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Non-certified organic agriculture refers to agricultural systems that use natural processes, rather than external inputs, to enhance agricultural productivity.

This Chapter addresses the agro-ecological features of millions of small and peasant farms in developing countries, as well as the nature and impact of hundreds of initiatives that aim at improving the efficiency of small farming systems which rely on local resources. The majority of the beneficiaries of such projects could be considered non-certified organic farmers.

A proportion of resource-poor farmers engage in practices that could be considered "organic by neglect", but that often exhibit poor production performance due to the marginality of the resource base or because they are subjected to environmental degradation. Although those systems do not fall within the "non-certified organic agriculture" category, they offer comparative advantages for "conversion" or "up-grading" into non-certified organic agriculture systems.

By drawing on the strengths of the small farmers strategies to sustainably produce food and factors affecting the viability of small farmers, this Chapter analyses the potential of non-certified organic agriculture. Trends are described through numerous country examples. Finally, suggestions are given for scaling-up non-certified agriculture in developing countries.

Development scenario of non-certified organic agriculture

Agricultural inequalities and small farmers' poverty

The global agricultural population of some 3 billion actively occupies 1.3 billion people, or about half the world's active population. Two-thirds of world farmers use Green Revolution inputs, such as improved crop varieties and animal breeds, concentrated feeds and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The small farmer sector which has been neglected by technological advances therefore counts some 450 million active persons, representing a total of 1 250 million people scratching a living off agriculture.

Most under-equipped small farmers are deprived of land by vast estates; they cultivate micro-holdings (of only a few hundred square meters) relegated to them and which are well below the area needed to cover household food requirements, or resort to casual labour on the large estates for wages of US$1 to 2 a day. The situation is therefore one of extreme poverty and chronic food insecurity of hundreds of millions of landless small farmers (e.g. cereal farmers in the Andes, the Himalayas or Sudan)1.

The small farmer sector which has been neglected by technological advances therefore counts some 450 million active persons, representing a total of 1250 million people scratching a living off agriculture.

The increase of productivity from the Green Revolution has benefited developed countries and favourable regions of developing countries but this has triggered a sharp decline in real agricultural prices (e.g. in less than 50 years, in the United States, the real price of wheat is down almost two-thirds) and in some cases produced significant surpluses for export. International trade and low-cost surpluses and falling agricultural prices, also of tropical export commodities, contribute to the poverty of producers and sellers of agricultural goods.

Moreover, international agricultural markets, while significant in absolute terms, account for a small proportion of world production and consumption (e.g. only 6 percent by the year 2000). Access to international markets for agricultural commodities is only gained by producers and exporters equipped with specific comparative advantages (e.g. exporters of large estates in Latin America, South Africa and Zimbabwe with vast and inexpensive land and cheap labour; and subsidised farmers in the United States and the European Union).

Developing countries, which traditionally have had a net surplus in agricultural trade, have now a negative net agricultural trade balance (in value terms, from a positive trade balance of US$17.5 billion in 1977 to a peak deficit of US$6 billion in 1996). This drastic decline, projected to further grow in the coming decades (trade deficit of least developed countries could quadruple by 2030), reflects growing imports in several developing countries and the effects of protectionists policies in the major industrial countries2.

Multi-national enterprises in food and agriculture operate across many countries and cover the entire food supply chain, from producing and marketing seeds and inputs, through purchasing of crops and animals, to food processing and distribution. These large corporations can exert monopoly selling or buying power, thereby putting pressure on farmers through production contracts or joint ownership in land and livestock operations. This ties farmers into buying the company's inputs and selling their produce only to the company. Under these circumstances, farmers lose entrepreneurial capacity and wage rates and environmental standards are lowered.

Figure 1: Price index for commodity groups

Box 1: From-farmer-field schools to community integrated pest management

Integrated Pest Management developed as a response to many of the problems emergent from the Green Revolution. Agricultural development programmes had come to rely on highly centralized systems designed to deliver input packages and information to small farmers. These centralized systems were unable to take into account the reality of pronounced agro-ecological diversity within countries, regions and even within villages. Advocating the increased use of subsidized broad-spectrum insecticides led to massive insect outbreaks as the use of insecticides disrupts and destabilizes natural enemy populations. Furthermore, the top-down extension of centrally designed nutrient packages that required adjustment to local specific soil conditions, but did not give the farmers the knowledge they needed to make these adjustments, combined to aggravate the situation.

These problems together with a plateau in rice yields demanded a rethink of crop protection approaches. It led to the development of a more holistic view of what constitutes an agro-ecosystem and how human interventions could either enhance or disrupt a given ecosystem. One of the results was Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

IPM for rice production is based on three key processes:

  • energy is stored as organic matter in soil and brought into the system by micro-organisms and detritus-eating insects;
  • aquatic plankton provides food for filter-feeding insects;
  • larvae and adult plankton-feeders and detritus-feeders provide a consistent and abundant source of alternative food for generalist predators from early on in the season, until after the harvest.

The existence of abundant alternative prey effectively "decouples" predator populations from the dependence on the pest populations. This gives predators the opportunity to develop way in advance of the normal pest populations and as a result, mortality of pest populations due to predation is high. This process minimizes the likelihood that pest populations can "escape" control by natural enemies and reach outbreak levels.

IPM was introduced to farmers through the Farmer-Field-School (FFS) approach. Between 1990 (with the introduction of FFS in Indonesia) and 1999, over two million rice farmers in Asia and South-East Asia participated in the rice IPM Farmer-Field-Schools. The FFS has now become a model approach for farmer education in Asia and many parts of Africa and Latin America, and has since been used with a wide range of crops including cotton, tea, coffee, cocoa, pepper, vegetables, small grains and legumes.

Farmers who have participated in the field schools have reduced their use of pesticides, improved their use of inputs such as water and fertilizer, obtained enhanced yields and achieved increased incomes. From this beginning they have moved into other crops and wider ranging activities related to their agro-ecosystems. IPM alumni are in the forefront of establishing sustainable agriculture systems in their villages and promoting food security for themselves, their children and generations to come.

Many farmers themselves have been trained as Farmer IPM Trainers. CARE Bangladesh carried out an evaluation of their Farmer IPM Trainers and discovered that the "social recognition" that these trainers received was far more important than the potential of earning money as a Farmer IPM Trainer. The trainers state that non-alumni have been coming to them to learn about IPM and they are proud of this new recognition that they get from their neighbours. Farmer IPM Trainers have also been developing linkages and networking with different organizations and helping their communities to acquire new information and technologies. Many Farmer IPM Trainers have also contributed to community cohesion through the re-organization of FFS alumni into groups similar to agricultural cooperatives; they have designed and implemented field trials with FFS alumni based on local interests and problems and have been involved in assisting school children in learning about ecology and crop production.

For over 10 years, IPM training programmes in Asia have been pursuing multiple objectives with considerable success. The explicit goals of the various programmes have included farmer empowerment, the conservation of biodiversity, food security, community education, the protection of human health and policy reform. Farmers and trainers, having been empowered by IPM training, are already organizing their own groups and are pursuing their own programmatic objectives. These new objectives need to be designed to accommodate the issues which affect rural livelihoods, not just the integration of pest management with other aspects of crop production (such as soils and water management), but also the integration of crop production with heath, education, credit and other farmer defined issues.

Source: Pontius, 2001

Contribution of the small farmer sector to the food supply

Millions of resource-poor small farmers, operating outside the world agricultural market, contribute substantially to household and local-regional food supply.

In Latin America, the peasant population includes 75 million people, which represents almost two thirds of the total rural population in the Region3. While average farm size is only about
1.8 hectares, the contribution of peasant agriculture to the general food supply in the region is significant. In the 1980s, these small farmers derived, from 38 percent of total agricultural land, 41 percent of food crops consumed domestically and contributed to the general food supply 51 percent of maize, 77 percent of beans and 61 percent of potatoes4. In Brazil, 85 percent of farmers are family farmers who produce, from 30 percent of the country total agricultural land, 84 percent of all the cassava and 67 percent of all beans. In Ecuador, the peasant sector occupies more than 50 percent of the area devoted to food crops (e.g. maize, beans, barley and okra). In Mexico, small farmers occupy at least 70 percent of the area assigned to maize and 60 percent of the area under beans.

In addition to peasants and family farmers, about 50 million indigenous people, belonging to some 700 different ethnic groups, live in and utilize the humid tropical regions of Latin America. About two million of these live in the Amazon and in southern Mexico. In Mexico, half of the humid tropics are utilized by indigenous communities and "ejidos" featuring integrated agroforestry systems with production aimed at subsistence and local-regional markets5.

In addition to family farmers, millions of landless families live in the rural areas (4 million only in Brazil); many of them are now turning to agro-ecology, given new initiatives encouraged by the directives of the Landless Movement (MST).

In Africa, 60-80 percent of the labour force is involved in agriculture. The majority of farmers (many of them women) are smallholders with farms of less than 2 hectares. Most small farmers use local resources but may make modest use of external agricultural inputs. Low-external input agriculture produces the majority of grains and legumes and almost all root, tuber and plantain crops (see Table 1). Most basic food crops are grown with virtually no or little use of fertilizers and improved seed6. Although food production per caput has declined in the last decades (Africa was once self-sufficient in cereals) small farmers still produce most of Africa's food.

Millions of resource-poor small farmers, operating outside the world agricultural market, contribute substantially to household and local-regional food supply.

In Asia, the majority of the millions rice farmers work farms that do not exceed 2 hectares. Local cultivars, grown mostly on upland ecosystems and/or under rainfed conditions, make up the bulk of the rice produced by Asian small farmers.

Revival of traditional agriculture and ecological management

Excessive specialization, extensive monocropping, the abandonment of entire agricultural regions (because of comparative disadvantage), problems of employment, environmental deterioration and difficulty of land maintenance have prompted the adoption, in many areas of the world, of ecological forms of agriculture. Even though modern agricultural technologies are virtually absent, smallest farmers in African Savannahs, the Andes and the high valleys of Asia ingenuously combine crop and livestock systems to adjust to ever changing economic, ecological and demographic conditions in order to create production systems that can meet their food needs.

The great majority of these people are peasants, indigenous people and small family farmers that still farm valleys and slopes using traditional methods, often in highly heterogeneous and risk-prone marginal environments. Those farmers use little or no agrochemicals mostly because they were by-passed by the Green Revolution but also because the ecological complexity of their farming systems does not require external inputs. Several million small farmers and indigenous people, by their own initiative or as part of institutionally-sponsored interventions, are today practising resource-conserving subsistence farming, or are in the process of converting to some form of ecological management.

Table 1: The contribution of resource-poor farmers to Africa's food supply


External input use

% of crop produced by low-external input agriculture


Virtually no use of fertilizers and very little use of improved seed.



Basically the same situation as millet, but hybrids and commercial inputs are becoming more important in some areas



At least 75% produced without hybrid seeds and with less than recommended fertilizer levels; but probably as much as two-thirds produced with non-hybrid-improved seed and moderate levels of fertilizer.



At least 75% produced using less than recommended levels of fertilizer and receiving inadequate irrigation (and no more than 5% using High-Yielding Varieties).


Food legumes (e.g. cowpeas, pigeon peas, beans, and groundnuts)

Most crops of this diverse group receive virtually no commercial inputs, but some production is under high-resource conditions (e.g., up to 50% of groundnut production - rossette virus resistant variety).

55% groundnuts

49% beans

Roots, tubers, and plantain (e.g. cassava, yam, cocoyam, and sweet potato)

Virtually no use of fertilizers or improved seed, with some exceptions (e.g. cassava mosaic resistant varieties). Some high-resource banana production for exports.

93% cassava

100% yams

100% cocoyam

Source: OTA, 1988, modified

Several million small farmers and indigenous people, by their own initiative or as part of institutionally-sponsored interventions, are today practising resource-conserving subsistence farming, or are in the process of converting to some form of ecological management.

A case in point is the FAO-sponsored Integrated Pest Management Farmers-Field-Schools (FFS) approach in Asia, which emerged in response to problems associated with the reliance on chemical control for insect pests and subsequent massive insect outbreaks and decreased yields of improved rice varieties introduced by the Green Revolution (see box 1).7 In Africa, at least 730 000 households covering about 700 000 hectares have adopted sustainable agriculture practices, including integrated and low-external input systems. In Asia, this figure rises to about 2.3 million households farming 1.75 million hectares8.

Pretty and Hine (2000) surveyed initiatives of some 8.98 million small farmers who have adopted, since the early 1990s, sustainable agriculture practices on 28.92 million hectares across
52 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Practices included ecological management of soil, integrated pest management and to a lesser extent, organic farm management9. Sustainable agriculture practices led to 50-100 percent increases in per hectare food production in rainfed areas typical of small farmers living in marginal environments. Such yield enhancements are a true breakthrough for achieving food security among farmers.

Box 2: A national experiment in organic agriculture, Cuba

After the revolution in 1959, Cuban agricultural development was transformed with the objectives of meeting the growing food requirements of the population; of creating export funds in order to obtain raw materials for the food industry; and eradicating poverty from the countryside. Applying the concepts of agricultural modernization in the style of the Green Revolution and with considerable support from the former Soviet Union and socialist states of Eastern Europe, Cuba pursued the idea of high-input agriculture, focusing solely on efficiency and productivity.

This agricultural model necessitated strong external dependency for its success, and several economic, ecological and social consequences began to emerge as major constraints: subsidies were required for production; one million hectares of soils began to suffer salinization; the frequency of middle to severe soil erosion was exacerbated; soils became increasingly compacted and infertile; agricultural land was deforested and the exodus of the rural population to urban areas accelerated.

On the collapse of the Socialist Block the foreign purchase capacity of Cuba was drastically reduced by almost 80 percent. Of this new figure, US$750 million was required solely for the purchase of fuel, and US$440 million for basic foods. This greatly affected the ability to purchase agricultural inputs. The situation immediately gave rise to the drastic decrease in production, felt most severely on large enterprises characterized by monoculture and artificial systems with dependency on high inputs. In fact all farmers suffered, but the small and medium scale farmers were less affected.

In order to deal with the new situation, the Cuban Government set about implementing changes or strategies for reducing the negative impacts on the national economy. In the case of agriculture, both technical and organizational measures were taken. State productive enterprises were decentralized through the creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production and other forms of land re-distribution were developed, such as providing opportunities for urban dwellers interested in returning to the countryside.

National strategies were also created to reduce the negative impact of the lack of inputs. The adoption of new strategies and production alternatives included:

  • The large-scale production of biological control agents to counter the most important national agricultural pests, achieved through the creation of 218 Entomophagus and Entomopathogenous Reproductive Centres in response to the scarcity of pesticides.
  • Crop rotations and polycultures were developed to stimulate natural fertilization of the soil, to control pests, restore the productive capacity and to produce higher total harvest.
  • Legumes as green manures, bio-fertilizers and other organic manures such as compost and worm humus were substituted in place of chemical fertilizers. The use of bio-fertilizers has since been successfully applied on a commercial scale.
  • The use of oxen for animal draft power was revived as the number of tractors dropped dramatically after 1989. Before the collapse of the Soviet Block there were 90 000 tractors in Cuba with imports of 5 000 per year, and less than 100 000 oxen teams. Today there are less than 30 000 tractors and teams of oxen have increased to some 300 000.
  • Urban agriculture has been developed to promote production and self-sufficiency of food. This has been achieved through organoponics, intensive gardens, backyard gardens, peri-urban farms and enterprise self-sufficient gardens. In 1995 there were 1 613 organoponics, 429 intensive gardens and 26 604 popular gardens throughout Cuba.
  • Further alternatives are still being identified such as integrated crop-livestock systems. Livestock play a critical role in optimizing systems efficiency by converting dry and residual vegetative matter to high biological protein value. Research suggests that about 75 percent crops to 25 percent livestock is the most profitable under present conditions, however the percentage of livestock may increase in the future as ecological and technological improvements are made.

In 1992, the Cuban Association of Organic Agriculture (ACAO) was founded and has since played an important role in promoting organic agriculture, raising awareness, implementing projects and establishing pilot models. Strengthened relationships between Government Ministries on the subject of organic agriculture and the large participation of farmers' organization and cooperatives have increased the impact of ACAO around the country.

These approaches have demonstrated the possibilities to produce through sustainable methods in order to increase self-sufficiency whilst at the same time reducing the negative health and environmental impacts caused by conventional agriculture. Cuban agriculture has already accumulated significant experiences on the possibilities for a relatively short transition towards agro-ecological production which can be managed with environmental protection and also produce healthy and sufficient food for the population. However, this effort could be thwarted by future changes in economic conditions if its potential has not been internalised as a vital necessity for the future of the country. It is more difficult to raise conscience than technology, and this is the challenge for the future.

Source: Funes Monzote, 1998

The emergence of non-certified organic agriculture

The great majority of poor farmers, while having meagre holdings and little capital, manage diverse farming systems which could be considered "organic" as they do not rely on synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers and use technologies that optimize nutrient flows and use local resources such as native seeds and traditional knowledge. Polycultures, agroforestry, and crop-livestock systems and improved indigenous models of ecologically and culturally sound agricultural systems characterise most of non-certified organic holdings. These systems target household food needs and local markets, without product or price differentiation.

In Cuba, a national strategy was adopted in 1993 to convert to the agricultural model into a self-reliant food supply system. Non-certified organic agriculture occupies virtually all agricultural lands, including Basic Units of Cooperative Production and urban agriculture (e.g. organoponics, intensive gardens), that provide food self-sufficiency to all farms and agricultural workers (see Box 2).

There is also a growing category of non-certified organic farmers who seek better marketing of their produce, especially in domestic urban centres. They are developing alternative certification methods and marketing channels that rely on community organization and which are more appropriate to their natural and socio-economic environment (see Case Study 7 in Chapter 7).

Finally, growing numbers of small farmers are in transition to the internationally recognized certified organic sector, with a view to tap lucrative export markets. Through their own initiative, or as a part of development projects, they follow international organic production and certification standards. With a view to facilitating small farmers entry into internationally agreed organic standards, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is operating worldwide to develop a reliable smallholder certification system, i.e. the Internal Control System (see Box 5 in Chapter 1).

The situation of non-certified organic farmers is very different from that of certified organic farmers whose production is determined by the market, with the bulk of the production destined for export markets. The costs of compliance of certified organic farmers with international production, certification and distribution standards often result in farms characterized by relatively less diversified systems in order to maximise production. These system are designed to efficiently produce a few high value organic commodities (e.g. coffee, sugar cane) that rely on input substitution (and which are, therefore, highly dependent on organic inputs).

Although economic viability is important to all farmers, non-certified organic farmers, who are not market driven, tend to establish more diversified systems that are managed following the ecosystem approach (see Chapter 2). The diversity of their produce, including also trees, orphan crops, medicinal plants, etc. are better suited to household needs for food, fuelwood and other products.

Polycultures, agroforestry, and crop-livestock systems and improved indigenous models of ecologically and culturally sound agricultural systems characterise most of non-certified organic holdings.

Box 3: Agro-ecological development in the small river basins in Peru

The small river valleys of Mashcón and Chota are located in the district of Cajamarca in the northern sierra of Peru. Covering an area of about 31 000 ha, these basins are found between 2 500 and 3 500 m above sea level. The average annual precipitation is 700 mm, concentrated between the months of December and March. The population includes about 7 800 families with an average size of six people. The majority of the population is female and those over 50 years are mainly illiterate. About 50 percent of the population is economically active, owning properties that vary in size from 1 to 5 ha. Productivity is low and methods are extensive; e.g. yields of potatoes and olluco (Ullucus tuberosus) reach 5 tonnes per hectare, while rye and tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis) reach only 0.5 tons. These activities, together with non-agricultural activities, generate only a quarter of the income needed to cover the necessities of the family.

Severe deforestation, the loss of native vegetation and over-grazing on already fragile lands has led to water resources being compromised and major erosion problems being unleashed. The inability to control this and conserve the fertility of the system has led to lowering agricultural productivity and subsequent genetic erosion of both crop and animals species. An intensification of pests and diseases created a growing dependence on external inputs. The accumulation of these factors resulted in a weakening of traditional institutions; however, families were willing to learn and implement new techniques.

In Maschón and Chota, the Research, Education and Development Centre (CIED, a Peruvian NGO) worked with families on activities of agricultural development, focused on the structural re-establishment of the ecosystem through agroforestry. This was implemented in three stages: land redesign, recuperation of soil fertility and management of the productive system.

Land redesign included the construction of infiltration ditches, the planting of living barriers and in controlling gullies made during storms. Nurseries were established for the production of trees including native forest and exotic species. The saplings were destined to form living fences, planted along the contours of the land to create biological barriers, protecting crops against cold winds. Soil fertility was restored though a combination of soil building techniques including the use of composts, manure, crop rotations and mixed cropping. These productive systems were managed following the principles of organic agriculture. By increasing the diversity of crops and rotations, favourable crop associations were taken advantage of, functioning as an effective tool against the build-up of pest populations. When pest problems did occur, these were dealt with using "home-made" insecticides based on saponified animal fat and edible oils mixed with extracts of garlic, chilli and nettles. Water storage facilities were also built to allow the introduction of irrigation through a sprinkler system, resulting in more economical use of water and an increase in the number of harvests per year. In addition to this, natural pasture lands were sown with grasses and special attention was paid to ensuring that the number of animals did not exceed the capacity of the grazing lands to provide for them.

This programme was originally focused on Mashcón, where 500 families participated. However, on seeing the results of the activities, 18 campesino leaders from Chota encouraged 742 families to carry out similar agricultural development activities. The results of these activities can be seen as diversified productive agro-ecosystems planted with hundreds of trees transformed from previously degraded land and careful management of pasturelands where livestock are kept in stables. Greater food security has been achieved and families have been able to interact to a greater extent with local markets. They have also been able to buy forage for their livestock and have managed to maintain their head of cattle throughout the year.

An economic study showed that before the intervention, the poorest stratum of the communities included 70 percent of the families. They had an annual income of about US$470, when the national poverty line was at US$512. Of the families that followed the programme, 77 percent now have a secure subsistence equivalent to US$735, while 23 percent have achieved an income of US$1 123. The first group still shows a seasonal migration to complement their incomes, while the second group can live off their agricultural activities as they have more land and animals and can sell any surpluses.

In both Maschón and Chota, agricultural systems were degraded and suffering from high levels of erosion which, in conjunction with economic and social pressures showed low productivity and put local food security under threat. Following the demand from the local communities, attention was focused on how to overcome these problems and restore the productive potential, using locally available resources, organic agriculture and a combination of local experience and outside technical knowledge. As a consequence of these actions disposable incomes have increased and the position of women has been strengthened as their activities have begun to generate financial income allowing them to be more active in the family and community decision making process. The effects of these improvements have therefore not only been seen in terms of agricultural production and resource conservation, but have extended to other facets of community life.

The conservation of the ecosystem structure and function was a priority for this programme. The introduction of organic agriculture led created more favourable micro- and meso-climates, for example through the creation of living fences and barriers to protect against cold wind, but also enhanced the provision of ecosystem services such the providing shelter for pest predators and pollinators. However, it was essential to take into account the position of the campesinos within the ecosystem. The economic viability of the campesinos' activities had to be ensured, but at the same time encouraging towards the integration of conservation practices. In fact the realization by the communities of the economic success of these new management practices was a major influence on the speed of their uptake. This was clearly demonstrated by the community of Chota which was inspired by the activities of Mashcón to initiate its own activities to restore degraded ecosystems. This demonstrates the importance of the movement of information from campesino to campesino for the effective diffusion of sustainable agricultural practices and resources conservation as well as the movement of information from technician to campesino.

Another factor pointing to success is that the programme did not seek to replace the traditional agricultural systems, but to build on its strengths and local knowledge, while complementing it with organic agriculture techniques introduced by a local NGO. Through the exchange of information with other campesinos and external help, farmers have the capacity to carry out appropriate actions to ensure the long-term productivity of their own agro-ecosystem, but at the same time increasing the resilience of the community's agro-ecosystem as a whole. This strengthening of agricultural productivity should help to reduce the long-term vulnerability of the communities and households to environmental, economic and social shocks and changes.

Source: provided to FAO by Andres Yurevic, Consorcio Latinoamericano sobre Agroecología y Desarrollo (CLADES), 2001

The agro-ecological features of indigenous agricultural strategies

For centuries, traditional farmers in developing countries have developed and/or inherited complex farming systems adapted to local conditions. These have helped millions of smallholders to sustainably manage harsh environments, meet subsistence food needs and maintain the integrity of the natural resource base.

Environmentally adapted systems

Sustained yields

In Latin America, within peasant agriculture, the persistence of more than three million hectares under traditional management in the form of raised fields, terraces, polycultures, and agroforestry systems, highlights the success of indigenous agricultural strategies and pays tribute to the creativity of traditional farmers. These microcosms of traditional agriculture offer promising models for other areas as they promote biodiversity, thrive without agrochemicals, and sustain year-round yields10.

An example is the chinampas in Mexico which, in the mid-1950s, obtained maize yields of 3.5 to 6.3 tonnes per hectare11. At that time, these were the highest yields achieved durably anywhere in Mexico. In comparison, average maize yields in the United States in 1955 were 2.6 tonnes per hectare, and did not exceed the 4 tonnes per hectare mark until 196512. Sanders (1957) estimated that each hectare of chinampa could produce enough food for 15-20 persons per year at modern subsistence levels. More recent research has indicated that each chinampero can work about three-quarters of a hectare of chinampa per year13, meaning that each farmer can support 12-15 people.

Most peasant systems are productive despite their low use of chemical inputs and generally, agricultural labour has a high return per unit of input.

Most peasant systems are productive despite their low use of chemical inputs and generally, agricultural labour has a high return per unit of input. The energy return on labour expended in a typical highland Mayan maize farm is high enough to ensure continuation of the present system. Working a hectare of land, which normally yields 4 230 692 calories requires some 395 hours; thus, an hour's labour produces about 10 700 calories. A family of three adults and seven children eat about 4 830 000 calories of maize per year, thus a current one-hectare system provides food for a typical family of 5 or 7 people14.

Labour return

Also in these systems, favourable rates of return between inputs and outputs in energy terms are realised. On Mexican hillsides, maize yields in hand-labour dependent systems are about 1940 kg per hectare, exhibiting an output/input ratio of 11 : 1. In Guatemala, similar systems yield about 1 066 kg per hectare of maize, with an energy efficiency ratio of 4.84. Yield per seed planted varies from 130 to 200. When animal traction is utilized, yields do not necessarily increase but the energy efficiency drops to values ranging from 3.11 to 4.34. When fertilizers and other agrochemicals are utilized, yields can increase to levels of 5 to 7 per hectare, but energy ratios become more inefficient (less than 2.5). Most peasants, however, are poor and generally cannot afford such inputs unless agrochemicals are subsidised or provided on credit.

Balanced nutrient flows

Much of the production of staple crops in the Latin American tropics occurs in polycultures. More than 40 percent of the cassava, 60 percent of the maize, and 80 percent of the beans in that region are grown in mixtures with each other or with other crops15. By interplanting, farmers achieve several production and conservation objectives simultaneously. With crop mixtures, farmers can take advantage of the ability of cropping systems to reuse their own stored nutrients and the tendency of certain crops to enrich the soil with organic matter.

In Africa, the majority of small-scale farmers practise some form of shifting cultivation. These systems, improved over centuries, have allowed farmers to respond to the challenges posed by their physical and socio-cultural environments. This system, which involved movement of cultivators from one site to another in search of virgin forests, was sustainable given sufficient land and low population pressure. A variation of this system is the bush-fallow system widely practised in all ecological regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. The bush-fallow is an extensive system of food production in which natural forest, secondary forest or open woodlands are cleared and burnt. Farmers carefully select sites using indicator plants in terms of plant growth and biomass as guides that will produce the best chemical-yielding ash when burnt. Temporary clearings are cultivated until crop yields begin to decline (usually 2-3 growing seasons), then the land is abandoned to return to forest or bush fallow for a period ranging from 4-20 years. During the fallow period, soil fertility regenerates, and weed and pest problems decline. The system, however, fails to deliver its regenerative functions when the fallow period is reduced due to population pressures.

Natural pest and disease control

By growing several crops simultaneously, the number of predators and parasites can be enhanced, which in turn prevents the build-up of pests, thus minimising the need to use expensive and dangerous chemical insecticides (see Chapter 2). For example, in the tropical lowlands, corn-bean-squash polycultures suffer less from attack by caterpillars, leafhoppers and thrips than corresponding monocultures, because such systems harbour greater numbers of parasitic wasps.

The plant diversity also provides alternative habitat and food sources such as pollen, nectar, as well as alternative hosts to predators and parasites. In Tabasco, Mexico, it was found that eggs and larvae of the lepidopteran pest Diaphania hyalinata exhibited a 69 percent parasitization rate in polycultures compared to only 29 percent in monocultures. Similarly, in the Cauca Valley of Colombia, larvae of Spodoptera frugiperda suffered greater parasitization and predation in the corn-bean mixtures by a series of Hymenopteran wasps and predator beetles than in corn monocultures16.

Beneath the simple structure of the Asian rice paddy monoculture (sawah) lies a complex system of built-in natural controls and genetic crop diversity17. Although these systems are more prevalent in Southeast Asia, upland rice farmers in the Latin American tropics also grow a number of photoperiod-sensitive rice varieties adapted to differing environmental conditions. Farmers regularly exchange seed with their neighbours because they observe that any one variety begins to suffer from pest problems if grown continuously on the same land for several years. The temporal, spatial and genetic diversity resulting from farm-to-farm variations in cropping systems confers at least partial resistance to pest attack. Recently, researchers encouraged farmers in ten townships in Yunnan, China, covering an area of 5 350 hectares to switch from rice monocultures to planting mixtures of local varieties and hybrids. Enhanced genetic diversity reduced blast incidence by 94 percent and increased total yields by 84 percent. After two years, fungicides were no longer required18.

Box 4: Farmer experimentation in Malawi

In 1993 a group of determined Malawian smallholder farmers set out to provide themselves with hands-on experience with selected organic soil improvement practices. These farmers all faced crop productivity far below subsistence levels, soils with deteriorating fertility and escalating prices of essential farm inputs. As a result, they established the Lipangwe Organic Manure Demonstration Farm (LOMADEF), a small farm on a steep undulating landscape with the objective of demonstrating the benefits of organic agriculture and, more specifically, to:

  • reduce continued dependence of smallholder subsistence farmers on artificial fertilizers as a means of achieving sustainable soil productivity;
  • instil a sense of self reliance among farmers;
  • establish sustainable agriculture demonstration farms for smallholder farmers, initially in the southern part of the central region and later elsewhere in Malawi, creating a group of organic agriculture enthusiasts who can further disseminate the concept;
  • use the demonstration farm for smallholder farmers from all over the country to come and learn about organic agriculture techniques.

The first step LOMADEF took was to use manure on the fields. While surrounding farmers suffered wilted and stunted crops, the LOMADEF farm gave very conspicuous results - a better crop stand developed. When neighbours began taking an interest in what they saw at the farm, this encouraged the formation of a club that began exploring aspects of organic agriculture and in training others who showed interest.

In the same year that the club was formed, it received funding for the demonstration farm. In both the 1994/95 cropping season, (which was very dry) and 1995/96 (a much wetter year), farmers observed that crop performance at the farm was much better than those of surrounding farms.

The Government and various NGOs involved in agriculture soon began to notice what was happening. Over 1200 farmers have since been brought in to observe the benefits of organic agriculture and to learn some simple organic agriculture practices. OMADEF has now grown from one club to thirteen and membership has increased from 13 to 200, with clubs spread across the country.

Experience at LOMADEF suggests that smallholder-managed demonstrations that show affordable technologies are very attractive to smallholder farmers. More such farms would serve to encourage farmers to adopt organic agriculture, and indeed other low-cost technologies.

Source: Kanjanga, 2002

Box 5: From chemical to organic cotton, Egypt

Cotton is known as one of the most pesticide-intensive crops. In fact, 18 percent of chemical active ingredients for plant protection worldwide are used in cotton fields which represent only 0.8 percent of the cultivated areas of the world. The increasingly intensive use of agrochemicals in Egyptian agriculture was marked by the construction of the Aswan high dam which stopped the fertile Nile flooding surrounding land. In only 20 years, the total amount of pesticides in cotton cultivation reached 1800 tonnes for 245000 hectares, yet the average yield of raw cotton remained stable at 2 250 kg per hectare.

Due to the positive experience in the biodynamic cultivation of herbs, cereals and vegetables, the SEKEM initiative was asked in 1990 to apply the biodynamic methods to cotton. This was done in close cooperation with scientists, farmers, consultants and consumers during the following years. For the first time, pheromones were used to control cotton insects in the fields as part of the holistic biodynamic concept and despite many initial doubts, the system was successful. Increasingly, pesticide-free insect control methods were adopted by the authorities and now, they are applied to nearly 80 percent of Egypt's cotton fields. By 1995 the total intake of pesticides in Egyptian cotton areas had been reduced to 320 tonnes on nearly the same cultivated area. Meanwhile, the average yield of raw cotton increased nearly 30 percent to 3 000 kg per hectare. In the wake of this success, SEKEM organized the first international conference on organic cotton in Cairo.

Organic cotton farms are located in Fayoum, Kaliubea (southern delta area) and in Abou Matameer in the north. The varieties cultivated are two extra-long staple and long season types with clover as the preferred cover crop and/or early onions as an additional crop. Onions have the potential to protect the plants against pests and stimulate mycorrhizae, assisting the growth of the young cotton plants during the first weeks.

Sowing starts at the end of February until early March. Fertilization for the cultivation of biodynamic cotton is based on 45-60 m3/ha of composted manure. If not already added to the compost, 500 kg/ha wood ash and/or 600 kg/ha of rock phosphate are applied.

After some years of field research and continuous improvement, a system for insect control was developed based only on natural substances and pheromones. The design and location of the pheromone traps is extremely important as the application of pheromones is essential for success in plant protection against the major pests: the leaf worm, the pink bollworm and the spiny bollworm. Egyptian biodynamic farmers are working together with scientists from the research centres in developing these treatments.

The complete cultivation process is done with the help of trained and experienced advisors. In the small-scale farm structure of the rural areas, they help the farmers observe the development of harmful insects. A team of experts makes on-farm visits each week in a different region to answer questions and solve urgent problems.

The last irrigation is done 30-40 days before harvesting allowing the cotton plants to ripen evenly. An application of the biodynamic quartz preparation supports the ripening of the last capsules. As with conventionally grown cotton in Egypt, biodynamic cotton is done by hand and in 2-3 picking rounds.

Unlike conventional plants, biodynamic cotton remains green up to the harvest. This reduces the faulting of the cotton fibres by brown leaf fragments and increases the quality. Biodynamic cotton also shows better fibre elasticity and other fibre quality parameters are generally better than those of cotton from conventional farms.

In special processing steps, developed with Egyptian experts, the biodynamic cotton in spun, knitted or woven, dyed and finished without chemical-synthetic additives by mechanical and thermic means. From the ready-made material the SEKEM textile factory produces high quality children's and baby wear. Textiles produced from biodynamically grown cotton are marketed under the name "Cotton PEOPLE organic".

There are two distribution channels. Firstly, by export through the German partner Alnatur that mainly supplies major wholesalers in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Secondly, since 1995, intensive local marketing and distribution has led to the successful sae of Cotton PEOPLE organic textiles through three SEKEM shops in Cairo and a retail chain with ten shops in Cairo and Alexandria.

Source: Klaus Merckens (pers. comm.)

Diversified systems

A salient feature of traditional farming systems is their degree of genetic diversity in the form of spatial and temporal diversification and crop, tree and/or animal integration. This peasant strategy of spreading risk by maintaining several species and varieties of plants and animals, stabilizes yields over the long term, promotes diet diversity, and maximizes returns under low levels of technology and limited resources19.

Horizontal combinations: multiple cropping systems

In most multiple-cropping systems developed by smallholders, productivity in terms of harvestable products per unit area is higher than under sole cropping with the same level of management. Yield gains can range from 20 to 60 percent. These differences can be explained by a combination of factors, which include the reduction of losses due to weeds, insects, and diseases and more efficient use of the available resources of water, light and nutrients20.

In Mexico, 1.73 ha plot of land has to be planted with maize monoculture to produce as much food as one hectare planted with a mixture of maize, squash, and beans. In addition, the maize-squash-bean polyculture produces up to 4 tonnes per hectare of dry matter for ploughing into the soil, compared with 2 tonnes in a maize monoculture. In Brazil, polycultures containing 12 500 maize plants per hectare and 150 000 bean plants per hectare produced a yield gain of 28 percent21.

The temporal, spatial and genetic diversity resulting from farm-to-farm variations in cropping systems confers at least partial resistance to pest attack.

Vertical combinations: agroforestry

Tropical agro-ecosystems composed of cultivated and fallow fields, complex home gardens, and agroforestry plots commonly contain well over 100 plant species per field. These plants are used for construction materials, firewood, tools, medicines, livestock feed, and human food. Examples include multi-use agroforestry systems managed by the Huastecs and Lacandones in Mexico, the Bora and Kayapo Indians in the Amazon basin and many other ethnic groups that incorporate trees into their production systems22. Such home gardens are a highly efficient form of land use, incorporating a variety of crops with different growth habits. The result is a structure similar to tropical forests, with diverse species and a layered configuration23.

In "forest-like" agricultural systems, nutrient cycles are tight and closed. In many tropical agroforestry systems such as the traditional coffee under shade trees (e.g. Inga sp., Erythrina sp.) total nitrogen inputs from shade tree leaves, litter, and symbiotic fixation can be well over ten times higher than the net nitrogen output by harvest, which usually averages 20 kg per hectare per year. In other words, the system amply compensates for the nitrogen lost by harvest with a subsidy from the shade trees. In highly co-evolved systems, researchers have found evidence of synchrony between the peaks of nitrogen transfer to the soil by decomposing litter and the periods of high nitrogen demand by flowering and fruiting coffee plants24.

Thanks to almost year-round growing conditions, indigenous farmers are able to stagger crop and tree plantings and harvesting to increase overall yields. For example, the Bora plant a wide variety of crops, including some 22 varieties of sweet and bitter manioc interspersed with pineapples, fruit trees and minor annual crops. In the Amazon, the Kayapo yields are roughly 200 percent higher than colonist systems and 175 percent that of livestock25. In Mexico, Huastec Indians manage a number of agricultural and fallow fields, complex home gardens and forest plots totalling about 300 species. Small areas around the houses commonly average 80-125 useful plant species, mostly native medicinal plants26.

Box 6: Ethiopian Coffee - naturally organic

Ethiopia is the primary centre of origin and genetic diversity of the Arabica coffee plant. Playing a vital role in both the cultural and the socio-economic life of the country, Coffee arabica L. is the most important commercial crop in the national economy (generating 60 percent of foreign exchange earnings). Twenty five percent of the Ethiopian population (15 million) depends, directly or indirectly, on coffee for their livelihoods.

Ethiopia has the widest genetic base for C. arabica in the world, about 140 local coffee races known to farmers. This has led to a great variability in plant character and the availability of planting materials which are pest and disease resistant (e.g. 15 genotypes were identified as resistant to Coffee Berry Disease), high-yielding and of top quality. Thanks also to the country's suitable altitude, ample rainfall, optimum temperatures and fertile soil, the potential for coffee production in Ethiopia is very high.

Small coffee farmers, cultivating on average 0.5 ha are the major coffee producers in Ethiopia, depending mostly on family for labour requirements. There are four types of production systems in Ethiopia: forest coffee, semi-forest coffee, garden coffee and plantation coffee. Ninety-five percent of the coffee produced under these systems is organic.

Forest coffee accounts for about 10 percent of Ethiopia's total coffee production and is found in south and south-western Ethiopia. It is self-sown and grown under the full coverage of natural forest trees. It shows a wide diversity invaluable for the selection and breeding for natural disease resistance. It is the tropical forests of Ethiopia that are the primary source of genetic variability of C. arabia.

Semi-forest coffee accounts for about 35 percent of the total coffee production and is found in the same parts of the country as forest coffee. On acquiring forest land for coffee farms, farmers thin and select the forest trees to ensure both adequate sunlight and proper shade for the coffee trees. They slash the weeds once a year to facilitate the coffee bean harvest.

Garden coffee is grown in the vicinity of farmer's residences, mainly in the southern and eastern parts of the country and accounts for about 35 percent of the total coffee production. This method is set to increase with the introduction of the system into south-western Ethiopia. The coffee is planted at low densities, ranging from 1 000 to 1 800 trees per hectare, and is mostly fertilized with organic waste and intercropped with other crops.

Plantation coffee includes that grown on plantations owned by the former state and some well-managed smallholder coffee farms. In this production system, recommended seedlings are used, and proper spacing, mulching, manuring, weeding, shade-regulation and pruning are practised. However, the coffee is still full of variety as the planting material is usually of forest origin. Only state-owned plantations use chemical fertilizers and herbicides, accounting for approximately 5 percent of total production. Well-managed smallholder coffee farms account for about 15 percent of Ethiopia's total production.

Although not certified as organic, most buyers know that the bulk of Ethiopian coffee produced qualifies as organically produced. The fertility of the soil is maintained by organic recycling, i.e. through litter fall, pruning and root residues from perennial coffee and shade trees and producers use organic fertilizers to supplement the natural fertility.

Source: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Coffee and Tea Authority, 1999

Spatial integration: crop-livestock systems

Many small farmers integrate animals (cattle, pigs, and poultry) into their farming systems. In addition to providing milk, meat and draft power, such animals add another trophic level to the system, making it even more complex. Animals are fed crop residues and weeds, with little negative impact on crop productivity. This serves to turn otherwise unusable biomass into animal protein. The need for animal feed also broadens the crop base to include plant species useful for conserving soil and water. Legumes are often planted to provide quality forage but also serve to improve nitrogen content of soils27. Animal manure returns organic matter to the soil.

Temporal combinations: rotations

Not all small farmers rely on spatially diversified systems. For example, in southern Brazil, family farmers grow maize, beans, soybeans and wheat as monocultures using low input technologies while reaching acceptable yields (2,7 tonnes per hectare in maize and 1,5 tonnes per hectare in soybeans). Many of the farms have adopted zero-tillage systems which conserve soil and improve organic matter levels while avoiding the dependence on herbicides which characterizes large-scale monocultural zero tillage. The key to agro-ecological success has been the design of rotations using cover crops and green manures that provide sufficient soil cover and lead to organic matter accumulation28.

This peasant strategy of spreading risk by maintaining several species and varieties of plants and animals, stabilizes yields over the long term, promotes diet diversity, and maximizes returns under low levels of technology and limited resources.

Indigenous farming systems as design models

Undoubtedly, the ensemble of traditional management practices used by many resource-poor farmers represents a rich experience for the creation of productive agro-ecosystems well adapted to the local agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances of peasants. Peasants use a diversity of techniques that are usually well-adapted to local conditions. The techniques tend to be knowledge-intensive rather than input-intensive, but clearly not all are effective or applicable elsewhere so that modifications and adaptations will usually be necessary. The challenge is to maintain the foundations of such modifications grounded on peasants' rationale and knowledge.

"Slash-and-burn" or milpa is perhaps one of the best examples of an ecological strategy to manage agriculture in the tropics. By maintaining a mosaic of plots under cropping and some in fallow, farmers capture the essence of natural processes of soil regeneration typical of any ecological succession.

By understanding the rational of the milpa, a contemporary discovery, the use of "green manures," has provided an ecological pathway to the intensification of the milpa in areas where long fallows are no longer possible due to population growth or conversion of forest to pasture.

Box 7: System of rice intensification, Madagascar

Rice is one of the oldest domesticated crops, farmers having grown it under irrigated conditions for more than 4 000 years. A System of Rice Intensification (SRI) developed by Fr. Henri de Laulanié in Madagascar in the 1980s has shown high increases in yields without requiring the purchase of new seeds, chemical fertilizers or other inputs, but with simple changes in crop management.

There are six key practices which together form the System of Rice Intensification, the first four of which depart dramatically from the ways in which farmers around the world have grown irrigated rice for millennia:

  • Very young seedlings are transplanted, just 8-15 days old, when they have only 2 leaves, as they have greater potential for tillering than older seedlings.
  • Seedlings are transplanted singly, instead of the usual clumps of three or four per hill, and quickly and carefully to avoid root desiccation and damage.
  • Transplanted seedlings are widely spaced in a square pattern and at least 25 cm by 25 cm apart. If soil conditions are good this can be increased to 50 cm by 50 cm, allowing more space for root extension and canopy growth.
  • Throughout the vegetative growth phase, fields are kept well aerated, rather than flooded. However, during the reproductive phase a thin film of water is maintained (1-3 cm), which is then drained 25 days before harvest.
  • Weeding is important as without flooding weed growth can become a problem. This should occur about 10 days after transplanting followed by 2 to 4 further weedings at 10-15 day intervals.
  • Applications of compost are recommended to build up the soil structure and health.

These management techniques have led to increased rice yields from practically all rice varieties that have been used, doubling or even tripling yields. Farmers in the peripheral zone around Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, a rainforest area 400-1 200 m above sea level with inherently infertile soils, have average irrigated rice yields of 2 tonnes per hectare. Yet farmers using the SRI techniques have averaged yields of 8.1t/ha over the five seasons (1994/5 -1998/9). The number of farmers using the SRI techniques during this time increased from 38 to 396, with some farmers obtaining yields of 14 to 16t/ha. Previous trials in the area with high-yielding varieties and chemical fertilizers averaged 3t/ha with a maximum of 5t/ha.

The system of rice intensification may not be applicable everywhere, e.g. where the labour supply is constraining, as SRI demands more labour as well as skill, and where the infrastructure or management capacity needed to apply water minimally is lacking. However, SRI, helped by The Association Tefy Saina (a Malagasy NGO) and Cornel International Institute for Food Agriculture and Development has spread around the world to China, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia, Nepal, Côte d'Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, with very positive results.

Source: CIIFAD, 2002

Undoubtedly, the ensemble of traditional management practices used by many resource-poor farmers represents a rich experience for the creation of productive agro-ecosystems well adapted to the local agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances of peasants.

One such traditional system is the frijol tapado used to produce beans in mid-elevation areas of Central America on steep slopes with high amounts of rainfall where most beans in the region are grown. To begin the process, farmers choose a fallow field that is two to three years old so that the woody vegetation dominates the grasses. If the fallow period is less than two years, then the grasses will be able to out-compete the emerging bean plants and soil fertility will not have been fully restored since last harvest. Next, paths are cut through the field with machetes. Then bean seeds are broadcast into the fallow vegetation. Finally, the fallow vegetation with bean seed is cut down into a mulch that is allowed to decay and provide nutrients to the maturing bean seedling. A harvest is possible approximately twelve weeks after broadcasting. In Costa Rica, the estimate is that 60 to 70 percent of the beans in the country are produced by frijol tapado. Compared to the more labour- and chemical-intensive methods of bean production used by some smallholders, the tapado system has a higher rate of return because of lower costs.

The tapado system allows production of beans for both home consumption and cash to supplement meagre incomes during times of financial hardship. The cost-effective benefits include: (i) avoidance of expensive and potentially toxic agricultural chemicals; and (ii) a relatively low labour requirement. Soil erosion is minimized because of a continuous vegetation cover that prevents exposing the bare ground to heavy rainfall.

Experience in Central America shows that mucuna -based maize systems are fairly stable, allowing respectable yield levels (usually 2-4 ha) every year. In particular, the system appears to greatly reduce drought stress because the mulch layer helps conserve water in the soil profile. With enough water around, nutrients (N, P, K, Ca, Mg, etc.) are made readily available, in good synchronization with major crop uptake. In addition, the mucuna suppresses weeds (with the notable exception of R. cochinchinensis), either because velvetbean physically prevents them from germinating and emerging or from surviving very long during the velvetbean cycle, or because a shallow rooting of weeds in the litter layer/soil interface makes them easier to control. Data shows that this system, grounded in farmers' knowledge and involving the continuous annual rotation of velvetbean and maize, can be sustained for at least fifteen years at a reasonably high level of productivity, without any apparent decline in the natural resource base29.

The potential of non-certified organic agriculture

As illustrated above, a greater understanding of the agro-ecology and ethno-ecology of traditional and indigenous farming systems is necessary to continue developing contemporary agricultural systems. This can only result from integrated studies that determine the myriad factors that condition how farmers perceive their environment and subsequently how they modify it to later translate such information in modern scientific terms.

Yields for crops that the poor rely on most (rice, beans, maize, cassava, potatoes, barley) have been increased several-fold, relying on labour and know-how rather than on expensive purchased inputs, and capitalising on processes of intensification and synergy.

Agricultural productivity and resilience

Food security

The analysis of agro-ecological projects show convincingly that agro-ecological systems are not limited to producing low outputs, as some critics have asserted; on the contrary, increases in production is fairly common. In some of these systems, yields for crops that the poor rely on most (rice, beans, maize, cassava, potatoes, barley) have been increased several-fold, relying on labour and know-how rather than on expensive purchased inputs, and capitalising on processes of intensification and synergy30.

Cuba provides a historical example of the potential for organic management to enhance productivity, and thus contribute to food security. After Cuba lost 80 percent of its import capacity, farms had no fuel for tractors and any fertilizers or pesticides; yields declined and per caput caloric intake fell from 1908 calories (in 1989) to 1863 in 1994. Through massive development and diffusion of organic techniques Cuba's agriculture recovered and by 2000, the caloric level had risen to 2 585. Production of tubers and plantains more then tripled and vegetable production doubled from 1994 to 1999. In the same period bean yields increased 60 percent and cereal production rose from 300 818 metric tonnes to 551000 tonnes31. In 1999, non-certified organic urban agriculture (in home gardens, raised container beds, and intensive gardens) produced 65 percent of the country's rice, 46 percent of fresh vegetables, 38 percent of non-citrus fruits, 13 percent of roots, tubers and plantains and 6 percent of eggs32.

In Ghana, rehabilitation of drying water resources and low soil fertility in the Techiman District involved reforestation and organic crop production. Successful results in building soil fertility and generating new sources of income (organic cashew farming) led to the dissemination of organic agriculture by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, as a viable alternative to small-scale farmers who produce over 80 percent of locally grown food. The system gradually reduced slash-and-burn, shifting to intensified cultivation on a unit area.

In Argentina a model of organic orchards has being experimented with since the early 1990s, promoting employment and food self-sufficiency of rural and urban populations. By 1996, the project had benefited nearly two million individuals, namely unemployed, indigenous and food insecure persons (such as female-headed families, elders and under-aged).

More important than just yields, agro-ecological interventions raise total farm production significantly through diversification of farming systems, such as raising fish in rice paddies or growing crops with trees, or adding goats or poultry to household operations.

Ecological resilience

Organic agriculture increases the stability of production as seen in lower co-efficients of variance in crop yield with better soil and water management33. In fact agro-ecological interventions significantly decrease the vulnerability of small farmers to natural disasters and other disturbances.

Surveys conducted in hillsides after Hurricane Mitch in Central America showed that farmers using practices such as cover crops, intercropping, and agroforestry suffered less damage than their conventional neighbours. The survey, spearheaded by the Campesino-Campesino movement, mobilized 100 farmer-technician teams and 1 743 farmers to carry out paired observations of specific agro-ecological indicators on 1 804 neighbouring, sustainable and conventional farms. The study spanned 360 communities and 24 departments in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Sustainable plots had 20 percent to 40 percent more topsoil, greater soil moisture, less erosion and experienced lower economic losses than their conventional neighbours34. These data are of great significance to resource-poor farmers living in marginal environments and should provide the basis for natural resource management strategies that promote the temporal and spatial diversification of cropping systems as this leads to higher productivity and is likely to ensure greater stability and ecological resiliency.

Box 8: "Nayakrishi Andolon" - new farming in Bangladesh

Conventional farming in Bangladesh has led to the introduction of high yielding varieties of seeds at the local markets and the spread of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. After an initial boost to productivity, many farmers started to notice that yields began to go down, but that more and more fertilizer had to be added per acre. The amount of fertilizer farmers had to use went up a hundred times over 30 years and to make things worse prices tripled over this period. Everyone began to lose out.

Trapped into this cycle of ever having to buy more inputs to produce less, farmers all over the country suffered bankruptcy. Many sold their land and moved to cities in a desperate search for work. Then, in 1998, there came a particularly bad flood. A massive deluge that lasted for weeks and many farmers simply lost everything.

In the area around Tangail, just to the north of Dhaka, the flood hit particularly hard. A small NGO working with weavers in the area, UBINIG, (the Bengali acronym for Policy Research for Development Alternatives) was approached by farmers asking for help to buy new seeds and fertilizers. UBINIG agreed to help, but only if the farmers considered alternative methods of production.

UBINIG organized meetings to discuss with farmers alternatives to chemical dependent farming. It was mostly the women who responded positively at first, but after stories were told of miscarriages and failing human and animal health, other farmers began to see an alternative to the spiralling debts, hardened soils and poisoned fish.

With the help of UBINIG, these meeting sparked what has become a nationwide movement: "nayakrishi andolon". This name was chosen as nayakrishi means "new agriculture". It shows that farmers are not taking a step backwards to traditional agriculture, but are learning from the mistakes of the "Green Revolution" and are moving on to something new and better.

Instead of getting one crop from their fields, farmers have started intercropping. One farmer used to only get a crop of sugarcane from his land, but he now gets seven: onions, garlic, potatoes, radish, lentils, pumpkins and sweet potatoes and he still grows his sugarcane in between. Artificial fertilizers are replaced by legumes (e.g. pulses and okra) and compost is made from water hyacinth (a species previously considered an invasive pest), banana leaves, rice paddy straw and cow dung. The soil has softened again and is covered with worm casts.

Throughout Bangladesh, 65 000 rural households have now converted to nayakrishi and UBINIG has established five nayakrishi centres in different parts of the country. The centres hold workshops for farmers and coordinate the sharing of knowledge between different villages. The Tangail centre for example, now employs 40 people, many of whom are extension workers who travel to nearby meetings, spreading the word about nayakrishi.

Source: Greenpeace, 2001

Ecological management

Projects aiming at enhancing the food security of poor rural families, conserving and/or regenerating the natural resource base (soil, water and genetic resources) and providing income opportunities concentrate on a few key interventions:

Organic agriculture techniques and designs being promoted function as an "ecological turntable" by activating and influencing key components and processes of the agro-ecosystem:

Box 9: Community project for the recuperation of productive systems and the protection of territory, Colombia

Located in the lower basin of the River Calima, an area of approximately 96 000 ha and home to about 640 families, this project involved about 10 percent of the population, mostly pertaining to the black communities. The River Calima runs through the Choco Biogeographical Region, a region extending from Panama to Ecuador and considered one of the most humid areas in the world, but also one of the richest in terms of flora and fauna. The enormous biological diversity found in the region, however, has led to the proliferation of extractive activities especially of fine woods and gold. The extensive exploitation has brought as a consequence a reduction of animal and plant diversity, a deterioration of the ecosystems and a loss of food sources and traditionally used medicines.

Between 1974 and 1995, extractive activities were granted by the state to the Pupapel Company (part of Cartón Colombia) in an area of 61600 ha. During this time, many inhabitants abandoned almost completely their traditional activities of hunting, fishing, mining, gathering, agriculture and handicrafts and dedicated themselves to the extraction and sale of wood and to employment opportunities offered by Pupapel.

The communities now face a variety of pressures, economic, social and environmental, including:

  • territorial displacement and migration to urban centres;
  • cultural erosion and rupture of the family unit;
  • implementation of unsuitable rural development plans and projects including monocultures;
  • habitat destruction through inappropriate use of heavy machinery for the extraction of timber and gold;
  • breakages in the local marketing system ;
  • inaccessible credit systems;
  • phytosanitary problems.

In order to combat these problems, community members united with already existing community organizations (e.g. ONCAPROTECA the Black Farmer Organization for the Defence of the Lower Calima Territory and the Farmer Front of the House of Life Association), in the formulation of a project proposal. The Tropic Foundation, a local NGO involved in formal and informal education of ethnic groups, farmers, young people, children and women, was also approached for technical advice.

The project began in 1997 and lasted for 24 months. Its main objective was the conservation and promotion of local biodiversity through a system of agro-ecosystem restoration which, in the medium and long term, would restore natural ecosystems through changes in productive activities. The project focused on the recovery of wild and cultivated species that had disappeared, or were in disuse, through the introduction of agro-ecological techniques. It evaluated the possible production and commercialization of ornamental species and fruit trees of the zone and began a process of strengthening of the organizational base of the community. Its eventual aim was a collective land title for the community, giving community members greater control over the decisions made about their territory.

Endeavouring in the first place for food security and secondly for additional income sources, meetings and workshops were arranged for people of all ages, allowing the exchange and recovery of agricultural knowledge, cultural traditions and the interchange of management techniques. Through these meetings, promising non-traditional species were identified for possible commercialization. Helped by the Tropic Foundation, these species were introduced into the 60 farms involved in the project.

By tradition, agricultural systems were based on a mixture of small-scale agroforestry, almost independent of external inputs and taking advantage of the forest system without modifying its structure and natural capacity, and the cultivation of rice and maize in home gardens or small fields cleared from the forest. Using a mixture of traditional methods combined with new organic production techniques, the 60 families involved in the project began strengthening their productive capacities. Traditionally utilized medicinal and aromatic plants were sown in association with horticultural crops for their repellent and allelopatic properties, green manures and compost were applied, and foliar fertilizers and plant extracts for the control of worms and insect pests were used. Seed selection, collection and harvesting were also important activities, with seeds of different species and varieties being distributed at workshops. Some plots of land were used simply to multiply seeds and vegetative materials for use by other farmers.

Several ornamental species, e.g. Zingeberales, and fruit trees, e.g. Chontadura (Bactrus gasipaes) and Borojo (Borojoa patinoi cuatrocasa) with a potential for commercialization in the main market centres were identified. The main criterion for the section of fruits was the length of their post-harvest life. The fruits chosen would all survive several days post-harvest, allowing for storage and transportation. The Tropic Foundation provided farmers with technical advice and research into the growth habitats and requirements of these species, but also carried out feasibility studies for their commercialization.

Workshops were also held by the Tropic Foundation to create awareness of Act 1745 of 1995, Law 70 of 1993 and Laws 21 and 99 of 1993. These are juridical tools that empower communities, and give them rights over the use and management of their land. They also ensure that communities themselves complete their obligations regarding the environmental management of the land.

By the end of the project, 60 farmers were trained and working diversified fields producing food crops e.g. rice, bananas, yucca (Manihot escilenta), vegetable crops, beans and maize, and ten ornamental species including bird of paradise, ginger and members of the Heliconiaceas family. Three nurseries were established in the area for the production of ornamental and fruit tree species, each with the capacity of 5 000 plants. These changes led to an increase in the quantity and variety of family food production available all year, greatly reducing the cost of living for the families and generating employment, reducing the need for migration to urban areas in search of work. The benefits of this can be seen in the reduced dependence on the purchase of agricultural products for family consumption and the strengthening of the local markets due to greater production and more efficient use of the agro-ecosystem. The return to agriculture has helped reduce the pressure on the natural forest species, encouraged the planting of native trees and the establishment of living fences.

The experiences from the project, such as management techniques, crop varieties and seeds, were shared with other communities and by the end of the two years, a network of 120 farmers had been created. A Black Community Council was also created in the area, aiding community organization, promoting responsible management of community resources for the common benefit and executing control on the use and management of the territory. The legal representative of the Council also elaborated a proposal for a collective title for the land in the lower basin of the River Calima. This would allow a total 640 farmers in the area access and use of 96 000 ha of land.

The project began to tackle the real problems facing these communities. As it was conceived, formulated and executed through the participation of the community actors, it reflected the aspirations of the beneficiaries. The project did not pursue the transformation of the traditional productive system, but rather its improvement and development. Nevertheless, there still remain difficulties to be faced. Families on average have usufruct rights to only 2.6 ha. Due to the character of the land, this is insufficient to allow subsistence over time. However, once collective titles are in place, this will permit communities to regulate access to the land and should stabilize production in the region.

Source: provided to FAO by Mario Ahumada, Movimiento Agroecológico para Latinoamérica y el Caribe, (MAELA), 2002

It is difficult, however, to quantify all the potentials of such diversified and intensified systems because there is too little research and experience to establish their limits. Nevertheless, data from agro-ecological projects show that traditional crop and animal combinations can often be adapted to increase productivity when the biological structuring of the farm is improved and labour and local resources are efficiently used35.

In general, data shows that over time organic agriculture systems:

Community development

Non-certified organic farmers exhibit a very high degree of dynamism and flexibility. An indication of this process has been the emergence of strong farmer-to-farmer movements, farmers' associations and cooperatives.

Many organic farmers in developing countries have no access to lucrative markets. This is due to the relatively high costs of certification and the use of international standards alien to the realities of small farmers with different agro-ecological conditions. In fact, many farmers in developing countries perceive organic agriculture as a product meeting the demand of industrialized country consumers, and incorporated into the systems of trade and distribution that prevail in conventional agriculture.

A consequence of this is the emergence of alternative networks such as the Rede Ecovida de Agroecologia and Econeve in South Brazil, composed of dozens of farmers' organizations and cooperatives which have initiated a new and autonomous process of "participatory certification" emphasising production for local markets fuelled by a growing solidarity from the local-regional consumer movement. The southern regions of Brazil (Rio Grande de Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná) contain about 25 percent of the total population of small farmers (about one million families), producing 30 percent of the total small farm sector output. It is expected that no less than 30-40 percent of such farmers may join the Ecovida and similar networks, and thus become a major force in shaping an alternative mode of "organic" production and certification. Similar initiatives are also emerging in other countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay.

In some regions, municipal or state-level institutions have adopted research and extension policies to directly benefit small family farms. For example, in Rio Grande de Sul in Brazil, EMATER and FEPAGRO, the state extension and research institutions respectively, have adopted agro-ecology as the technological and methodological base for the development of family agriculture in the state. EPAGRI in Santa Catarina is also following a similar path where the state government has announced the total elimination of pesticide use in the state. It is expected that such institutional shifts will greatly enhance the viability of existing non-certified organic farmers but will also promote the conversion of a large number of small farmers who still use agrochemicals to more low-external-input forms of production.

Non-certified organic farmers exhibit a very high degree of dynamism and flexibility. An indication of this process has been the emergence of strong farmer-to-farmer movements, farmers' associations and cooperatives.

Factors affecting the viability of small farmers

Globalization and market penetration is leading to an ecological breakdown that is undermining the sustainability of small-scale agriculture in general. Soil degradation is accelerating, community and social organization is breaking down, genetic resources are being eroded and traditions are lost. Soil erosion and deforestation are perhaps the major symptoms of the vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation. Many small farmers have become agents of destruction, by overexploiting natural resources fuelled by land scarcity and lack of economic opportunities.

Many factors are negatively affecting the viability of small farms, including:

At the same time, most past and current agricultural policies have not supported practices and technologies that include environmental and social considerations. Common examples of such policies include the following:

Macro-economic reform and sectoral policies do not generate a supportive environment for small and poor farmers. In most cases agricultural growth has been concentrated in the commercial sector and has not trickled down. Several negative trends can be observed today that will drastically affect the extent and dynamics of peasant and family agriculture in developing countries, namely36:

A major challenge for the future entails promoting institutional and policy changes that support small farmers.

Box 10: Agro-ecology programme in the municipality of Comanche, high Andes region, Bolivia

The municipality of Comanche is found in the north-east of the Pacajes Province, 70 km from La Paz. It consists of 29 Aymaras farming communities, including 1 237 families with an average size of five people. The annual per capita income is US$150 and 15 percent of farming families are without land. The geographical area described covers approximately 500 km2 and includes mountain ridges, hills and planes. The average temperature is 7.8°C but this varies between -15°C and 25.6°C with frosts that severely affect the productive systems. In this zone the annual precipitation is only 561.7 mm, made more severe by the presence of dry years in which the rainfall does not exceed 150 mm/year. One of the biggest problems faced by these communities is that of soil degradation. Naturally high concentrations of salts, erosive processes due to wind and rain and over grazing have led to loss of soil and lowered productivity.

The average family has access to 34 ha, 8 percent of which is destined to annual crops and the rest to grazing. The annual crops produced are highly diverse within the species, for example, 45 ecotypes of potato (Solanum tuberosa and Solanum andigena), five varieties of quinoa and other Andean tubers are cultivated, but there is little diversity in terms of species grown. Livestock, however, is diverse in terms of species, races, sex and age of animals, constituting an invaluable genetic resource with centuries of adaptation to the local conditions. This is especially the case of introduced animals such as sheep and cows, but also of the South American camel-like species native to the region. The principle source of food for these heterogeneous flocks is natural grazing lands, where 84 species of herbs and bushes from high and low altitudes can be identified. These however, have been subject to a high degree of genetic erosion due to overgrazing.

In 1991, an agro-ecological programme began through the participation of the Development Council of Comanche (CODECO), the municipal government, representing the communities and Multiple Services of Appropriate Technologies (SEMTA), a rural development NGO. It had three main objectives: the sustainable management of the natural resources; the introduction of organic agricultural techniques with the aim of improving incomes and local food security; and the improvement of basic health and hygiene through education, helping to strengthen the position of women in the communities.

To this extent, between 1994 and 1997, various techniques were introduced including the creation of infiltration furrows, the planting of forage crops (such as Dactylis glomerata and Festuca spp.), and the re-sewing and improvement of natural pastures, complemented by fertilizing with animal manure. Forage production was encouraged through the cultivation of high yielding alfalfa, oats and barley and their conservation as silage and hay. The management of bovine and ovine livestock was improved, carefully selecting individuals for breeding and fattening animals in periods when more forage is available. Dams were also constructed for the harvest of water for human and livestock consumption and for irrigation.

A variety of impacts were achieved by the programme, including the restoration of 6 341 ha of land. On the commencement of the programme, the average farm of 34 ha had 24 ha of degraded or uncultivated land. The techniques introduced led to an average of 10 ha per farm being recovered, signifying an expansion in grazing land of 42 percent. Vegetation cover of pastures was improved through the increase in populations of native botanical diversity and the incorporation of new varieties. These adapted well to the zone, and pasture production rose from 1 400 kg of dry matter per hectare to 5 700 kg/ha. This, together with an enhanced production of fodder crops, increased the carrying capacity of pasture lands for the number of animals per hectare and had a significant impact on the incomes of families.

Improved vegetation cover of pastures has reduced erosion and has bettered the retentive capacity of the land for water: soil humidity increased by 200-500 percent. The construction of dams with the capacity to hold up to 30 000 m3 of water has enhanced the availability of water for drinking and irrigation.

The introduction of movable sheepfolds has allowed stronger participation of women in livestock activities. Freeing-up time previously dedicated to grazing has given many women greater influence in the decision-making process within the family. They can now direct more time to alternative activities.

Higher productivity in both the livestock systems and of fodder crops has strengthened food security in the region. The agro-ecological technologies introduced have improved the access to food for self-consumption in both quantity and quality and during the six years of the programme, the average disposable family income has risen by 40 percent principally through the improvement in the livestock activities. The increase in the meat production has also favoured its sale. Recognition of the ecological conditions through which it has been produced has resulted in preference for meat produced in Comanche over others found in the market, even though it has not been certified as organic.

Source: provided to FAO by Andres Yurevic, Consorcio Latinoamericano sobre Agroecología y Desarrollo (CLADES), 2001

Scaling up non-certified organic agriculture

In most cases, small farmers adopting agro-ecological models, including organic agriculture, achieve significant levels of food security and natural resource conservation. Given the benefits and advantages of such initiatives, two basic questions emerge:

For the purpose of this Chapter, scaling up is defined as the dissemination and adoption of organic principles over large areas, by large numbers of farmers and technical staff. This means achieving a significant increase in the knowledge and management of organic agriculture principles and technologies between farmers of diverse socio-economic and biophysical conditions, and between institutional actors involved in the development of the small farmer sector.

Despite widespread efforts by NGOs to promote shifts towards organic agriculture practices, adoption often remains limited to farmers who receive direct technical or financial support (although spontaneous adoption occurs widely). Without such assistance, these practices are soon abandoned, indicating that their underlying economic feasibility is not always apparent to farmers. In these cases, at least three conditions should be satisfied to ensure adoption37:

There is another important factor limiting the spread of organic practices and/or agro-ecological innovations: few institutions promoting such initiatives have analysed or systematised the principles that determined the level of success of local initiatives and have been able to validate specific strategies for the scaling up of such initiatives. It is therefore important to research and promote a better understanding of the agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions under which alternatives were adopted and implemented. Such information can shed light on the constraints and opportunities likely to be faced by farmers to whom benefits should be extended.

One unexplored approach is to provide additional methodological or technical hints about existing cases that have reached a certain level of success. Clearly, in each country there are constraining factors, such as lack of markets and lack of appropriate agricultural policies and technologies, which limit scaling up. On the other hand, opportunities for scaling up exist, including the systematization and application of approaches that have been successful at local levels, and the removal of limiting factors.

Thus, scaling up strategies must capitalise on mechanisms conducive to the spread of knowledge and the establishment of viable exchange channels, such as:

Box 11: Scaling up and scaling further up: participatory development in Brazil


The AS-PTA (Assistance and Service for Alternative Agriculture Projects) programme is located in the southern part of Brazil, on the border between the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina. Twenty-two municipalities are included in the programme, covering 13 000 km2 and a population of 55 000 family farmers (approximately 250 000 people). Family farms are small, and even though they represent 90 percent of all farms, they only occupy a third of the farmland.

The area is part of the Atlantic Forest Bioma, a very biodiversity-rich mixed rainforest. Its climate is classified as subtropical, cool and humid, with average yearly rainfall varying between 1 300 mm and 1 700 mm. The area is hilly to mountainous, with small flat river valleys with acid soils and a poor phosphorous content.

Crops are diversified, but monetary income is mostly based on beans and tobacco production, followed by onions, potatoes and erva mate. Corn is grown by virtually all farmers, mainly for on-farm consumption. Horses play an important role as draft animals and nearly all family farms have a few heads of cattle as well as pigs and poultry mainly for self-consumption.

The farming systems mix traditional and modern features. Fallows are short for lack of enough land and fertilization is either chemical or organic. Biocides are used in certain crops like tobacco and potatoes, but this depends on farmers' resources. Average yields are low: 16 760 kg/ha for potatoes; 7 828 kg/ha for onions; 472 kg/ha for beans and 2 306 kg/ha for corn, however, overall outputs per hectare can be quite significant. Average family incomes vary from US$660 to $1 020 per year.

Major problems and technical proposals

Soil acidity and low phosphorous availability associated with small farmland and reduced fallows, combined with limited financial resources for organic or chemical fertilization, have resulted in soil nutrient depletion and decreasing yields. Steep slopes combined with heavy rainfalls and "down hill" tillage practices produce significant erosion and soil losses. The replacement of traditional bean and corn varieties by improved ones also had devastating effects in the systems' efficiency in the context of the current agronomic practices. Last but not least, indiscriminate biocide use has produced toxic contamination of both farmers and the environment without significant reduction of pests or crop diseases. Difficulties in access to credit and monopsonic markets also contribute to low income patterns in the region.

AS-PTA initiated its development work with three communities and around 160 farmers in 1994. By the year 2000 it was working with 5 000 family farmers and some 150 communities. The approach adopted was to identify major constraints in agro-ecosystems through participatory methods and to develop technical solutions through participatory research involving all farmers. Agro-ecological alternatives were presented by AS-PTA's technical team and by the farmers. These proposals were adapted and tried by the farmers in their fields in small-scale experimental plots designed by them.

Dozens of technical proposals were tested either in isolated or in a combined way according to each farmer's decision. Results were presented and discussed by farmers at community and regional meetings with many field visits to illustrate the more performing practices. New experiences were undertaken by farmers in the light of these results, multiplying the experimental process in more complex and adapted solutions. New participants engaged in the experimentation dynamics as information on the first group's results spread.

Technical alternatives introduced may be classified in three major categories: improved management of genetic resources, ecological soil management and agroforestry. The first implied the reintroduction and improvement of traditional seed varieties of beans and corn. The second group of technologies includes a wide range of practices, from improved fallows, use of various organic fertilizers and rock phosphate, no till soil management combined with green manuring and cover crops (without herbicides) and crop residue management without the use of fire. Agroforestry practices include the management of the Atlantic Forest for the production of shade grown erba mate.

Agronomic, environmental and economic impacts

On-farm seed production of traditional varieties of beans and corn has grown exponentially. About 112 varieties of corn, 98 of beans, 10 of potatoes and 16 of rice have been reintroduced in the region. Rice is a secondary crop in the region which has not been the object of specific attention by AS-PTA but the farmers extended the knowledge acquired in other crop experiments to this one.

The simple reintroduction of the best performing traditional varieties resulted in yield increases of approximately
50 percent above the region's averages, reaching 3 600 kg/ha for corn and 1 800 kg/ha for beans. Farms that adopted other agro-ecological techniques as well, in addition to selecting and breeding traditional varieties, have attained yields of 5 000 kg/ha for corn and 3 000 kg/ha for beans.

The introduction of no till, no herbicide practices resulted in a net gain of over US$100/ha, just for corn and beans. Evaluations made through interviews with farmers have also indicated that the agro-ecological practices have represented a "significant" improvement both at yield and income levels. Although exact figures are not available, massive adoption of dozens of technical alternatives by more than five thousand farmers tend to confirm these assertions.

Obstacles and limitations identified

Three major limitations to the programme have been identified both by AS-PTA and farmer leaders. The first relates to the costs of technical innovation. The agro-ecological proposals being disseminated in the region are quite inexpensive but still they mean a minimum of investment that poor farmers cannot make. The speed of adoption by each farmer is therefore dependent on how much he/she can invest with his/her own resources because credit is, for the moment, almost impossible to obtain. The second problem relates to access to markets. Farmers are discouraged to invest in production improvements as many of the benefits are appropriated by middlemen, particularly in the case of tobacco and beans. The third problem relates to the costs of the social dynamics involved in the generation and dissemination of technology. Demands for the expansion of the AS-PTA to involve many more communities cannot be satisfied due to lack of resources.

Proposals for a further scaling up in the programme

Preliminary calculations indicate that an average US$500 loan for each farmer would be sufficient to cover the costs of converting an agricultural system to an agro-ecological pattern. Official credit is not so scarce; in the year 2000, public credit availability for family farmers amounted to US$2.7 billion. The main problem is related to the conditions for access and the stern resistance of the public credit agents to handling small loans. An estimated US$27.75 million would be needed to finance agro-ecological conversion of all the 55 000 family farmers in the region.

However, credit alone is not enough to permit the conversion process. Technological innovation and adaptation is a permanent and generalized venture as agro-ecological alternatives do not work like packages and need to be designed specifically for each situation. This is done through an intensive process of education, experimentation and exchanges between farmers, and this has a cost which AS-PTA calls the social dynamics cost. Extrapolating from the costs of the previous scaling up experience, US$8 million would be needed in a five-year period to facilitate agro-ecological dissemination to the 55 000 farmers in the region, amounting to US$30 per family farmer per year.

To face the monopsonic market conditions, the proposal is to enlarge and unite the several small family farmer cooperatives in existence. This will ask for investments of US$2 million in equipment, infrastructure and vehicles. Projections indicate that some 20 000 family farmers will engage in the processing/marketing venture which means an average of US$100 in credits per farmer. Operational costs are assumed to be covered by the farmers' own resources as is the case now in the small-scale experiences in the region. Last but not least, AS-PTA costs in this new scaling up process would amount to some US$1.7 million in a five-year period.

Lessons learnt

Our experience in central-southern Paraná shows how the work done by one NGO with just three technicians as local staff, allied with intensive social participation brought a five-year leap in scale of over 3 000 percent in the number of beneficiaries.

The projected budget necessary to increase the scale of this programme to benefit the region's 55 000 farmers may appear expensive but on a per capita basis, the US$9.7 million in grants means only approximately US$175 per farmer over five years, or just US$35 per farmer per year. In comparison the Government's yearly expenditure in research and extension averages approximately US$1 000 per farmer beneficiary (both conventional and other). Moreover, AS-PTA's experience in Paraná and other places in Brazil show a higher degree of adoption by farmers than those proposed by the official research and extension services.

AS-PTA is now negotiating with donors for the financing for this big scaling up venture. It is expected that it will represent a very visible example of how already available State funds could be used in a more rational and efficient way for the benefit of the 5 million family farmers in Brazil.

Source: von der Weid, 2000

Economic viability

Knowledge dissemination

Partnerships among institutions (NGOs, researchers, government agencies)

Resource allocation

Supportive policy environment

Whatever the strategy used, the development and implementation in each country of scaling-up strategies must be appropriate to the national or regional context.

The main expectation of any scaling-up process is that it should expand the geographical coverage of participating institutions and the number of projects they seek to reach, while allowing an evaluation of the impact of the strategies employed. A key research goal should be that the methodology used will allow for a comparative analysis of the experience, extracting principles that can be applied in the scaling up of other existing local initiatives, thus enlightening other development processes.

Scaling up strategies must capitalise on mechanisms conducive to the spread of knowledge and the establishment of viable exchange channels.


Non-certified organic agriculture in developing countries is practised by millions of indigenous people, peasants and small family farms involved in subsistence and local market-oriented production. These farmers make a significant contribution to regional food security: in Latin America, they account for more than 50 percent of the maize, beans, manioc and potatoes produced; in Africa, most of the cereals and roots and tubers; in Asia, the bulk of the rice. Most of these farmers are poorly endowed with land and capital, have at best smallholdings (less than 2 hectares) and are located mostly in marginal areas (hillsides, rainfed or semi-arid areas).

Non-certified organic agriculture in developing countries is practised by millions of indigenous people, peasants and small family farms involved in subsistence and local market-oriented production.

Poverty levels are expected to increase in regions such as Africa unless institutional and policy biases and imperfect markets affecting small farmers are corrected. The tendency of governments is to create programmes designed to draw small farm agriculture into (high-input) technology and higher-value crops especially for export markets, on the assumption that they will become more productive and competitive. Historically, this approach has in fact by-passed the small and poor farmers while the inequities that perpetuate poverty have remained untouched.

The challenge is to promote agro-ecological approaches that enhance diversity of production of food crops. Achieving this requires nothing less than a paradigm shift in agricultural development: in particular, local and regional markets must be expanded and promoted, land tenure secured, and basic services provided to the rural poor.

Increasing numbers of farmers are becoming aware of the opportunities and advantages of organic agricultural methods; they are therefore expanding the ranks of non-certified organic farmers. This allows them to achieve less stringent and less expensive certification standards and more flexible markets, while avoiding technological packages that are dependent on input substitution. This non-certified movement is rapidly emerging in Brazil and expected to spread throughout Latin America. A large mass of people and land linked to social movements struggling for land rights (i.e. MST in Brazil and Zapatistas in Mexico) are also turning to agro-ecology as the technological base for production. The purpose is to develop local and autonomous forms of certification that best respond to the needs and demands of farmers and consumers in specific areas. This is particularly relevant if the goal is to produce organic food for local consumption and to establish sustainable food supply systems. Most certified organic food production in developing countries is for export, bringing little benefit to local populations, especially the poor.

The emergence of farmers' associations and cooperatives linked to solidarity consumer movements will lead to more flexible certification and labelling procedures as well as an array of alternative market systems, most based on mutual trust between farmers and consumers in particular regions. There are good examples of alternative-cooperative arrangements that result from broad coalitions involving farmers' organizations, consumer and environmental movements and non-governmental organizations.

Factors constraining the further development and spread of non-certified organic agriculture include the lack of well-developed local markets as well as the dearth of relevant research and extension needed to meet the technological and other needs of small farmers. Policies that encourage production for export also prejudice smallholders as they discourage local production, and lucrative organic markets are captured by better-off medium- to large-scale farmers.

Despite these and other constraints, there are considerable opportunities for the development and spread of non-certified organic agriculture. The accumulated experience and systematization of organic agriculture initiatives in developing countries is shedding light on principles and processes necessary to achieve food security and combat poverty while regenerating/conserving the resource base. There is a whole array of agro-ecological and participatory approaches that, where applied, have led to sustainable agriculture. Such principles can be applied to other rural communities through farmer-to-farmer networks or grassroots projects and thus spread the benefits of organic agriculture to more farmers. In some regions, municipal or state-level institutions have adopted research and extension policies to directly benefit small family farms (e.g. in Rio Grande de Sul, Brazil). It is expected that such institutional shifts will greatly enhance the viability of non-certified organic agriculture.

The final challenge is to scale up what is working well, strengthen the missing links to facilitate the spread and viability of non-certified organic agriculture, and create the key consumer/farmer networks for local market expansion and the types of partnerships and alliances that provide the appropriate research-extension services needed to improve the productivity of non-certified organic agriculture.

The accumulated experience and systematization of organic agriculture initiatives in developing countries is shedding light on principles and processes necessary to achieve food security and combat poverty while regenerating/conserving the resource base.

1 FAO, 2001a.

2 FAO, 2002b.

3 ECLAC/FAO, 1986.

4 FAO, 1996.

5 Toledo, 2000.

6 OTA, 1988.

7 Pontius et al., 2000.

8 Pretty and Hine, 2000.

9 Chapter 5 contains the experience specific to organic agriculture.

10 Altieri, 1999b.

11 Sanders, 1957.

12 USDA, 1972.

13 Jimenez-Osornio and del Amo, 1986.

14 Gladwin and Truman, 1989.

15 Francis, 1986.

16 Altieri, 1994.

17 Greenland, 1997.

18 Wolf, 2000.

19 Harwood, 1979.

20 Beets, 1982.

21 Francis, 1986.

22 Wilken, 1987.

23 Denevan, 1995.

24 Nair, 1984.

25 Hecht, 1984.

26 Alcorn, 1984.

27 Beets, 1990.

28 Peterson et al., 1999.

29 Buckles et al., 1998.

30 Uphoff and Altieri, 1999b.

31 Oxfam America, 2000.

32 Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1999.

33 Francis, 1988.

34 Holt-Gimenez, 200

35 Altieri, 1999b.

36 Lamarche, 1993.

37 Kuyvenhoven et al., 1998.

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