In Africa, Organic Farming Is Not the Answer

Robert Paarlberg, an expert on agricultural policy, argues that the western world’s current focus on “organic, local, and slow” farming shouldn’t be extended to the developing world. “Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers’ labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse,” he writes. Paarlberg explains the drawbacks of organic farming and calls for increased spending on agricultural technologies like modern seeds and better fertilizer. In his view, it’s a sound investment: “The?World Bank has documented average rates of return on investments in agricultural research in Africa of 35 percent a year, accompanied by significant reductions in poverty.”[%comments]

trader n

This is a headline grabber, designed to attack the trendy "slow food" movement.

Food spoilage is a much larger problem, the rate of food spoilage in Africa is over 50%, one Nobel prize winning economist has already pointed this out.


What does return on investment have to do with hunger? sounds like the world bank makes an economic case for agricultural technology, but at the same time, traditional means of sustainance are gradually being lost as a result of a move to intensive farming. Why such a heavy focus on genetically modified seed? If more energy was focused on irrigation and transportation infrastructure, the benefits would far outstrip any individual farmer's economic gains. What good is one farm's increased production when the food can't get to market and irrigation practices turn savannahs into desert?

David B

I'm usually the first to make this point in conversations with eco-maniacs, but the other side bears repeating. There are different input complementarities. It is easy to say that in aggregate organic farming is less efficient; I'm sure it is. But the main quantitative argument the organic movement musters is the long term efficiency due to differences in mineral depletion and water retention over time. Considering that much of African agriculture is built on marginal or semi-arid lands, these things are worth considering.

More important, though, is the labor versus industrial inputs question. Consider that many African staples, such as sorghum and amaranth, have lower demand in local urban markets than less traditional crops such as wheat. It may be great to double yields by adding inputs that may seem relatively cheap to us, but if they have to be purchased with cash, a huge endowment of a low-cash-value crop just might not pay for itself. If the only way to make this profitable proves to be land consolidation and labor reduction, urban swell and increased income inequality are likely side effects.

Maybe these don't tip the scales in favor of organic farming enough, but if the political capital behind the organic movement can generate more financial interest and generosity, it really might pass a cost benefit analysis.



The big issue with agribusiness is the prohibition on seed saving. If you plant Monsanto corn, you will be buying Monsanto corn seeds EVERY year. You cannot save part of last year's crop and replant. In marginal economic situations, such as the ones in Africa, this appears to be a very bad way to go. One bad economic year, and you're stuck with nothing to plant. I don't think using some pesticides is bad, but using big agribusiness is financially risky.

You would be better of focusing on plants developed for the type of soil and watering situations available. Many of those plants are heirloom plants (old fashioned ones that developed drought tolerance, and produce less but produce even when the rain doesn't come.)


...and our kitchen waste should be sent to landfills in plastic bags because composting creates dangerous greenhouse gasses...and oil rigs create essential fish habitats... If you are only looking at overall output then yes, this is the best option, but it in no way encapsulates all of the cost involved.


Perhaps this isn't an either/or situation. Not all conventional crops are GMOs from Monsanto or other big corporations; not all organic is clean and from a cute little family farm.
There could be a solution between the two extremes. The solution may even be something that wouldn't seem efficient or profitable to us Yanks. Our history books contain a blueprint for a food system that developed from very little infrastructure. Could the developing world use a system based on what the US farmers were doing 100 years ago? 75 years ago? 50 years ago?
Most of us agree that we went too far with GMOs and big agribusiness, the developing world can copy what we did but also learn from our mistakes.
Return on investment has everything to do with farming. It is a high risk business; even if your remote village doesn't use money but relies on a barter system. Even if you're just fulfilling your role in a community and there is no trade at all, farming is hard work with high risk and narrow margins.


Bill McGonigle

Look into the work of Norman Borlaug, only recently deceased. His Green Revolution is credited with avoiding starvation for billions of people. Fertilizer is among the methods he employed. Somebody gave him a Nobel Peace Prize for his work, which he continued throughout his life.

Being that organic farming requires organic fertilizers, which come from manure and composted plants (the manure coming indirectly from plants also) if you follow the nitrogen cycle, it's clear that with some generation loss and harvesting of plants and animals, that there's never going to be enough organic fertilizer to fertilize all of the world's crops (especially in areas where vast grasslands just aren't part of the ecosystem). I've seen the statistic that there's enough to feed four billion people organically, but no more. I don't have a reference, though.


Confused about where the Paarlberg quotes are from.

The two links in the first line don't contain the quotes and he's not listed in the Acknowledgements of the World Bank report as part of the "team" that prepared the document.

" "Poverty - caused by the low income productivity of farmers' labor - is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse," he writes."

But where does he write it?


Check out Anna Lappe's rebuttal:

Don't Panic, Go Organic: Be not troubled by Robert Paarlberg's scaremongering. Organic practices can feed the world -- better, in fact, than wasteful industrial farming.,0

Eric M. Jones

In Africa, Organic Farming Is Not the Answer...

In Africa, maybe there is NO answer. Babies are nourished to grow up to overpopulate, driving animals to extinction. If w try to save the animals and they eat the farmers crops (and babies).

People donate for mosquito nets and the nets are used for fishing. Bugs and nasty diseases are rampant. Strongmen warlords form armies with our charitable contributions. Aids infects a quarter of the population. Diamonds are used to buy guns to fight the other tribes. Christian missionaries and Muslims are shooting at each other. Everyone shoots at the UN. National currencies are worthless. The smart and rich escape to Europe and the US. The Pope says not to use condoms.

Oh, I so want to believe it can get better, but close your eyes....this ain't going to be pretty.


Corn farmers who use advanced hybrids do not save seeds anyway. Seeds from hybrid plants are inefficient (gmo or not). Our population can only increase as fast as our technology can keep up. So one of two things will need to happen in the next 50 years.

Ged Buffee

Message to "David B" - interesting points and would like to discuss/elaborate with you. Contacts at Ged

Ged Buffee

Taking the conversation from the academic to the realities of Africa we are working with all this every day ( While I'd love to say organics can feed Africa it can't nor can it be, at this time, the single, dominant farming technology. Organic does hold up the example of an eco-efficient farming technology/agro-ecological approach and possibly the most sustainable form of agriculture (in the purest sense of the word "sustainable"). And, with the right market linkages there are many examples where it shows the way to maintaining, or bettering economic performance, while simultaneously delivering social and environmental benefits. However, as mentioned organic is dependent on composting which is dependent on biomass. So for example in the Southern African region small farmer in the miombo-msasa woodland belt (broadly the Mozambique through Zimbabwe through Angola region) to support one hectare of organic farming 8 hectares of miombo-msasa is needed to provide leaf biomass. BUT most of the trees have been chopped down. Another view is that there are 33 million 1,5 hectare small farms in Africa (DfID study) farming on marginal, infertile soils. To reinvigorate these soils needs compost applications at the 150-200 ton range per hectare. At a the 4:1 biomass dilution ratio (4 tons biomass yields 1 ton of compost) something in region of 60 billion tons of starter biomass is needed. Again where does this come from when the principal source are trees that as mentioned are being relentless chopped down for energy or firewood or charcoal sales. Expansion of organic in Africa is entirely possible but its not a quick fix. Organic presents a great opportunity to reframe agriculture not only for growth but also to manage the environment (carbon positive farming), to reduce food insecurity, and exposure to shocks. Longterm vision and agro-eco policy alignment is required to deal with constraints. Not to forget investment.


Philip Gilmore

In Africa, Conventional Farming isn't the Answer Either!

The general problem with conventional farming methods is that they are not based on an understanding of ecology. But neither are many organic practices.

Here are two examples of what I would call ecology farming. Both started on degraded 'marginal' land:

A fish farm in southern Spain in a natural wetland, previously drained for unsuccessful beef farming. It doesn't feed the fish because it doesn't have to - it is a true eco-system that produces its own food. This fish farm produces 1,200 tons of sea bass, bream, red mullet and shrimp each year - and has regenerated a degraded wetland habitat.,9171,1902751,00.html

Michael Pollan in 'the omnivore's dilema' wrote about a farm where cows graze intensively, optimised to maximise grass growth. Chickens come in 3 days later to eat grubs in cow pats and spread the manure. As a side effect of beef farming, the farm is generating better soil constantly.
This is the farm's own website:

One beef farm destroys a wetland, another improves an eroded hillside:

1. Farms can produce food from marginal land.

2. Farms can improve degraded land AND produce food.



Some things that may be not clear for urban readers:
1: famine in Africa is caused by an imbalance between production and demand of food, either because of the climate or because of lack of technology. Some areas are using techniques from the 1800's;
2: in the 1800's there was not such a split in "organic" and "conventional", whatever this last one means. What they need is food, no matter if it's organic certified, conventional or even genetically manipulated, and we are not talking about Big Mac's with french fries, but about grains of maize, wheat and some animal protein;
3: soils in Africa are extremely poor, except in the Nile bank, where the river brings precious nutrients. In subsaaran Africa, few choices are left;
4: There is not enough cows, pigs or chicken to produce the riquered amount of manure to grow organically all of the food needed in Africa;
5: Using technology does not imply in using GMOs. Norman Borlaugh started working very long before they came to light. Fertilizers, better varieties and giving the soil better growth condition can increase yield ten fold, whilst GMOs are driven to high tech crops in order to gain competitiveness (and increase profit). It makes sense to use them in USA, but not in Nigeria.

In short: if organics can be grown succesfully in Africa: do it!
If conventionals are available: use it!