Highlight 2016: Biovision approach validated

The long-term study in Kenya by FiBL, the Research Institute of Organic Study has shown that organic farming methods can achieve comparable yields to conventional methods. It can also increase the incomes of farmers in the longer term.

The study in Thika and Chuka has been running since 2007 with local partners. It has clearly refuted the myth that organic agriculture needs more land to achieve the same yields. With lower production costs and higher selling prices, the profit from commercial organic farming exceeds that from conventional intensive agricultural systems from the fifth year onwards; after 6 years, the overall financial return is 53 % higher (see graph).

The study also shows that organic methods of cultivation improve soil fertility. In addition, the absence of chemical inputs generally has a positive effect on natural eco-systems and human health. In parallel with its work in Kenya, FiBL is also conducting long-term research into cotton production in India and coffee in Bolivia. Here too, the results for organic methods have been encouraging. The long-term systems comparison in tropical countries (SysCom) is designed to provide scientific evidence of the advantages and potential of organic methods and so allow the development of suitable programmes for the sustainable use of land.

The scientific long-term study is comparing
organic and conventional systems of farming in Kenya.

Training and the dissemination of knowledge

The study in Kenya has a practical focus; the aim is not to compare industrial agriculture with highly specialised methods of organic farming. Rather it is comparing conventional farming systems with changes to crop rotation and other sustainable methods. This means that some of the results from the two methods are very similar. However, viewed in their entirety, the study clearly shows that the organic approach is a viable development model in tropical countries; in this context, it is important to expand further the dissemination of relevant knowledge and practical training.

The spread of practical knowledge on sustainable agriculture is crucial to the work of Biovision to help small-scale farmers in Africa improve their living conditions. Biovision is providing financial support for the longterm study in Kenya, as are the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) the Liechtenstein Development Service (LED) and the COOP Fund for Sustainability in Switzerland.

In addition to the long-term study, which will continue until 2020, additional research is being conducted on the farms themselves. Its aim is to develop locally adapted agricultural practices for sustainable systems of cultivation. In conjunction with local farmers, a series of field trials are being conducted on farms and research fields in order to trial innovative practices under real-life conditions and also incorporate farmers into the research process. Support for the development of locally adapted, sustainable agricultural methods and the dissemination of this knowledge to farmers are at the heart of the Farmer Communication Programme (FCP) run by the Biovision Africa Trust (BvAT) in Nairobi and supported by the Biovision Foundation.

Over the next 6 years, it will collect, analyse and evaluate relevant input and output data.

More research needed on external costs

David Amudavi, Director of BvAT in Nairobi considers that the research and the results to date from the long-term study are extremely useful in terms of encouraging sustainable food production in Africa. “This scientific evidence shows that our work offers a promising approach to efforts to improve food security,” says Dr Amudavi in summing up the initial findings.

“The systems comparison does not throw light on every aspect of the food system and further research is both important and essential, e.g. into the nutritional value of foodstuffs and the effects on human health. Similarly, we urgently need more research into the external costs of conventional methods and the intensive use of chemicals – costs to the environment, climate change and human health,” argued Dr Amudavi at the presentation of the SysCom results in June in Kenya.

We need more locally adapted farming methods based on agro-ecological principles. However, organic farming methods remain of marginal importance in terms of global agricultural research. The need for research is enormous and the finance will have to come primarily from governments as the agroindustry shows little interest in these methods. The development of sustainable farming systems as a way of ending hunger and improving global food security is a central tenet of both Agenda 2030 and the work of Biovision.

The representative of SDC in Nairobi, Lukas Rüttimann, also takes the view that the SysCom study is making an important contribution to the UN Sustainability Development Goals: “In particular, if we are to achieve SDG 2 – ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’ – we need robust, scientific studies,” says Rüttimann. “This system comparison is, therefore, extremely valuable in terms of the future development of sustainable farming systems in East Africa”.