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Organic beats conventional agriculture in the tropics

A long-term study by the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Kenya has shown clearly that organic agriculture not only generates comparable yields, but also produces more income and health benefits for farmers than conventional methods.

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The 10-year study conducted in Thika and Chuka, sub-counties in Kenya, was conducted with local partners since 2007. It demystifies the myth that organic agriculture needs more space to achieve comparable yields to conventional agriculture. With input costs lower for organic agriculture and higher prices on the markets, incomes for organic farmers start to be higher after five years of cropping and reach a 53% higher benefit in the sixth year.

Another important factor revealed by the study is the significant improvement in soil fertility in organic farming. Additionally, the non-use of chemical inputs in organic farming systems generates beneficial effects on farms’ ecosystems as well as on the health of people since there are no harmful chemical residues. Parallel studies in India and Bolivia on the production of cotton and coffee respectively showed similar positive results for the organic methods.

The research of long-term Farming Systems Comparison in the Tropics (SysCom) is aimed at providing scientific evidence on the benefits and potential of organic versus conventional farming systems. The objective is to support the development of relevant policies and strategies to guide programmes that foster the adoption of sustainable land use practices at local, regional and international levels.

The study in Kenya has been designed very fairly; it does not compare industrial agriculture with highly specialist outputs of organic farming, but rather conventional agriculture involving staple cereal (maize) and includes crop rotation and other sustainable aspects. As a result, some of the findings are very close between the two systems, but as a whole the study shows clearly that the organic approach is a viable strategy in the tropics, with knowledge dissemination and training in organic farming being areas requiring greater attention.

Knowledge dissemination on sustainable agriculture has been a major thrust of the efforts of Biovision Foundation in supporting smallholders in East Africa to improve their livelihood. The Foundation is supporting the long-term study in Kenya financially, together with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Liechtenstein Development Service and the Swiss supermarket chain Coop.

In addition to the long-term research, which will continue at least up to 2020, the approach of participatory on-farm research is used to develop and promote locally adapted agricultural practices for sustainable farming. Together with local farmers and other stakeholders, different field trials are implemented to test and analyse different innovative practices on-farm and on-station to provide experience and lessons for decisions on sustainable forms of agriculture.

Supporting the development of locally adapted agricultural practices for sustainable farming and disseminating the knowledge to farmers and extension practitioners is at the core of the Farmer Communication Programme of Biovision Africa Trust in Nairobi, which is also supported by Biovision Foundation of Switzerland.

One example is the Push-Pull practice for maize and sorghum, developed by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in the late 1990s and improved ever since, for example to meet the challenges of climate change.

In applying the practice, the yields can easily increase more than threefold, maintain healthy soils and produce excellent fodder for livestock. (More information on Push-Pull…).

David Amudavi, director of Biovision Africa Trust (BvAT) in Nairobi, was full of praise for the research done by FiBL and its partners in his closing remarks at the conference in Thika. He felt that the findings confirmed the approach the Farmer Communication Programme, carried out by BvAT and supported by Biovision Foundation.

“However, more research ought to be done on the nutritional value of either method, as well as the effects on human health,” Amudavi said. “And what about the external costs generated by conventionally produced food – costs to the environment, climate change and human health – that should also be researched in more detail,” Amudavi added.

More locally adapted methods need to be developed and research in organic farming is still not a priority. Given that research is not profitable for the big agricultural companies of this world, this task must clearly be taken over by governments in order to increase food security world-wide – an aspect included in Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) passed by the UN member states last September.

The SysCom study is clearly an undertaking in the right direction and confirms that the organic approach is not only viable, but in fact the best way forward in sustainable development. Biovision Africa Trust and Biovision Foundation feel strongly encouraged by the findings to continue their work with smallholders, giving the knowledge and skills they need to apply organic methods successfully.

For additional information, downloadable graphs and pictures, please go to:
www.systems-comparison.fibl.org