New Internationalist

Organic Matters

Issue 323

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Organic matters

Farming co-operatives
Supara Janchitfah and Vasana Chinvarakorn talk to
Thai farmers determined to take the organic route.

For years, Thai people were led to believe that more was better. They were urged to produce more and to export more in order to earn more foreign currency. This, they were told, would make Thailand into an ‘Asian Tiger’. But the consequences of this belief have not all been positive.

Today, many Thai farmers know that the global market is not the path to a higher quality of life. Tons of pineapples and rambutan fruit, corn and cassava have been thrown on to the streets by farmers who are unable to sell their produce.

But what other options are there? To convert fully from export farming to organic agriculture requires courage and perseverance. Thongdoem Iamsa ard from Suphan Buri province in the centre of the country said her neighbours laughed at her when she first started her organic experiments. She used chemicals for many years until she became really sick and was sent to hospital.

Finally, she sought advice from Technology for Rural and Ecological Enrichment (TREE), a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Suphan Buri. TREE helped her break her dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Now, despite a smaller harvest Thongdoem gets better prices for her organic crops while paying less for inputs. For Thongdoem, this type of farming is a real alternative. ‘Now I can use herbal pesticides not chemical ones. It also gives me a chance to talk with other farmers about different cultivation methods,’ she said.

Thongdoem and her fellow farmers are just one part of a growing Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) launched by TREE and 80 other NGOs that takes in the whole country.

TREE has also initiated a villagers’ co-operative called Ban Rom Mai which handles products made by the AAN.

Another farmer co-operative in Kud Chum district in the north-east has also been doing well with organic products and now has more than 1,000 members. They export their rice to consumer groups in Switzerland.

But the journey to sustainable farming is not always easy. While some farmers have successfully turned their back on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, others have been forced to return to growing cash-crops simply to try and pay their debts.

[image, unknown]
are both journalists for the Bangkok Post.
E-mail: supara-j@usa.net

Ecological agriculture
Jason Alexandra examines the growth
of the permaculture movement.

Close to the headwaters of the Loddon River in Victoria, Australia, three generations of the May family crop 80 hectares of ancient volcanic soils. Rod May, a third-generation farmer, became determined to farm organically while an exchange student in the US in the 1970s.

‘I would have given up farming rather than adopt the chemical-intensive, high-tech systems I witnessed in the US,’ he recalls. ‘Governments at the time were advising farmers to “get big or get out”. Instead, we decided to stay small, stay put and adapt. We survived by farming with nature. I didn’t want to become a debt-driven, factory farmer producing industrial commodities.’

The Mays grow a wide range of leaf and root vegetables, including over ten varieties of potatoes for local restaurants and city markets. They also produce grains, cattle, sheep, apples, chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts and wine grapes. Over 100 years of farming has left the soil with few nutrients. To replace these and boost fertility they apply rock phosphate and lime. They also use long rotations of legume-based pastures that improve soil structure and restore organic matter. The legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen through symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria living on their roots.

Rod’s father, Maurice, remembers the days when he used horses to plough. He still helps on the farm today. ‘He has seen incredible change since the 1940s. We know we need to adapt, but we draw the line at using chemicals. Farming organically means we can supply healthy food and create a safe place for my family. I would rather not farm than drench the place with poisons.’

Like many of the country’s organic farmers the Mays have been influenced by ‘permaculture’ – an Australian theory of ecological agricultural and human settlement. Permaculture uses ecological knowledge to develop a set of principles for sustainability. These aim to generate symbiotic and beneficial relationships between humans and nature. Like any good theory, its principles can be applied differently, depending on the circumstances and resources of the farmer.

Permaculture is not exclusively focused on reducing agrochemicals or promoting organic methods, but it has broadened thinking on how this can be achieved. Many Australian organic farms now integrate permaculture’s ecological design ideas with organic practices. They apply organic fertility, soil and crop management methods alongside principles of solar design and energy efficiency, wildlife and water management, tree cropping and agroforestry. Importantly, the farmers often have no need or desire to use chemical pesticides.

Permaculture started in Australia, but has blossomed to a global movement. Permaculture associations, farms and teaching centres are now found throughout the world from Zimbabwe and the US to Sweden and Chile.

Adds May: ‘Good organic farmers are leading the field in innovation and responsible management. It’s important that consumers demonstrate their support by purchasing organic products. They are not only good for their health but also good for the environment. By paying a small premium consumers are sending a clear message to growers that they prefer organic farming and are willing to pay to support it.’

[image, unknown] is an organic farmer
and environmental consultant in Australia.

African realism
Mutizwa Mukute explains how his organization is
trying to promote sustainable agriculture.

Amazing maize: organic farmers in Malawi.
CRISPIN HUGHES /

PANOS

Photo: Gisele Wulfsohn / Panos Pictures

For us in east and southern Africa the key challenge when trying to find a way of raising animals and crops which does not destroy people’s health or the environment is to make these alternative ways of farming more productive. Our organization, PELUM, works with farmers and farming communities on sustainable agriculture. We believe in the kind of farming which improves the environment rather than destroying it and which benefits the community as a whole.

At present, farmers with enough money buy chemicals because their yields are higher as a result. But they compare their fields with those of poor farmers who cannot afford good seeds. If you are rich, you buy chemicals, if not, you use organic methods.

What the farmers don’t count is the cost of those chemicals versus the higher yield. This includes the price; very often it will be the farmer’s son in town who will spend the money to do the actual buying. But it also includes the costs that everyone knows about – the price paid by people’s health and by the deterioration of the environment.

So what we are trying to do is to encourage people to use biological means instead of chemical pesticides. We support agriculture where the resources from outside like chemicals are minimized as much as possible.

But we are also realistic. Situations are very different; productivity depends on the natural fertility of the soil, on the amount of rainfall in the area. The organic model feeds the soil as well as the crops. But this takes a long time. If you look at the climate in East and Southern Africa there is a lot of heat and organic matter quickly becomes oxidized.

But in some areas the soil is so poor that it needs chemical fertilizers, at least initially. It is not possible to switch overnight to completely organic agriculture. There needs to be a transitional period where there is a combination of organic and chemical.

In some cases chemicals, at least for a while, are the only option. If you have a swarm of locusts you can’t just squeeze and kill them by hand. You need to use chemicals. Or take water hyacinths, which are quite a problem in Zimbabwe and Uganda. They’ve tried to use a variety of methods but in the end they have found that the herbicide 2,4-D used in combination with another chemical is most effective.

But we are working on the development of alternative pesticides which are organic and can be found within the local environment. At the same time, we will undertake research to look at organic concoctions that people already use – to examine their effectiveness and to see whether they have any side-effects. We mustn’t forget that chemicals derived organically can also be dangerous. While I think it is important not to be dependent on chemicals, it is also important not to romanticize the organic or mechanical methods.

[image, unknown]  is the Secretary General of PELUM,
PO Box MP 159, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe.
Tel: (+263) 4 744470.
Fax: (+263) 4 726911.
E-mail: pelum@zimsuef.co.zw

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