Are there consumers who are willing to buy a tomato at a price 10 times higher because it is labelled organic or natural?
By Isaac Ongu
I was fresh from university with a degree in agriculture and ready to practise what had taken me four years to learn. The job was cut out for me, to reach out to the farmers from Omoro sub-county (then in Lira district) in 2004, who had been displaced by the Lord's Resistance Army.
I was to demonstrate to them how to plant upland rice, including the application of fertiliser and herbicides. These groups of farmers were beneficiaries of National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) training programmes. The Local Authorities had decided that these displaced farmers needed knowledge so that when they returned home after the war, they would apply the acquired knowledge to improve their livelihoods.
After procuring my demo kit; Triple supperphosphate Fertiliser that I was meant to apply at planting; and "Satunil", a pre emergence rice herbicide meant to kill the germinating weeds and spare the rice, I set out to demonstrate how. The process went on well until I experienced for the first time the power of a scare tactic.
As I returned to follow up with my participants on the scheduled date, my mango tree shaded class room had no participants. On inquiring, I was told some people who belonged to those that were promoting organic agriculture in Northern Uganda had come after me and told the same participants that what I had demonstrated to them was going to make their women barren and men infertile. That was enough to turn me into a foe in an instant.
It had to take me a session of convincing the leaders why fertilisers are required to replenish the soil; the cost benefit analysis of applying herbicide to control weeds; and how the sugar they put in their tea every day comes from plantations that apply both fertiliser and herbicides.
Weeding is the most burdensome part of agriculture with most Ugandan communities using their bare hands to pull out weeds. This takes away a considerable amount of time and at the end of weeding an acre, the crop would have already lost its potential yield.
What is organic?
Organic is a licensed farming method that encourages the use of animal manure, kitchen wastes and use of leguminous crops to replenish nitrogen either through crop rotation or as a green manure where the legumes are ploughed back into the soil. The decomposing residues release the nutrients into the soil to be up-taken by the plant. The organic industry discourages the use of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides.
The organics are marketed as "sustainable agriculture", "agro-ecology farming", and "farming God's way". Organic products are branded natural, organic, safe, nutritious and healthy to appeal to the emotions of buyers.
The challenge of organic agriculture is in its inability to support the food need for the ever increasing population. The stringent requirements associated with growing "organics" mean fewer farmers are willing to indulge in it and the few who do end up overcharging consumers, making organic products a preserve of rich elites.
In Uganda, there is an assumption that anyone who does not add any inputs to the soil or protect their crops from pests and diseases is practicing organic farming. Without adding manure or inorganic fertiliser, or spraying against pests and sometimes diseases, it is unlikely that such a farmer would make any profit.
The organic campaigners suggest that Ugandan farmers should produce for the highly sophisticated European markets. How many Ugandan farmers supply the European markets and what organic produce is Europe buying from Africa? When you go to a local market, do you find an organic section? Are there consumers who are willing to buy a tomato at a price ten times higher because it is labelled Organic or natural?
Genetically modified organisms are considered a threat to the organic's profits and are being fought hard by the organic industry. This is because some genetically modified crops have the potential of doing away with chemicals translating into more crops being grown without spraying. This type of genetically modified crops would guarantee more supply of non-sprayed produce, resulting in the potential reduction in prices of organics.
It is not surprising that the same tactic that was used to scare farmers away from my fertiliser demo is still being used to exclude African farmers from growing genetically modified crops because the price of organics must remain highest.
The writer is an agriculturist