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February 20, 2009

Organic Agriculture in Africa

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a remarkable little briefing paper last week titled "Sustaining African Agriculture: Organic Production." Right out of the gate, the brief directly takes on proponents for a "Green Revolution" in Africaa recipe for more investment in genetically engineered seeds and chemically-intensive agriculture being pushed by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA),

The UNCTAD brief states that a Green Revolution "cannot be sustainable in Africa, a continent that imports 90 percent of its agrochemicals, which most of the small-scale farmers cannot afford. It will increase dependencies on foreign inputs (agrochemical and seeds of protected plant varieties) and foreign aid. Africa should build on its strengthsits land, local resources, indigenous plant varieties, indigenous knowledge, biologically diverse smallholder farms and limited use (to date) of agrochemicals."

Instead, the brief called for an "African Sustainable Green Revolution" to "increase agricultural productivity by using sustainable agricultural practices that minimize harm to the environment and build soil fertility."

UNCTAD's research reported field trials finding that organic agriculture's production was equal to or better than conventional systems. UNCTAD's analysis looked at 114 cases in Africa that had converted or near-converted to organic and saw an overall increase in agricultural productivity of 116 percent.

The brief cited other benefits of organic agriculture for Africa, including: enhanced food security (because it is suited to smallholder farms and increases diversity in food crops, resulting in more varied diets and improved nutrition); protection of natural resources, including soil and water quality; less dependency on price volatility related to external inputs; and reduced illness and death associated with agrochemical exposure,

The UNCTAD brief echoed many of the recommendations set forth last year by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, with input from over 400 experts from around the world (including IATP's Steve Suppan).

Africa is currently home to 20-24 percent of the world's organic farms, according to UNCTAD. And while organic has the potential to bring in premium earnings to farmers, it also faces many challenges, including a lack of government investment, policies that support agrochemical subsidies, the lack of extension services and general misinformation.

The UNCTAD missed another big obstacle to organic agriculture in Africa: The big agrochemical and biotech companies haven't figured out how to profit from it.

Ben Lilliston

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