Georgina Smith/CIAT
Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is written in response to: Can Africa Afford to Save its Soils?

Organic agriculture can improve food security by diversification and reduced debts among smallholder farmers.

In three linked case studies in India, Panneerselvam and Halberg from ICROFS studied the impact of conversion to organic agriculture on the food security of small holding farmers (see case studies in the “Resources” section below). Cereal yields were lower in the recently converted organic farms in Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

However, across the studies in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Uttaranchal the families improved their food security mainly by the combined effects of reduced debts (due to the reduced need for borrowing cash at high interest rates for fertilizer and pesticides against the harvest sales) and increased self-sufficiency of protein food from crop diversification, especially from pulses grown as intercrops.

When scaling up case study results to state level, on the approximately 60% of land cultivated by marginal and small farms, modelling suggests that conversion of rainfed areas to organic agriculture was beneficial by producing 13% and 4% more food in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh respectively, compared to their rainfed baseline.

Contrary, based on the relative cereal yields on organic and conventional case study farms with irrigation, it seems that conversion of the irrigated areas exclusively to organic agriculture would have a negative impact on regional food production at least in the early years after conversion unless improved nutrient supply would be achieved.

Interestingly, economic analysis showed that the gross margin would likely increase by 26% for the smallholder farmers after conversion to organic agriculture. Thus, the reduction of input costs – and thus debts for the smallholder farmers – was large enough to improve their gross margin even though conventional farmers benefit from fertiliser subsidies.

Diversification of fertilizer subsidies into green manures could support intensification pathways based on agro-ecological principles.

Modelling a situation where fertiliser subsidies were equalised between different types of fertiliser (chemical vs organic/green manure) demonstrated the potential for further improvement of the gross margin for organic farmers, which could be twice as high as in the baseline.

Thus, a large-scale organic scenario has the potential to improve the food security by increasing the income and reducing the debt (80% of the food insecure in India suffer mainly from low purchasing power), and could play a major role in improving smallholder farmer nutritional security (50% of Indians suffer from protein malnutrition) by producing more protein rich pulses through intercropping, mostly consumed locally.

India has been a net exporter of cereals and a net importer of pulses, the traditional protein source. The scenario changed rural food production to a higher degree of protein self-sufficiency primarily due to increased integration of pulses in crop rotation. However, the lower cereal yields in recently converted organic farms could induce a (limited) reduction in food calories. This could be mitigated by improvement in organic yields for example by increased use of organic/green manures which could be supported by diverting fertiliser subsidies to include green manures.

This modelling exercise thus highlights the bias fertiliser subsidies currently put on agricultural intensification pathways because they do not support agro-ecologically based development pathways. Pilot tests of diverting subsidies into regionally or locally produced green manures could demonstrate the potential yield benefits and possibly could create local jobs for landless. This is currently being tested in the Philippines.

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