Attempting to grow against the grain? Organic farming gives higher yields in developing countries
The discussion about lower yield in organic farming compared to conventional farming is a controversial issue. Organic farming techniques minimize chemical usage, promote biodiversity and improve soil health.
While some studies argue that the yield of organic farming systems is higher than conventional systems (UNEP, 2008; Auerbach et al., 2013;), others suggest it’s actually lower (Seufert et al., 2012; Ponisio et al., 2015). This discussion often neglects to mention that yield differences vary from country to country, and are highly dependent on the utilized crops (de Ponti et al., 2012; Seufert et al., 2012).
However, whereas the average yields of organic farms in highly developed countries are indeed 15% lower than conventional systems, in developing and less developed countries the average yield of an organic farm system is actually up to 116% higher than conventional systems, respectively (Te Pas and Rees, 2014). This is due to the fact that organic farming increases yield most significantly in systems with previously low input. Furthermore, crops like maize, millet and beans respond more positively to organic farming techniques in contrast to lettuce, tomatoes and peppers grown in developed countries. This needs to be communicated clearly to alleviate concerns among small-scale farmers.
In a fast-changing climate, coupled with global food shortages, lies an opportunity for alternative food production systems. These have created awareness and demand for sustainable food production, better nutrition and environmental protection and significantly influenced the food economy in many countries.
Among all the alternative food production systems, organic farming is gaining particular popularity at a time when nutrition, food security, and sustainability of the environment are at a crisis point. Many countries offer a wide range of certificates and labels for organic products. Increasing urbanisation in Western metropolitan areas is driving an even higher demand for organic food, with cities like Berlin and New York offering a wide range of organic products, shops, markets and production systems in urban areas.
In Kenya, organic food consumption is catching on, but it is still far behind the global movement. Consumers here can either get a small variety of certified products from local farmers markets (e.g. Saturday market at Purdy Arms) or from delivery services (e.g. Kalimoni Greens) or they can purchase them directly from the farmers, which are mostly not certified. Supermarkets and big grocery stores do not offer a choice between organically and conventionally grown vegetables and fruits. This is mainly due to the problems organic farmers face in meeting the required conditions regarding the quality, quantity, traceability, timeliness and flexibility (Hazell et al., 2010).
One of the reasons is that there are simply not enough organic farmers in the country. Only 0.50% (151000 ha) of Kenyan agriculture is organic (IFOAM & FiBL 2017), with most of the areas dedicated to the export of organic products.
There is little doubt as to the significant advantages and opportunities created by organic farming. Yet, there are some challenges the producers (mostly small-scale farmers) have to face in order to switch to an organic system. These include lower yields, nutrient-management difficulties, certification, market issues, as well as educational and research needs.
Good soil, with high organic matter and high levels of nutrients, is essential to maintain farm productivity. However, very often small-scale farmers do not have access to sufficient amounts of animal manure (which needs to originate from organic livestock production) and organic residues in order to add organic matter to their land and improve their soil. In fact, there appears to be a competition over the use of these scarce resources, specifically in regions where livestock feed is unavailable (Vanlauwe et al., 2014).
Farmers naturally want to maximize their profits. Yet, the first thing they face is additional costs for certification, which often masks the positive effects of lower input costs due to less use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds. This often deters them from switching to organic farming. Unknown to many, however, the certification of organic products for export are financially and logistically supported by international certification bodies like Soil Association (UK), Ceres (USA), EcoCert, (France), IMO (Germany) and Bio Suisse (Switzerland). The costs and efforts for the certification of local organic products with the label, EnCert Organic or with the Tanzanian label Kilimo Hai, however, need to be covered by the farmer. The requirements of the local organic certification system EnCert are based on a whole range of international standards and are therefore certainly not easy to follow. Issues like the availability of organic manure, uncontaminated water and soil are just a few additional challenges, as are adjacent conventional farmers who contaminate the organic farms with pesticides via spray drift.
Though most of the farmers are already organized in farmer groups (e.g. Mount Kenya Organic Farming) there is a missing marketing strategy that connects producers, traders and consumers of organic products in Kenya. The distance to favourable markets is often too long, strategically placed collection centres are missing and transport is a challenge. This results in supermarkets, delivery services and restaurants in Nairobi often having difficulties to receive fresh products due to the long time it takes to transport them from other parts of the country such as Naivasha, Kikuyu or Kiserian.
Given the fact that organic farming is a so-called knowledge intensive rather than input intensive system (Zundel and Kilcher, 2007), training farmers is crucial for its success. However, this is currently far from sufficient. Many NGOs (e.g. Kenyan Organic Agriculture Network) try to do their best to spread organic farming practices, but extension officers very often completely neglect the training on organic alternatives. A few weeks ago a farmer in Machakos told me after training on organic farming techniques, “You know, we Kenyans follow authorities. And if the authority is not promoting organic farming, we do not do it”. In a rare exception, Egerton University has taken up research and is competently teaching organic farming. Other universities, though, rather cover general conventional agricultural practices and are more technology orientated.
How organic is organic in informal settlements?
Though hardly related at first glance, the role of organic agriculture in urban informal settlements has become a more and more critical issue in Kenya, particularly because of the increasing urban poverty. There is a wealth of literature that describes the social roles of organic farming, its economic functions and its potential to sustain the livelihoods, and attain food security of urban informal households (Memon and Lee-Smith, 1993; Martin et al., 2000). In contrast with better-off households, who tend to farm on private land – which, in many cases, equates to their backyards – the very low-income groups tend to use public land. This renders organic farming challenging to impossible because crops are irrigated with untreated wastewater from sewage or even water is taken from associated rivers like Ngong River accumulated heavy metal concentrations like cadmium, chromium and lead in levels that exceeded the maximum permissible limits for human health (Karanja et al., 2010). The irrigation water can also contain high levels of pesticides (Abongo et al., 2016), bacteria and pharmaceuticals like antibiotics and antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) (Ngumba et al., 2016). Crops cultivated along the roadsides are prone to air and soil pollution with high concentrations of lead, zinc and cadmium in Amaranthus leaves (Nabulo et al., 2006). Chicken manure from urban chicken can also contain high levels of trace metals (Zhang et al., 2012). Due to this, serious food contamination and increased risk of diseases among farm workers and consumers of urban agricultural products may arise.
Organic agriculture is rightly seen as a farming system which could overcome food insecurity. It could significantly boost yields in developing countries where the poorest and hungry people live. These regions should thus be prioritized in the organic movement. Kenya should, therefore, do more to overcome all these challenges. It is on all of us to change our consumer behaviour and to create new markets for organic farmers. And it is the onus of the government to take the lead and change its agricultural policy. Finally, it is on research institutions to promote more research and education on organic farming. Let’s all work together to encourage more restaurants, more markets and more supermarkets to offer organic products regularly, driving more and more farmers to switch to organic farming – for the benefit of the country.
 Codex Guideline CAC/GL 32: Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods, IFOAM Basic Standards, Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007, Commission Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 and the East African Organic Products Standard
 A role model would be Bridges Organic Health Restaurant in Nairobi (http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Organic-foods-eatery-flourishes-on-pursuit-of-healthy-lifestyles/1248928-2610712-lbtbvx/index.html)
Words by Silke Bollmohr who supports the Route to Food initiative.
Image: Wesley Towett picking tea leaves, Kericho County. Photograph by Armstrong Too.