This 2007 UN study – Organic Agriculture and Food Security In Africa – provides the details of initiatives to train smallholders of several African countries in organic food production methods beginning in 1995. Using simple techniques and locally available biological inputs, the majority of the mini-farms increased yields to oversupply, allowing sales of surplus. Some crops hit yields high enough to garner export sales.
These successful farmers have been encouraged to share their updated expertise with fellow farmers to keep the ball rolling. Freedom from the cost of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers floated the boat during the transition, and the soil amendments and management changes brought quick improvements.
Unfortunately, there is one fly-in-the ointment. One conclusion of the study:
“Organic agricultural systems are making a significant contribution to the reduction of food insecurity and poverty in areas of Africa, and to an improvement in rural livelihoods.There is potential to do more in this area with enabling policy and institutional support.
Organic agriculture is not directly and specifically supported by agricultural policy in most African countries; indeed, it is sometime actively hindered by policies advocating the use of high-input farming management practices. If organic agriculture and it’s associated positive side-effects are to be scaled up, an enabling policy environment is critical.”
Natural Farming Needs Natural Seeds
These days Africa is besieged by biotechnology – pushy, international interests who have no time, or show little respect, for slower but sustainable methods. This contingent brings hybrid and GMO seed that won’t reproduce true to type if replanted. Some won’t sprout at all with out an additional outlay for a chemical treatment. Terminator seed was rejected flat out several years ago by many African countries. The prospect of relying entirely on others for their seed supply was not acceptable. African farmers improve their seed the old-fashioned way. Seeds are kept from the best plants at the end of the season.
Survival of the Fittest
And by best, I mean fittest. Seeds from the most vigorous, and top producing – the most drought, insect and disease resistant – are saved for the next season. Farmers figured out how to select for and fix traits in plants via hybridizing in a good-enough way long ago.This method allowed agriculture to spread and flourish. Mendel went at it more scientifically much later on. It takes longer than one – off hybridizing, and a lot longer than genetic fiddling, but the cumulative improvements can be relied upon to show up in the plant’s offspring – true to type – unlike the one-season hybrid and GMO seeds.
Are New Ways Always the Best Ones?
Modern agriculture pretty well dumped the slow method decades ago in favor of the faster boosts in performance that could be had – even though it meant they had to buy new seed every year and buying didn’t provide any more protection than what open pollinated plants offered from new pests and diseases. The cost seemed small compared to anticipated benefit. In the short run, it appeared a reasonable direction to take. But there are long term costs that many overlooked – and still do.
The vast majority of research and development going into fast hybridization and genetic modification pretty well halted work on improving conventional plants the conventional way – and is now far behind where it could be. It has also blurred the line between what is hybridized and what is genetically altered – and the distinction is far too often downplayed or deliberately hidden.
What’s more, many open pollinated varieties have gone extinct. There are seed banks, but nowhere near enough seed on store to recover from an unanticipated interruption in the supply of one-season seed. Another difficulty with fast hybridization and GM – there’s a growing body of evidence indicating that, while yields have increased, nutritional quality hasn’t been maintained in many varieties.
Down But Not Out
Organic farms generally use conventional, open or self pollinating plants. Many will only use heirloom varieties to keep the original genetics alive. Some only keep enough seed for their own needs. Others buy from certified seed growers to help support both the growers and continued availability. Shortages are common.
Natural-method farms also have to contend with the fact that conventional plants can be pollinated by modified ones, rendering the seed useless. Genetic drift is pushing altered genetics into non-food wild plants, rapidly reducing natural diversity. Preserving what’s left of conventional varieties, both food and non-food, has become an uphill battle. We need the security of viable seed. There’s no excuse for not having this basic insurance. It’s time to restart the clock!
Hybrid and GM Seed Will NOT Be Flying to Mars
Hybridization definitely has it’s place, but by that I mean real hybridization – not the shady, line-crossing, genetically-modified-but-passed-off-as-hybridized kind. The money, time and energy being poured into GMO would be far better invested in sustainable conventional plant development. The growing cult-like faith in science and technology to come up with solutions to everything isn’t viable.
All the high-end machinery and techniques in the world will never change the simple fact that nature can totally kick our asses when ever and where ever. Open pollinated seed is essential to our continued existence and if those wanting to go to Mars do make it there, they will be bringing conventional seed with them. Too bad the quality isn’t as good as it could be, but there’s no time like the present to make the needed changes.
Learning to work with nature is a never ending challenge, but it gives us the understanding we need to survive – and thrive. Constantly trying to override reality could have most, if not all, of us sleep-walking off the technological equivalent of a cliff. It’s not just Africa that needs government commitment to sustainable agriculture – every country on the planet needs it and needs it ASAP