Organic farming starts to bear fruit
Supporters of organic farming have welcomed a government initiative to regulate and support the sector, saying sustainable production of healthy food will become mainstream.
The departments of agriculture and trade and industry are circulating for comment a draft policy on organic farming that promises to promote the practice among emerging black farmers and provide training.
The initiative has led to the registration of a non-profit SA Organic Sector Organisation (SAOSO) to try to end fragmentation in the industry.
SAOSO spokesman Ian Robinson said: "We will lobby for the far-reaching benefits of organics, from more efficient water use to carbon sequestration and the health benefits of better nutrition and reduced agro-chemical toxins."
He said food grown according to organic principles - without pesticides or herbicides, but with compost - would reduce disease and ease the burden on the healthcare system.
"The agro-chemical and biotech industries continue to invest heavily in promoting unsustainable and harmful practices," said Robinson, "Astoundingly, two-thirds of South Africa's conventional maize is GM (genetically modified), while Europe has banned GM organisms."
Among the issues addressed in the draft policy, which has been two years in the making, is a process to certify farms producing organic food.
Certification is now carried out by a range of private companies that charge high prices for their services.
"High certification costs act as barriers to new entrants in the sector, especially resource-poor smallholders," the policy document says.
Liz Eglington, an organic farmer in the Little Karoo who helped draft the policy, said it proposed keeping the current certification system for exports but introducing the new system for the local market.
"What we are pushing for is the participatory guarantee system - you set up sustainable organic communities, then you have a selection of people from that community who go and inspect farms," she said.
This inspection team might include a local farmer, a retailer and a consumer.
"They will want to know - 'You say your chickens are free range, I want to see. Are these chickens happy?'"
Eglington said the changes to the certification process might be controversial among agencies now providing the service as it threatened their domination of the system.
"The Department of Agriculture has said there are three sectors as far as they are concerned in agriculture, each as important as the other," said Eglington.
"Before this, organics was a poor little cousin who was thought to be a bit weird, too expensive and elitist, and actually just a lot of rubbish. Now they're saying we have equal importance with agro-chemical commercial farming and GM."
Eglington praised the new emphasis on education about organics in schools.
"That's the magic here ... There will be a new effort to get people farming sustainably, ethically and with nature," she said. "There will be support, there will be training. I think it's going to explode."
- Copies of the draft policy document can be obtained by sending an e-mail headed "organic policy" to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for comments is November 30.