Africa's organic farms (1/3/2008)

NOTE: In more than a decade of monitoring the GM debate, this has to be one of the most intellectually discreditable articles we've yet come across, and that's saying something! It really deserves some sort of 'ultimate straw man' award.

GM enthusiast Robert Paarlberg defines unproductive farms in Africa as 'de facto 'organic'', ie he effectively makes organic = starved of resources! From there he argues that what's needed for greater productivity is the opposite, where not being resource poor = having industrial ag with GMOs'!

In fact, research shows that where carefully thought through modern organic, and carefully honed low-input approaches, are used in Africa, and with other resource poor farmers world-wide, they can be phenomenally successful - indeed, to an extent that GM hype merchants like Paarlberg can only dream of!

Researchers have repeatedly shown that organic and agroecological farming can significantly increase yields for such farmers, 'improve food security and sustain and enhance the environmental resources on which agriculture in the South depends.' In other words, the poor and hungry are most assisted when it comes to increasing food production by low-cost, readily available technologies and practices.

Case studies show how they benefit through moving away from intensive practices and agrochemical use in favour of composting, green manures, cover crops and other low input or fully organic systems. As New Scientist has commented on this growing body of research:

'Low-tech 'sustainable agriculture,' shunning chemicals in favour of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more... The findings will make sobering reading for people convinced that only genetically modified crops can feed the planet's hungry in the 21st century... A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world's hungry live and work... It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution.'

Since that editorial was published in 2001, a major new study looking at more than 280 projects in 57 of the world's poorest countries has confirmed exactly the same pattern, showing that techniques such as crop rotation and organic farming increased crop yields by an average of 79%, without risking future harvests, and that farmers could reap spectacular rewards by using 'a variety of integrated pest management techniques; making the best of biodiversity like predators, parasites and multiple cropping.'

Robert Paarlberg's straw man argumentation for industrial ag + GMOs is combined with straightforward factual inaccuracy. He writes, for instance, of Africa, 'Nobody grows genetically engineered crops because governments in Africa - following Europe's lead - have not approved such crops for use.'

But GM crops are grown in South Africa and there have been multi-year trials of GM crops in Kenya. Perhaps Paarlberg wanted to edit this out because the intended GM showcases in Africa, such as the Makhatini Flats and Monsanto-USAID's much hyped GM sweet potato project, have flopped so spectacularly, despite claims to the contrary.

Paarlberg's article, it seems, is just a taster for Paarlberg's book, 'Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa.'

If the book's of a similar calibre to the article, then it should make the likes of the Dennis Avery classic, 'Saving the planet with pesticides and plastics', look intellectually convincing.


Africa's organic farms
By Robert Paarlberg
International Herald Tribune, February 29 2008

Approach any serious-looking college student in the Boston area, where I teach, and ask them what kind of food and farming system they would like to see. Most will say they don't want food from factory farms with a large carbon footprint. They want foods locally grown on small family farms. They don't want crops grown using synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides; they want crops grown 'organically.' They want farm animals to be able to range freely. They want 'slow' food rather than fast food. And they don't want 'Frankenfoods' - crops developed through genetically engineering.

What might such an idealized food system actually look like? Take a trip to Africa. The small farmers who populate the continent's impoverished countryside are living out something close to this post-materialist fantasy. Two-thirds of all Africans depend on farming or animal grazing for their food and income, and nearly all of their operations are small-scale.

Eighty percent of the labor on these farms is done by women and children, in part because it provides so little income for working-age men. There is no power machinery (only two tractors for every thousand agricultural workers) and only 4 percent of crops are irrigated. More than two thirds of all cropland is still planted with traditional crop varieties rather than with scientifically improved varieties. The animals - mostly cattle and goats - forage for their own food.

Agribusiness firms are nowhere to be seen, and chemical fertilizer applications per hectare are less than one-tenth the industrial world average. Insecticides and herbicides are not affordable, so crops suffer pest damage, and the weeding is done by children who would be better off in school. Nobody grows genetically engineered crops because governments in Africa - following Europe's lead - have not approved such crops for use.

Nearly all of Africa's farms are thus de facto 'organic.' Poor and non-productive, but organic.

Africa's traditional rural food systems are definitely 'slow.' To serve maize meal (called nsima) to her family, an African woman must first spend a season planting, weeding, harvesting and storing her corn, then she must strip it, winnow it, soak it, lay it out to dry, carry it to a grinder or pound it by hand, dry it again, and finally - after walking to gather enough fuel wood - cook it over a fire.

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