Is organic farming the future of Zim agric?
RUSAPE — It is the sort of a hillside that people would normally climb up crawling as they search for balance.
It is not the sort of a place where you would expect a thriving farm, but villagers here have painstakingly eked a livelihood in these otherwise barren foothills of Makoni District, Rusape — home to 2014 winners of the equator prize on sustainable development.
The equator prize is awarded biennially to recognise champions of the green movement, practical environmental activists defending the planet and its people from the harsh reality and, perhaps, the greatest enemy of the modern world — climate change.
The Makoni Organic Farmers Association (MOFA) beat 1 234 other communities drawn from 121 countries who have committed their lives to protecting the endangered planet and the life that thrives on it.
They grow chemical free food, relying exclusively on organic fertilisers and seeds.
The programme is spearheaded by the Organic Network Forum in conjunction with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme of the United Nations Development Programme, which seeks to promote organic farming practices in selected rural communities to help eliminate pollutants and promote biodiversity conservation.
Some 400 members from the villages of Chirimutsitu, Chitsua, Cheneka and Tandi in Makoni district have received organic farming skills training, mainly in the application of crop rotation, livestock and green manure, composting, mulches and cover crops. The result has been amazing.
They have managed to produce enough healthy food for themselves and surplus for sell to sustain their families.
This success has ignited debate on whether organic farming is the future of agriculture in Zimbabwe, especially in this era when environmentalists have warned of an increased rate of global warming in the coming years.
Others have even predicted the extinction of planet earth due to rampant human activities.
And with the world entering into a new ambitious sustainable development era starting 2016, environmentalists, development agencies and even governments around the world are stepping up supporting organic farming.
Organic farming abandons the use of agro-chemicals that have actually been on the rise in Zimbabwe in recent years.
Research has shown that agriculture is a major catalyst for climate change, second only to industrialisation.
Climate change mitigation exponents point to the green revolution era which today is blamed for playing a key part in warming global temperatures.
The green revolution refers to a series of research and development and technology transfer initiatives that started soon after the Second World War in 1945, which increased agricultural production worldwide.
The initiatives, led by one Norman Borlaung who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, were credited as having saved over a billion people from starvation.
It involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernisation of management techniques, distribution of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides to farmers.
Though food production increased, agricultural biodiversity and wild biodiversity suffered as it relied on just a few high-yield varieties of each crop, brewing concerns about the susceptibility of a food supply to pathogens that cannot be controlled by agrochemicals, and permanent loss of valuable genetic traits bred into traditional varieties over thousands of years.
That effect is already being felt, with agricultural experts and ecologists warning recently that Zimbabwe’s food security situation is facing further threat from the shrinking number of pollinators as they are under siege from use of pesticides.
Pollinators, comprising of mainly birds and insects such as bees and beetles, transfer pollen from one plant to another in order to fertilize them.
Climate change critics say since that time, human agriculture has supplanted about 70 percent of grasslands, 50 percent of savannas and 45 percent of temperate forests.
As such, farming has become the leading cause of deforestation in the tropical regions and one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emission in addition to being a perennial source of non-renewable groundwater mining and general water pollution.
To restrain that impact, some have turned to organic farming techniques and, following the discourse today, support for organic farming is regularly part of a bigger social and political mindset — one that holds the view that natural is best, and that current farming trends are part of a myriad of threats to the health of the earth and its people.
This idea seems to have set the organic movement squarely against intensive farming and chemical-based agribusiness proponents. In the academia, the civic world and the media — arguments rage more fiercely today than ever before.
But behind the harsh oratory in such circles, a little-noticed convergence of views is taking shape, which places organic farming well on course to be the future.
And already, elements of the organic philosophy are starting to be deployed in mainstream agriculture.
There are however questions about the feasibility of employing pure organic means on a large scale commercial farming and questions regarding the readiness of the market.
Conventional agronomists too are increasingly getting troubled about the long-term sustainability of chemical use and the integrity of the soil. Could it be that both sides of agriculture’s great divide now want the same thing?
The United Nations and the government are encouraging a departure from conventional farming.
“This is in line with the UNDP strategic plan that stresses the need to find ways of fighting poverty and inequality, deepening inclusion and reducing conflict, without inflicting irreversible damage on environmental systems, including the climate,” said UN resident representative for Zimbabwe, Bishow Parajuli.
Former minister for environment, water and climate, Saviour Kasukuwere, who was invited to recent victory celebrations in Makoni, said government, was in support of organic farming.
“If we can embrace and scale up such initiatives as organic farming and other sustainable environmental management activities, this will lead to building resilience in vulnerable communities and promote sustainable development,” he said, adding government is spreading the gospel of organic farming around the country.
“It has been a huge shift. Many years ago, crop yield was everything, but now there has been a major recognition of the need to maintain organic materials in soil and we need to encourage that,” said prominent environment scientist and researcher, Christopher Magadza.
But agribusiness specialist, Midway Bhunu, believes that while there is need to promote environmental friendly methods that embrace approaches that keep soil structure intact and cut the high level of inputs of energy, fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides linked to intensive agriculture, organic farming cannot be treated as the future of agriculture.
Thus, organic farming is largely driven by a niche European market which is encouraging healthy foods produced entirely through natural means and cannot be presented to farmers as business case, Bhunu contends.
“In the context of our agriculture industry looking at the methods developed over time, our farmers can take up such new methods but we cannot take it in as a short-term or even midterm endeavor,” said Bhunu, adding: “We can only be drawn into it by bigger markets, which means health and environment concerns alone will not be enough to trigger a massive shift from convectional farming.
So I would say in the foreseeable future, organic farming will occupy a reasonable share of our agriculture, particularly in small scale farming communities and cannot replace convectional farming any time soon.”
However, agricultural economist, Mandivamba Rukuni, says the market for organic foods is growing and so should be its production, even at commercial level.
“What’s happening in the world is that people are urbanizing faster and the urban population is changing its dietary so fast, people realising that manufactured foods are healthier. The rise of non communicable diseases, partly due to the use of chemicals at the farming stage or packaging has also resulted in people becoming more conscious of what they eat,” said Rukuni, adding that the global food market is increasingly demanding more organic foods than ever before so Zimbabwe should not be left behind.
“There is scope for commercial organic foods for both export and local market. I have seen shops in South Africa and other countries that have dedicated themselves to exclusive organic food and even locally, people are reverting back to the traditional organic foods and these are clear pointers that organic farming is the future,” he said.
The green movement clearly has valid reasons to champion for organic farming but so do their opponents.