Recently, while appearing on Kampala F.M’s Hard Talk show program, a caller asked me a question on whether Uganda should go organic or GMO? GMO in full is Genetically Modified Organisms. For the benefit of those who did not listen in, the answer for me is that organic is the way to go because Uganda clearly has a comparative and competitive advantage in organic agriculture as opposed to GMOs. I also then quipped that GMO would work alongside organic only and if Uganda crafts and legislates an elaborate biosafety policy. I will return to this issue in future. I will today focus on organic food production which I strongly believe can be Uganda’s strategic flagship and roll coaster sub sector that can deliver Ugandan farmers to prosperity. Through backward and forward linkages, deliberate and incidental spill-over, majority citizenry can benefit from this enterprise.
What then is organic food production? For starters, it refers to the growing or production of crops without use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers and other off farm inputs. For animals, it means they are reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones. In other words, organic food production must not be genetically modified. A more technical definition of organic production looks at it as, an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. The tools and practices of organic agriculture include traditional alternatives like crop rotation, manuring and liming.
Organic farming enhances soil structures, conserves water and ensures the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Organic agriculture adheres to globally accepted principles, which are implemented within local socio-economic, climatic and cultural settings. Agricultural contaminants such as inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides from conventional agriculture are a major concern all over the world. Eutrophication, the suffocation of aquatic plants and animals due to rapid growth of algae, referred to as "algae blooms", are literally killing lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. Persistent herbicides and insecticides can extend beyond target weeds and insects when introduced into aquatic environments. These chemicals have accumulated up the food chain whereby top predators often consume toxic dosages. Organic agriculture restores the environmental balance and has none of these or other such deleterious effects on the environment
A recent study conducted by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) supported by European Union through the Capacity Building Task Force (CBTF) of the United Nations Environment (UNEP) and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCTAD) documents that in Uganda, demand for organic products has been growing considerably over the years. In 2004/2005, export of organic agricultural products were estimated to be in a range of US$6.2 million having risen from US$ 3.7 million 2003/04. The range of products being exported include fresh vegetables, fresh tropical fruits, dried fruits, coffee, tea, cotton, sesame, spices, honey and other forest products. Major market destinations for organic agricultural products include the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Uganda therefore has tremendous potential of harnessing this immensely growing organic production market. To date, the organic agricultural sub sector has registered dramatic growth over the last few years at a rate of 38% per annum. Uganda is presently estimated to have 45,000 certified organic agricultural farmers and an estimated 185,000 hectares of land certified for organic farming.
Uganda has a strategic comparative advantage due to her conducive weather conditions that support organic agriculture allowing increased production without resorting to non-agriculture inputs. Secondly, Uganda currently has the lowest agro-chemical usage in Africa estimated at less that 2% compared to an average of 5% for East Africa. The country has the biggest amount of organically certified acreage in Africa standing at approximately 122,000 hectares. Therefore, a robust organic agricultural sub – sector would increase income opportunity for the poor, stabilize the environment and increase export earnings.
However, these tremendous opportunities exist with no specific policy geared at enhancing organic production. The country therefore, needs to strengthen organic production potential through supportive macro and micro economic policies, adequate budget allocation, favorable tax regimes, farmer education and sensitization, export sector competitiveness, strategic zoning for agriculture production and agro-processing and marketing. In addition, growth in the organic sub-sector could be made more elastic by undertaking measures to increase the number of organic agricultural producers and traders, undertaking strategic research and development activities focusing on identified products and scaling up the documentation and utilization of traditional knowledge practices.
It is also important to note that standardization and certification lie at the heart of organic production and marketing. Organic products cannot sell in international market like the U.S, Europe and Japan unless they adhere to clearly set standards of quality and quantity requirements. Over 85% of farmers in Uganda practice defacto organic production without certification. This means that they cannot easily sell in international markets. Uganda also has only one recognized certification body – Ugocert, which is not enough to certify the majority of farmers who practice defacto organic production.
There is therefore a need to address the specific constraints to organic production and market access to the growing international market, particularly through standardization and certification. The international Trade Centre has projected that by 2010, the organic agriculture markets could reach US$46 billion in Europe, US$ 45 billion in the United States and US$ 11 billion in Japan. Uganda must position its self to reap from these surging opportunities that have of recent been surged by the global food prices. There is an urgent need for investment in terms of policy direction and budget allocations. The current process of drafting the policy is a significant step in the right direction. The proposed policy actions must be practical and time bound.