It is difficult to assess the likelihood of success in organic agriculture. Several concerns need to be born in mind when evaluating the feasibility of organic agriculture in a given environment. These factors include:
Success in organic agriculture also depends greatly on local conditions. Organic agriculture is a production system which tries to create conditions such that problems with soil fertility and pest management are prevented, in order to optimize present and future output. One of the main characteristics of organic agriculture is the use of local resources to achieve this aim (including on-farm biological processes such as availability of pest predators or soil fungi which make nutrients more accessible to the plant). In Box 1 several individual techniques are listed but these can obviously be combined in many ways, with different weights on individual techniques. As potential agricultural problems, and availability of resources to cope with those problems, can differ greatly from location to location, the practicalities of organic agriculture can also vary considerably. For example, in areas with an abundance of organic material and labour, using compost as a way to maintain soil fertility may be more logical than using green manure in the rotation. This means that constraints can also differ greatly between localities. Determinations of the suitability of organic agriculture must include agro-ecological, economic, and social and institutional considerations, as given below.
Suitability of a system (such as organic agriculture) depends on its profitability, if that concept includes all aspects which affect the farmer's welfare. For example, low return of a marketable crop as compared with another farming system may mean very little if inputs are also low, or if the farmer can harvest other products which can be grown simultaneously in the one system, but not in the other (such as fish with irrigated rice when no pesticides are used). In addition, relative incomes can change drastically with changing input or output prices. A pest problem may be managed easily in one area where a predator is present, and be a major problem in a different area where no such solution is available (such as changing planting dates). One opinion is that organic agriculture is only possible where the soil is high in organic content, yet successful organic farms can be found on all kinds of soils, including infertile soils. In other words, although it is likely that some conditions are easier for organic farmers to handle than others, at present it is not clear what exactly those conditions are which make it inadvisable for farmers to adopt an organic management system.
Respondents to a survey amongst European researchers in organic agriculture mentioned that constraints for the advancement of research in organic agriculture were institutional rather than technical (Wynen (1997). In other words, technical problems were seen as being surmountable. Gabriel (1994) came to a similar conclusion during a workshop with researchers in sustainable agriculture in the USA. The most important institutional considerations include:
A shift to organic agriculture brings about significant change. First, the composition of the inputs changes. Together with a reduction in the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, an increase of other inputs can occur, such as organic material, labour and machinery. At the same time, rotations change, affecting yields and yield variability, total production and income (both present and future). This, in turns, influences food security, and the environment. Those changes are often influenced by, and influence, social changes within the community. In all cases, farmers will want to evaluate five issues to determine their likelihood of success in organic agriculture.
Labour costs are an important input in the production process. Many studies find that labour can be a major impediment to the adoption of organic agriculture. Lampkin and Padel (1994) noted that, in many European countries, labour costs on organic farms are high, although some of those costs cover marketing and processing activities. In Australia, in contrast, Wynen (1994) found that both in the cereal-livestock and dairy sectors, labour requirements on organic and non-organic establishments were not different.
Projects in the UNDP study (1992) showed labour requirements to be high on some organic farms, especially on plantations, as well as on those organic farms where labour-intensive methods were used, such as composting. In cases with a high opportunity cost for labour (such as on plantations), higher total costs in the organic projects were seen. In some cases, labour and total costs were lower on private organic farms. For example, Werf (1993) found that median labour used on the seven Indian organic farms was lower than on the non-organic farms. However, that was by no means true of all projects in which individual farmers were involved.
If compared to large-scale mechanized agricultural systems, organic systems appear more labour-intensive. This is especially true in areas with low ecological potential. Many techniques used in organic farming require significant labour (e.g., Zai planting pits, strip farming, non-chemical weeding, composting). In the developed world, labour scarcity and costs may deter farmers from adopting organic management systems. This is also true for cash-poor farmers and those supplementing their incomes with off-farm work.
However, where labour is not such a constraint, organic agriculture can provide employment opportunities in rural communities. Furthermore, the diversification of crops typically found on organic farms, with their various planting and harvesting schedules, may result in more work opportunities for women and a more evenly distributed labour demand which helps stabilize employment.
The timing of labour requirement is an important aspect of labour in developing countries. The question whether organic agriculture, with its tendency for diversification of crops, brings with it a more evenly distributed time of labour requirement, is yet to be settled. However, as planting and harvesting dates are not similar for all crops, labour requirements are likely to be spread out over the year.
Another important issue to consider, however, is not the quantity of labour, but the quantity of output per unit of labour, or labour productivity. While organic agriculture is likely to generate good labour productivity, the issue of wage depends on a number of other factors.
Decreasing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides goes together with increasing other inputs. These inputs can be bought or produced on the farm (such as manure), others come in the form of knowledge about actions to be taken (e.g., timing of planting or best rotational combinations,). In addition, the change in the combination of inputs may change the effectiveness of certain processes which influence farm output, such as the cycles of water, nutrients, energy and knowledge (inter-generational). Farmers' knowledge of local conditions and of traditional practices are of key importance in the success of organic agriculture.
Other inputs used are seed or animal breeds, water and energy. The emphasis of crop seeds and animal breeds used in organic agriculture is on local suitability with respect to disease resistance and adaptability to local climate. Due to the change in soil structure and organic matter content under organic management, water efficiency is likely to be high on organic farms. Water scarcity and erosion of agro-biodiversity are indirectly addressed by organic agriculture since this form of agriculture relies mostly on endemic biodiversity that is resilient to local ecological stress (e.g., drought). Studies evaluating the impact of organic agriculture on water security and agro-biodiversity have not been available for this review.
In general, non-renewable energy inputs are used on organic farms. Standards for organic agriculture include environmental degradation as a criterion for acceptance of certain practices. However, there are many conventional farms where environmental pollution is kept to a minimum. In general, in developed countries, the financial cost of inputs (excluding labour) on organic farms can be lower than on many non-organic farms (see Lampkin and Padel 1994), although the magnitude differs between enterprises and countries. The difference is generally greatest in those enterprises where inputs can be readily substituted by low-cost alternatives, as fertilizers by nitrogen-fixing crops or green manure. For those inputs where substitutes are costly, such as labour cost for weeding (often in more intensively grown crops), differences in expenditure on input between organic agriculture and other systems tend to be relatively low, or costs on organic farms can be higher.
In the 21 projects reported in UNDP (1992), the input requirements generally shifted from off-farm to on-farm inputs or inputs available from nearby farms. In a number of cases, livestock became of greater importance to the farm than it had been. However, on a tea plantation, where many soil nutrients were applied, the cost was higher than on the non-organic part of the plantation.
Werf (1993) found the median variable costs on the organic farms in South India to be lower than on the paired non-organic farms, although five of the seven organic farms had higher variable costs (as calculated for all inputs, including those derived from the farm). However, some of the organic farmers adopted organic practices because the cash component of the input costs was lower on the organic farms (50 percent of the calculated cost as compared with 67 percent on High-External Input Agriculture - HEIA - farms). Other methods used in organic agriculture, generally to cope with soil fertility and pest management problems, were evident on the farms in this study. There was a higher diversity of crops and stock on organic farms (measured in number of crops per farm, number of trees per farm, and kinds of livestock on the farm). The number of techniques used to maintain soil fertility (such as deep rooting crops, use of farm-yard and other manure, night soil and compost), and to increase plant diversity (such as intercropping, hedges, alley cropping, cover crops, multistorey cropping) was also greater on organic farms.
Zemp-Tapang (1996) reported on the adoption of organic agriculture practices in Northern Ghana, in one area by an entire village. Her informants, growing mainly sorghum, millet, cowpeas, groundnuts, sweet potato and maize, stressed the importance of substituting fertilizer with organic matter (either in the form of crop residues or composting any organic material available locally).
While not exclusively practiced by organic farmers, crop rotation is required under organic certification programmes and is considered to be the cornerstone of organic management. Agricultural pests are often specific to the host (such as a particular crop), and will multiply as long as the crop is there. Manipulation of crops between years (management by rotations) or within fields (strip-cropping) is therefore an important tool in the quest for management of pest problems, and also for maintaining soil fertility. As the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides allows the farmer to grow the crop which is financially most rewarding, not using those inputs leads to restrictions in choice of crops. The loss in (present) income through a change in rotation is to some degree reflected in, and compensated by, the decrease in input costs. Projects discussed in UNDP (1992) are a good example of the importance of a widening of rotations, and inclusion of more crops or livestock on organic farms, leading to greater diversity on organic farms.
The success of an organic farm depends on the identification of end-uses and/or markets for all the crops in the rotation, as few farmers can afford to leave fields fallow. This remains one of the most significant challenges in organic agriculture.
Lampkin and Padel (1994) gathered a number of studies on the economics of organic agriculture in many developed countries. In their analysis of these studies, it was concluded that yields on organic farms fall within an acceptable range.5 Another finding in Lampkin and Padel (1994) was that, contrary to popular belief, yields on organic farms in the 1990s were significantly higher than those on farms before the 1950s, thus dispelling the notion that organic agriculture is "going back to the past". Part of this progress can, presumably, be attributed to new plant varieties and better knowledge on how to manipulate biological processes within agricultural systems.
A factor which can also make a difference in yields is the time and length of the growth period of a crop. Due to slow mineralization of nitrogen under cool growing-conditions, crops on organic farms have a shortage of nitrogen early in the season. However, in countries where low soil temperature is not a limiting growth factor, as in many developing countries, this factor should not prove significant. The variability of yield and financial returns has been a topic of study in developed countries. Lampkin and Padel (1994), analyzing results of several studies, found no clear indication that the management system is a major factor in the degree of yield and financial variability. They hypothesized that exogenous factors (such as climate) are more likely to be important in this regard.
A growing number of success stories are being recorded. Stable, high yields under organic management were also recorded in the Philippines, where Padilla (1991) found rice yields of 6.1 ton per hectare on Bontoc irrigated rice terraces, without the use of modern cultivars, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Ten years earlier a similar yield (6.2 tons per hectare) was recorded by Omengan (1981; as reported in Padilla (1991)). This compares with 7.3 tons per hectare in IRRI's long-term experiments, including new cultivars and fertilizer (N-P-K:140-30-30) grown in the dry season (no indication was given about yields under irrigation).
Projects in UNDP (1992) showed a varied picture, where especially the export-oriented crops show low yields. Most of these projects were trader-initiated, and therefore possibly more assured of a output premium, so that optimal production was less important. An interesting case with relatively high organic yields was a tea plantation, where considerable resources had gone into the provision of organic matter with a resulting 11 percent increase in yield. This increase was not as spectacular as that reported in some other cases, for example in Burkina Faso, where yield increases in climatically good yields were reported of 10 to 50 percent, and in adverse years of three times that on HEIA fields.
Pretty, Thompson and Hinchcliffe (1996) show high yields for sustainable farming, defined as using low levels of external inputs. Apart from low levels of external inputs used, other characteristics of the projects from which these data originate included: group or collective approaches in production; an emphasis on farmer-centered activities and involvement of women as key producers and facilitators; exclusion of certain activities (such as temporary provisions of subsidies to "buy" the participation of local people); and an emphasis on value-added activities.
Experiences of organic production in ecosystems with low-productivity potential such as in Wardha, India, have demonstrated the potential to double or triple average yields through traditional management (Chetana-Vikas, 1996). The results are of course due to very low initial yields on these lands but such conditions correspond to many countries of the developing world. If similar results were to be achieved in the less endowed regions of the world, present food deficits could be partly resolved. In any case, increased yields are more likely to be achieved if the departure point is a traditional system, even if degraded, rather than a modern system.
It is important to discuss not only yields, but also whole farm production. The total production on the farm is the yield times the area in the different crops or that used for livestock. Usually it is measured per unit of land (hectare), but when other inputs are critical, such as labour or water, these could be judged as being more appropriate as indicators. When measuring production, one also needs to be aware of the concept of net production, especially relevant in developing countries. This refers to the production net of specific inputs, such as the costs of nutrients. It is very easy, for example, to increase the yield of a cow by feeding her concentrates. The question is, however, whether it was worth the extra input. This can be determined by an assessment of the net returns to farming.6
In situations where inputs are subsidized, as fertilizers and pesticides have been in a number of developing countries, the financial returns on organic farms may not be as attractive. Similarly, not counting the environmental and health costs of such inputs as is generally the case, means that organic agriculture is under-valued. It should be realized that, during the conversion process, yields may be lower and investments higher than at a later stage when the organic farm has been established. The net returns to farming can therefore be lower in such a period than later. In the UNDP study several of the case studies were still in the conversion stage.
Protecting soils and enhancing their fertility or land stewardship implies ensuring productive capacity for future generations. Deteriorating soil quality is often quoted by farmers as a major reason for adopting organic management, as in many of the projects described in UNDP (1992) and as referred to by many South Asian NGOs assisting farmers who have adopted the Green Revolution technologies (1996 field observations by Nadia Scialabba). It can, therefore, be assumed that those farmers who adopted organic management practices found a way to improve the quality of their soil within the new management system, or at least stemmed the deterioration. There is sufficient research carried-out to know that organic agricultural methods do have a positive influence on soil quality (see, for example, Reganold (1995); and several papers in Oestergaard (1996) and Kristensen and Hoegh-Jensen (1996)).
However, in the quest to improve soil quality for the future, probably the single most important factor to determine whether farmers are interested in the issue is whether they will benefit from the change. Security of land tenure is, therefore, an extremely important factor in this respect. If security is not guaranteed, there is little reason for farmers to invest in a method that will bring them income in the future rather than immediate rewards.
In organic agriculture in general, and on most of the projects mentioned in UNDP 1992, a diversity of crops are grown and kinds of livestock kept. This diversification means that the risk in variation in production is spread, as different crops react differently to climatic variation, or have different times of growing (both in the time of the year and in length of growing period). This implies that, although there is less chance of a bumper year for all enterprises on organic farms (likely to coincide with relatively low prices), there is also less chance of low production for all crops and livestock simultaneously, thus contributing to food security and stability of food available for consumption. Decreases in the variation of yields has the same effect as a spreading of enterprises.
Food security is not necessarily achieved through food self-sufficiency. Consumers' demand for organically-produced food and sometimes impressive premiums provide new export opportunities for farmers of the developing world, thus increasing their self-reliance. Although few studies have assessed the long-term potential of such market premiums, returns from organic agriculture have the potential, under the right circumstances, to contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes.
Organic agriculture can contribute to local food security in several ways. Organic farmers do not incur high initial expenses so less money is borrowed. Synthetic inputs, unaffordable to an increasing number of resource-poor farmers due to decreased subsidies and the need for foreign currency, are not used. Organic soil improvement may be the only economically sound system for resource-poor, small-scale farmers.
This characteristic of the production process on organic farms means that organic farmer-consumers are less dependent on a factor over which they may have little control, thereby increasing the food security situation. In some of the projects studied in UNDP (1992) low cash costs were cited as a major reason for starting organic agriculture.
Organic farmers forego the use of synthetic fertilizers. Most certification programmes also restrict the use of mineral fertilizers, which can only be used to the extent necessary to supplement organic matter produced on the farm. There are environmental advantages to this: non-renewable fossil energy needs and nitrogen leaching are often reduced. Instead, farmers enhance soil fertility through use of manure (although the kind and its handling has a great effect on nitrogen content and poor usage can create leaching problems), crop residues (e.g. corn stover, rice residues), legumes and green manures, and other natural fertilizers (e.g., rock phosphate, seaweed, guano, wood ash). Disadvantages to discarding synthetic fertilizer must be considered as well: energy needs can escalate if thermal and mechanical weeding or intensive soil tillage is used and, in some cases, organic farmers burn to clear land which reduces fertility. Many resource-poor farmers do not have access to livestock manure, often an important fertility component. Sometimes sewage sludge is used, which may contain pathogens and other contaminants. Finally, some areas in tropical countries may have such low soil fertility that synthetic inputs are necessary.
Organic farmers rely on natural pest controls (e.g. insect pheromones, plants with pest control properties) rather than synthetic pesticides which are known to kill beneficial organisms (e.g., bees, earthworms), cause pest resistance (e.g., in Asia, cotton is sprayed 15-16 times a season versus 5-6 times ten years ago), and oftentimes pollute water and land.
Soil protection techniques used in organic agriculture (e.g., terracing in the humid tropics, cover crops) combat soil erosion, compaction, salinization, and degradation of soils, especially through the use of crop rotations and organic materials which improve soil fertility and structure (including beneficial microbial influence and soil particle evolution). Integrating trees and shrubs into the farm system also conserves soil and water and provides a defense against unfavourable weather conditions such as winds, droughts, and floods.
Techniques used in organic agriculture also reduce water pollution and help conserve water on the farm. A few developed countries subsidize or compel farmers to undertake organic production as a solution to water quality problems. In certain areas around Muenchen (Germany) farmers are paid to convert to organic agriculture in a bid to maintain drinking water quality of the city (Heid 1997). In Brittany (Northern France) whole valleys are compelled to convert to organic agricultural management as drinking water is found to be of unacceptable quality (Egmont-Florian 1997).
Organic agriculture requires a diversity of crops and livestock. Many indigenous food crops (e.g., yam, sorghum, millet, oil palm, cashew, mango) supplanted by monoproduction of cash crops, pseudocereals (e.g. amaranth, buckwheat, chenopods), grain legumes (e.g., adzuki, faba, hyacinth beans) and other under-utilized plants, many of great value, can be reintroduced through crop rotations. This contributes to whole farm health, provides conservation of important genotypes, and creates habitats for beneficial species.
Although inappropriate management of inputs used in organic agriculture may be detrimental to the environment (such as an excess of manure or compost affecting water quality), one of the aims of this management system is to "minimize all forms of pollution that may result from agricultural practices". Standards are, therefore, expected to reflect local conditions so that pollution is minimized. For example, restrictions on the number of livestock or amount of manure to be used per unit of land are not exceptional.
The social impact of a change towards organic agriculture is recognized as an important aspect as witnessed by its inclusion in IFOAM's Principle Aims (see Box 2). However, it has been argued that, at present, these are areas of peripheral attention, as compared to the scientific aspects of the management system. The following are some of the issues:
5. The study found that the greater the output per hectare in High External Input Agriculture (HEIA), the larger the difference in yields between the systems. This factor is of great interest in connection with developing countries, as on many farms optimal production conditions do not exist in any case. This point is borne out by Werf (1993), who found that the median yields over two years were higher on organic farms for 4 out of the 5 crops. Some of these were considerably higher (such as 54 percent for paddy rice), while the median for finger millet, the only crop with lower yields, was 7 percent lower on organic farms.
6 . In the UNDP study (1992) results on the net returns to farming are somewhat mixed. Out of the 11 projects, 9 show an increase in net income on the organic enterprises, and 2 a decrease. When premiums are deducted, 5 of the 11 organic projects showed higher net returns than non-organic farms. Werf (1993) found the median gross income (calculated on the basis of all products, including those consumed domestically, and based on local, non-premium, prices) to be higher for non-organic farms than for the organic farms, although 4 of the 7 organic farms had a higher gross income per hectare than their neighbour. However, those organic farmers also had higher variable costs per hectare (as mentioned above), which led to a median gross margin (gross income minus variable costs) lower for organic farms. The median net cash income per hectare (gross margin minus fixed costs) and the returns per person day were higher on organic farms. Five organic farmers had a higher net income per hectare than their neighbour.