro-ecological zones and farm conditions are so diverse that they require a flexible and holistic approach to research and development.

When scientists reduce an integral object into fundamental building blocks - whether they are cells, genes, or elementary particles - and try to explain all phenomena in terms of these elements, they lose the ability to understand the coordinating activities of the whole system. In this reductionist science lie the limitations of IA as an answer to food security, poverty alleviation and environmental management.

By respecting the natural capacity of plants, animals and landscape, OA aims to optimise agricultural quality, yield and disease resistance. High science can also be found in simple, farmer-innovated systems and practices, the foundations of which are strong, field-validated scientific principles.

OA is increasingly more relevant in marginal environments where households not only rely on unfavourable ecosystems but also live under unfavourable socio-economic conditions. Here, high yields associated with IA are coupled not only with high costs but also with high risks. Even if OA might not provide high yields, incremental improvements and stability can be more important to farmers. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Carlos S Basilio is a research fellow with CIP-UPWARD and former Country Program Coordinator of ILEIA Collaborative Research Program in the Philippines.

The above article first appeared in Biotechnology and Development Monitor (No. 42, June 2000).