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«JM Thamaga-Chitja March 2008 Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for degree: Doctor of Philosophy (Food Security), African Centre for Food ...»

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There is insufficient appropriate information to help farmers make the best decisions in organic farming and risk management. Some of the most important areas for decision-making in organic production and gaining certification to enter niche markets include: production, supply chain management, pest and disease control and certification above and beyond general farm management. Typical general farm management decisions include: choice of agricultural enterprises, allocation of labour, acquisition of land, capital and inputs and marketing of produce (FAO, 2006).

Farming is a risky business, owing to unpredictable factors such as climatic variation, price fluctuations and destruction by diseases and pests. Organic farming presents an even more pronounced risk due to the fact that agrochemicals, such as pesticides including herbicides, are disallowed in certified organic farming (OFRF, 2001).

Many different kinds of decisions will have to be taken in addition to those that one would normally take in conventional farming. Established commercial organic farmers in South Africa generally have access to support for decision-making with regard to conventional production and, to some extent, organic production (Aliber, 2006); for example state research and information agencies such as the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and Institute of Fruit Technology (INFRUTEC).

Historically, smallholder farmers in South Africa have received little attention in respect of appropriate extension and research support (May et al, 1998). There is clearly an urgent need for better tools to assist small and emerging farmers in decision-making to minimise risks and improve productivity and enterprise success.

2 A study by Belaineh (2002) identified that among others, production and market risks are determined by farm size, proximity to markets, access to roads for transportation of produce and agro-ecological conditions. These factors are crucial in a niche market such as organics, and even more so for smallholder farmers with limited resources because they do not have resources to cushion the added risk of organic farming.

Despite the importance of the need for a comparison between organic and conventional production to investigate economic viability and sustainability, this study focused on a production related analysis. The production potential for organic farming among smallholder farmers in three different agro-ecological zones in KwaZulu-Natal was investigated. An empirical computer decision support tool (interface) was designed to assess the production potential in three agro-climatic zones and a user interface for assisting farmer decision-making was developed. The three main interface outputs on production are: a list of potential low-risk crops per area; an assessment of organic soil nutrient requirements; and, disease risk level per selected area. This information could assist farmers in making decisions regarding adoption or intensification of organic agriculture.

1.2 Statement of the problem Is smallholder organic production of agronomically suitable crops possible and low risk in Mbumbulu, Muden and Centocow?

1.3 Sub-problems Sub-problem 1 : What crops can be grown organically in the three areas based on climatic data?

Sub-problem 2: Do farmers concur that these are the most suitable potential organic crops?

Sub-problem 3: How useful do the farmers find the decision-making tool?

Sub-problem 4: What constraints threaten commercial organic production of the identified crops for these farmers?

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Absolute growth conditions, as opposed to optimum growth conditions, to assess crop growth potential were used, on the basis of the historical fact that many South African smallholder farmers are located in agro-ecologically less favourable areas.

Despite the importance of a comparison between organic farming and conventional farming in terms of economic viability and sustainability in determining whether organic farming is profitable for smallholder farmers, the study focused only on evaluating the potential for organic production in three areas.

The risk element of production in the study was limited to only two factors –manure availability and disease onset. The availability of the required quantity of manure within the community was used as a determinant of farmers’ ability to ensure organic soil fertilisation. Soil nutrition may also be improved with the use of green manure and other permitted inputs in compost-making but these were not investigated.

Although pests are an important environmental risk, pest occurrence was not included in the study because this would have made the study too broad. Instead, only diseases were included in determining risk.

1.5 Organisation of the thesis

Chapter 1 outlines the rationale for the study, the study problem, sub-problems and the conceptual framework. Chapter 2 includes a review of the literature and seeks to give a detailed account of what is known and not known on the research question.

Chapter 3 presents the background to the study and provides characteristics of the participating farmer groups in relation to location, size and interests of the groups.

Chapter 4 presents a participatory analysis of production constraints on which the development of the decision-support tool is based. The processes involved in the development of the decision-support tool are discussed in chapter 5. A comparative application of the decision-support tool for the farmer groups is presented in chapter

6. A summary, conclusions and recommendations of the study are presented in Chapter 7.


Agricultural production systems used to produce food and/or fibre without the use of agrochemicals such as pesticides including herbicides and commercial synthetic fertilisers are known as organic (OFRF, 2001). Organic farming involves the use of organic compost, manure and natural disease and pest control. Many agricultural products are produced organically, including fresh produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fibre such as cotton and flowers. The management of organic farming relies on developing biological diversity in the field to discourage and manage pests. Organic farming uses readily available resources in nature to improve soil fertility and remove pests (OFRF, 2001).

Growth in the world organic market and increased imports of organic produce from developing countries is contributing to the view that organic agriculture can contribute to sustainable ecological and socio-ecological development, especially in poor countries (Willer & Yussefi, 2007). There is increased promotion of organic agriculture in developing countries, including Africa. Despite its theoretical potential to impact on local economic development, plus its compatibility with cultural/traditional smallholder practices (Walaga, 2002), there is little reliable data on of the current role of organic agriculture in developing countries, especially in Africa (Willer & Yussefi, 2007).

The environmental benefits of organic agriculture are widely publicised (Greene & Kremen, 2003; Halberg et al, (2007); Mäder et al, (2002)). Certified organic products often fetch premium market prices and could play a role in alleviation of food insecurity by driving economic development to benefit poor smallholder farmers (Willer & Yussefi, 2007). However, there is a lack of adequate information to support the proposition that organic production is a vehicle for economic development among smallholder farmers in developing countries (Willer & Yussefi, 2007). Critical 1 A paper based on this chapter has been accepted publication (Thamaga-Chitja JM & Hendriks SL (forthcoming). Emerging issues in smallholder organic production and marketing in South Africa. Development Southern Africa )

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Decision-making for farming and related activities is complex and is complicated by on- and off-farm factors (FAO, 2006). Farmers do not make multiple and interrelated farm decisions in a linear manner but in simultaneous ways (FAO, 2006). The need to understand crucial farm management decisions is important for appropriate extension and design of development strategies aimed at assisting farmers reduce risks, especially when considering adopting and/or scaling up organic agriculture.

Typical general farm management decisions include the choice of: agricultural enterprises; allocation of labour and land; acquisition and allocation of capital; and, inputs and marketing (FAO, 2006). Some of the most important areas for decisionmaking above and beyond general farm management in organic production and gaining certification to enter niche markets – include production, marketing, pest and disease control and certification. There is insufficient appropriate information to help farmers make better decisions in organic farming and risk management.

Farming is a risky business owing to unpredictable environmental factors (Jarvis et al, 2006). Organic farming presents even more pronounced risks due to the fact that the application of agrochemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides are not allowed (OFRF, 2001). In organic farming, farmers have to rely on high level management practices based on a sound understanding of the biological system. Production and market risks are often determined by farm size, proximity to markets and roads and agro-ecological conditions (Belaineh, 2002). Such risks are increased for niche markets, such as organics, and even more so for smallholder farmers with limited resources. Profitability, without the required experience and knowledge of the organic farming system, is unlikely. Historically, smallholder farmers in South Africa have received little attention with respect to appropriate extension and research (May et al, 1998). There is clearly an urgent need for tools to assist smallholder farmers in decision-making, especially so with organic farming if this system is to be promoted.

Without such interventions, smallholder farmers’ food security may be threatened.

6 This literature review shows that there is potential for smallholder farmers to benefit from organic farming but availability and access to resources, inputs and appropriate production information is important to make informed decisions about organic production and its associated risks. The chapter assesses issues related to the potential for organic farming among smallholder farmers and highlights the strengths and challenges for smallholders investigating entry into commercial organic production.

The issues discussed include: reasons for adopting organic farming, opportunities and constraints for smallholder farmers, agro-ecological considerations, processes involved in organic certification, the size of the organic market in South Africa and decision-making and support required for smallholder organic production.

2.2 Reasons for smallholder adoption of organic farming

Smallholder farmers in Africa and other parts of the developing world are engaged in farming activities for food security reasons. Smallholder agriculture is too important to employment, human welfare and political stability in sub-Saharan Africa to be ignored or treated as an unimportant sector of the market economy (Aliber et al, 2006). Organic agriculture, though with constraints, offers benefits to the multidimensional nature of food security in the dimensions of food availability, access, stability and utilisation (Scialabba, 2007). Up-to-date hypothetical models of global supply indicate that organic agriculture could produce enough food globally on a per capita basis for the current world population (Badgley et al, 2007; Halberg et al, 2007). Organic farming has been shown to increase yields by up to 180% for subsistence systems, if well resourced (Badgley et al, 2007). However, in South Africa smallholders are mostly in communal land (can’t use land as collateral for loans), practice mostly rainfed agriculture and are located in areas of inferior agricultural performance (Aliber, 2006).

Over the past 20 years, increasing attention has been focused on organically-oriented agricultural development in the southern hemisphere (Green & Kremen, 2003). This has occurred due to growing recognition that organic farming production methods support environmental sustainability through biological pest management and composting, while simultaneously discouraging the use of synthetic chemicals, 7 antibiotics and hormones in crop production (Greene & Kremen, 2003). The maintenance and replenishment of soil fertility is important. Synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are not allowed in organic farming. Key traits of organic farming include the design and implementation of sound organic practices in production that track all products; a detailed record-keeping system that tracks all products from the field to point of sale; and, maintenance of buffer zones to prevent contamination by synthetic farm chemicals from adjacent conventional fields (OFRF, 2001).

Organic farming appears to offer smallholder farmers opportunities to realise commercial goals that may not be possible through conventional agriculture (Hellin & Higman, 2002). The elimination of agricultural chemicals (pesticides and fertilisers) in organic farming reduces the cost of purchased inputs (OFRF, 2001). However, a good understanding of the farming ecosystem and its management is critical for the success of an organic farming enterprise. Before the advent of the green revolution, most African farmers had a good understanding of traditional farming systems mainly the good understanding of crop rotations similar to the organic system. However, in some cases this indigenous knowledge has been eroded and totally lost in others (Juma, 2007).

2.2.1 Similarities between organic farming and African farming systems

Before the advent of agrochemicals most original farming was similar to organic farming. Original farming practices typically included: companion cropping, crop diversification, crop rotation, mulching application of green manure, crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing legumes and natural disease control (e.g use of ash as a pesticide). Crop rotation and mulching also had a positive impact on disease control.

The long use of agrochemicals has eroded organic production and management knowledge that existed among farmers, including traditional African farmers.

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