Wetenschap - 25 april 2002

LS: Discussion on organic agriculture

LS: Discussion on organic agriculture

I would like to respond to the front page article on the Wb of 11 April, 'Van Bruggen wil niet meer in discussie over biolandbouw'. While it is understandable that Ariena is fed up of getting drawn into the same old argument, I would like to make the following points:

1. In the month of February, the Wageningen Student group for Ecological Agriculture ran a series of four evening seminars on the issue of organic agriculture in the South and implications for Wageningen University. Prof. Rabbinge was informed of these meetings but did not attend. Criticising organic agriculture without joining in debate, a debate which had been organised at much effort by a group of students because the university itself had done nothing, is not very constructive.

2. As van Bruggen suggests, it is pointless to have such a circular, polarised outlook of industrialised versus organic agriculture. The issue is not about right or wrong, good or bad, but about timing and focus. While many agricultural practices and techniques fall into both industrialised and organic categories, the promotion of certain industrialised techniques, which were developed on and for the more homogeneous lands of Europe and the United States, have been found to be inappropriate for the marginal regions where the majority of the poor live and which, arguably, need to be brought into cultivation.

3. The trend is that organic agriculture has higher yields than traditional approaches. It has the same or higher long-term yields than industrialised approaches, and 0 to 20% lower short-term yields. On marginal lands it has higher yields than industrialised agriculture. It is common knowledge in ecology that polycultures have higher total yields than monocultures. Yields are only as good as the gains they bring: when costs are internalised, organic production is cheaper than industrialised.

4. The problem for the poor in developing countries is not yields per se. There is a global abundance of food, yet 24,000 people per day are dying of diet-related disease. These people do not have access to sufficient nutritious food. Reasons are multiple but largely, as Prof. Rabbinge has himself stated in the past, political. As long as researchers continue to justify their choice of experiments (which focus on high yields) as the way to solving the food crisis, so the real causes continue to be overlooked or avoided, and the real contributions that the agricultural sector can make right now remain under-investigated.

5. There are many other reasons why industrialised agriculture has been shown to be vastly inappropriate in meeting the needs of the rural poor and why it has in fact widened the gap between the rich and the poor in many cases. These reasons include human health, toxicity, loss of nutritional diversity, input dependency, degradation of natural capital, and loss of rural employment.

6. The major multilateral and bilateral donors, such as FAO, UNCTAD and DFID, all believe that organic agriculture has a valuable role to play in ensuring food security of the poor and are investing funds in such. Let us be clear that the majority of scientists here are not farmers and have very little idea about how to farm. Organic agriculture is not a scientific discipline but an approach to farming, which was developed by and for farmers, based on perennial knowledge, and with no assistance from governments or research centres. Science is meant to contribute to a wider understanding of phenomena, not directly to life.

Julia Wright