Should Africa stay Organic?

Africa is hardly what one would call 'secure' in its access to food. The number of hungry people in Africa is on the rise - especially with the after affects of the financial crisis. The World Bank has done the continent a great disservice (and they admit this) by ignoring the importance and value of agriculture, and saying that agriculture traps people in poverty - from the UK to China, agriculture has been a key component of people getting out of Africa. Africa currently imports a huge amount of its food - largely to feed its' swelling (and generally poor) urban populations. The population is also booming - that's a lot more mouths to feed. Plus, with climate change and other challenges, it's not all that likely that imports to Africa are going to stay cheap and readily available. So here's my starting point: Africa needs to become essentially self-sufficient (which isn't to say no-trade, it's just to basic commodities) and find ways to meet her basic needs (I actually think this is true for most countries, but that's a different issue.)  Then the question becomes - can Africa's people do this in a sustainable fashion? And how sustainable? Should it be done organically?

Let me begin by saying that I don't know the 'right' answer to this question - but it is an important one, and I think it needs to be discussed widely. There are a lot of assumptions behind the 'yes' and the 'no' of this debate.

On the 'yes' side: organic is better than non-organic. Most farmers are small holder farmers; organic is well suited to fall holdings. And if those small holdings form into co-operatives, the benefits can be quite strong.  UNEP produced a paper a few years ago that argued quite strongly for this to happen. They suggested that the environmental benefits -  increased water retention in soils, improvements in the water table (with more drinking water in the dry season), reduced soil erosion, etc. Soils become healthier. There are certainly a host of social capital benefits.  Their study suggested that food production increased.  And we need to keep carbon at a minimum. Plus, the green revolution hasn't had so many great benefits for India these-days (just ask V. Shiva). There's a lot of attention of organic for the european market - but my primary concern is the food that Africans are going to eat themselves, not what they export (especially not if they end up buying cheap european non-organic imports with that money).

On the 'no' side: who said small farmers want to stay small farmers? It's darn hard and hot work, and many people (usually women) doing it would prefer to be doing something else. Why not become SMEs, or even larger businesses? small and medium sized organic farms simply can not pay for the major technology - like tractors. So they use the back-breaking hoe. Why should they stay in that condition? Give them the chance to have big farms - and the market benefits that come from that.  And the soil is tough. Fertiliser and other carbon-based inputs can - and often do - make a big difference. We can experiment with organic fertilizer, but let's not ignore the benefits of the industrial revolution. Africa - of all places on this planet - can afford to increase its carbon foot print a little bit.   Using a more commercial based system - especially if it also is owned by community members - can make a big difference.

There's probably a middle ground in between these two perspectives - some inorganic fertilizer, no GM crops, some 'big agri-business' techniques but not too many with careful attention to land and ownership rights (which is such a critical issue in Africa - as it is in the rest of the world.) And you? where are you on this spectrum?