Profitable organic farming

Food Security28 Feb 2013Ina Horlings

Organic farms in Africa, Asia and Latin America proved to generate higher yields, reduced labour costs, more variety in livestock, and more food security for small farmers.

Food security and productivity are high on the agenda. The Dutch newspapers Trouw and Volkskrant recently published a plea by Aalt Dijkhuizen and Louise Fresco for a further ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture to feed the world’s expected 9 billion people in 2030. What they did not mention is the great economic importance that intensive agriculture has for the Netherlands, by guaranteeing export of Wageningen University’s agricultural model in the future.

The knowledge, land and technology-intensive model of agriculture, which is strongly dominated by multinational agribusiness companies, aims to achieve higher productivity through a combination of crop genetics and crop management techniques. Efficiency can be achieved through ICT / GIS systems in arable farming and intensive meat production in agri-business parks with closed cycles of minerals, energy and water.

For Fresco and Dijkhuizen our current way of eating is not a subject for discussion. The Advisory Council for the Environment in the Netherlands suggests, however, that if we change our diet and eat less meat, we can tackle the food and climate problems at the same time, at the expense of only 0.1 percent of our annual economic growth. The expected temperature rise of 4 degrees can be reduced by half, whereby only half the farmland is needed. As former minister Jacqueline Cramer said, that’s an offer we can’t refuse.

The advocates of sustainable intensification have an overly narrow vision of food and forget the side effects of our current food production system. Socially, agricultural employment has been declining for decades, farmers have become highly dependent on the industry, retailers, global markets and political measures. The idea of ​​the free entrepreneur has long been an illusion. Culturally, agriculture is increasingly seen as a technically verifiable system of inputs, outputs and emissions, rather than as an open ecosystem that depends on natural processes. Farmers’ craftsmanship has been marginalized by the influence of education, industry and research. Politically, this is visible in the explosive growth of standards for quality and hygiene of food. Such regulation is an effective barrier to small producers wishing to enter the market. Agricultural production has been detached from space and place, as a result of footloose production, food transportation and the distribution of food in individual components. This gives the industry the opportunity to use agricultural commodities from around the world, whereby farmers become more vulnerable. Global ‘land grabbing’ will also increase further as a result of the production of biofuels. For example, China has obtained the rights to produce palm oil on up to 2.8 million hectares in the Congo.

We can offer an alternative agricultural model which takes these ‘missing links’ into account, is based on agro-ecological principles, a wide variety of crops and local agricultural practices, and adapted to local and natural conditions. It also provides more employment, partly due to being embedded in social communities, and can better respond to fluctuations in markets, prices and weather. In other words, it is a more resilient food production system. Opponents argue that this form of agriculture is not productive enough and requires too much land. Both arguments are based on a myth, however.

During an international conference on organic agriculture and food security in 2007, it became clear that organic agriculture can produce enough food per capita worldwide. The FAO showed that organic farms often generate higher economic returns. An organic farmer can also be productive and produce ten tons of grain per hectare. In non-optimal conditions, agro-ecological ways of producing often result in even higher yields.

Some of the most interesting examples can be seen in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The “Ensete” system, established 5,000 years ago in South Ethiopia, is a mixed agricultural-forestry system that delivers a wide variety of products, such as the food crop Ensete, coffee, honey, wood and mutton. This system of perennial crops is resistant to drought, mainly thanks to the Ensete plant with its funnel shaped leaves, which can absorb water, and its extensive root system, which prevents erosion. A household of 7 persons does not need more than 0.2 hectares for its annual food supply.

In Brazil, 15 million hectares have been planted under the regime of “Plantio direto”. Many of the ‘Clubes Amigos da Terra’, or Friends of the Earth, are involved in this. The soil is not mechanically disturbed but permanently covered by a variety of successive crops. This system has led to higher yields, reduced labour costs, more variety in livestock and food, and more food security for small farmers. In China, we see a strong boost in organic farming in recent years. An example is the experiment in the village Fushan that led to an improvement in the local economic situation and the production of biogas. In addition, the soil structure improved, the use of artificial nitrogen decreased and food yields increased.

There are plenty of reasons to discuss the dominant agricultural model for food production. An “ecological modernization” of agriculture that uses natural processes, local conditions and the skills of farmers can feed the world. But this requires political courage and leadership. Fair trade, supporting local initiatives and other ways of spending funds for agricultural research are needed to bring this agro-ecological future closer.