Wednesday May 14 2014

Africa needs better farming, not GMOs

 In the field examining a pineapple

In the field examining a pineapple. Photo by Aggrey Nshekanabo 

By Guy Watson

I first visited East Africa in 2001, seeking an answer to a challenge often levelled at organic farming: “It’s all very well for middle-class Westerners, but it will never feed the world”.

After a month in Kenya visiting farms, exporters, charities, aid organisations and training institutes, I was close to despair. It seemed that, at best, aid was focused largely on dragging farmers into the world market while, at worst, it fostered dependency.
Deforestation was rife with no will to challenge it, and soils were abused with little attention to building fertility or sustainability.

Overall, my impression was the large, Western-owned exporters were exploiting resources for short-term gain and leaving no basis for an economy or agricultural development.

High outputs
Crossing to Uganda, my faith was restored. I found a nucleus of very practical farmers working with the charities, Kulika Trust and Send a Cow. In particular, Timothy Njakasi, who worked at Riverford Organic Farms during his training in UK.

By combining livestock husbandry with careful use of manure and composting, multi-cropping involving many perennial crops and water conservation, these farmers were achieving phenomenal levels of output using almost entirely local materials.
Few used the ‘O’ word, but for me, this was the ultimate in organic production. The systems required high levels of skill but relatively little physical work compared to the surrounding fields of hand-tilled maize and cassava. Timothy and I added up the output compared to monoculture cropping, and concluded it was more than five times as productive.
Since 2001, Riverford has supported Timothy as he turned his farm into a training institute, and more recently the work of Send a Cow in northern Uganda.

I spent 10 days visiting them and wrote this while in Budongo forest, central Uganda. We were on our way south through parched landscape, scarred by bush fires and deforestation. It has not rained for three months yet the previous night I had fallen asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof.

Draw parallels
The forest is green and lush even during the driest time of year. There is such a profusion of leaf litter which, with the canopy, protects the soil, and provides the organic matter to create well-structured permeable soil that can absorb and hold even the most intense rain.

Acting as a sponge, the soil provides constant water to the trees above; creating a micro-climate and feeding the rain that fell on my roof while the drought continues in the surrounding land.
Farmers and hunters have, to a considerable extent, created the drought by their bush burning and bad farming.

I may be thousands of miles from home but I cannot help but draw parallels with British farming as the debate on how we live with the weather we have created goes on.

Our farmers did not make the rain but we caused some of the run-off and erosion that contributed to the floods, mainly through poor agricultural practice.

While many British farmers treasure their soil, the recent trend towards autumn leaves it exposed to run-off at the wettest time of the year.

Meanwhile the general degradation of soil structure that accompanies intensive cultivation of maize (up 24 per cent in 2013, boosted by a relaxation in regulations) and the widespread abandonment of traditional rotations also reduce percolation of rain.

Real culprit
So, how do we improve agricultural practice? In Uganda I have more sympathy with the farmers, especially those working with Send a Cow, who, armed only with a mattock and machete, are turning their back on bush burning to plant trees, mulch, control run-off and improve soils through composting and livestock management.

The areas are small but the techniques are so evidently successful that neighbours are copying them, no thanks to their government.

Back in the UK one could blame the farmers but the real culprit is our government and their ideology of scrapping environmental regulations in the absurd belief that a free market will hold back the waters.

Whether through corruption, ideological dogma or an obsession with self-serving headlines rather than finding lasting solutions, both governments fail their people.

The author is an organic farmer based in Devon, UK. He owns Riverford Organic Farms.