There is a massive move towards buying and selling organically-grown meat and produce. Global awareness and concern has escalated around what is going into our food. South Africa’s agricultural industry has been caught up in the organic farming movement, becoming one of the fastest growing segments in the local food sector. This growth is projected to continue.
Here is an outline of the local industry and its impact on agriculture.
What is the organic farming industry?
The South African organic sector has 250 certified farms across 45 000 hectares of land, accounting for 0.05% of the country’s total agricultural area. The domestic market, as well as surrounding southern African states, is quite dependent on the organic industry originating from South Africa.
But what exactly is organic farming? Essentially it is producing goods in harmony with nature without the use of harmful chemicals and genetic engineering. Instead, the growth of produce relies on existing ecological processes and biodiversity, combining innovation and science for the overall benefit of everything involved. Methods of organic farming include biological insecticides, planting to attract insects which ward off unwanted pests as well as rotating crops between fields.
When it comes to the farming of livestock, organic farming also involves chemical-free land and water, as well as practising good, free-range animal welfare throughout breeding, rearing and handling.
Organic produce farming
Organic farming is a delicate ecological balance which starts with improved soil fertility, promoted by use of compost, cover crops, crop rotation, manuring and mulching without use chemical agents. By feeding the soil, the farmer is essentially feeding the plants, so attaining the perfect balance of micronutrients results in healthy plants. A good soil structure also means improved water filtration and retention, withstanding the effects of erosion. Farmers have to slowly introduce organic methods when building up the soil, as complete removal of pesticides and herbicides results in low yields and increased weeds. This process can take up to three years.
Organic meat farming
Considered particularly high quality meat, the organic livestock agricultural sector demands grazing in a free-range environment as well as the humane treatment of animals. To reach certification levels, the meat must be free of any chemicals, antibiotics and hormones, and stocked separately. Organic animals live harmoniously within the environment and the working conditions for organic farmers are much better than those who deal with toxins.
Certification and support
In South Africa, there are two certification agencies, Afrisco and Ecocert. Afrisco, which is associated with Ecocert, is in the process of becoming ISO accredited, empowering it to attain EU certification.
The Organic Agricultural Association of South Africa (OAASA) and the Biodynamic Agricultural Association of South Africa (BDAASA) are non-profit organisations which assist the organic agricultural sector in the country.
Any certified organic product is from a farm which has been inspected by an independent, specialist certification agency. Transitioning to an organic farm can take about three years. During this time, producers can state they are ‘organic in conversion’. Any certification programme should provide their standards upon request and will usually comply with the International Federation of Organic Movement (IFOAM) standards.
Certified organic produce requirements:
- No harmful chemicals used in three years
- Farmer keeps detailed records of their practices and have an audit trail
- Farmer uses ecologically-friendly methods and substances to improve the soil and control pests
- Farm has annual certification inspections
Benefits of transitioning to organic
While transitioning to organic farming can be time-consuming and sometimes costly transition, there are many benefits associated with the move. The first improvement many farmers note is the soil which is softer and less compacted. There is also an increase in beneficial insects and birds, with weeds appearing – although they probably won’t affect crop yields as expected. Without the use of toxic chemicals, the farmer and workers will experience improved health and lower risk of life-threatening diseases. Although initial outlay might be expensive, there are fewer input costs with organic farming, improving the overall finances.
Another massive benefit of organic farming is that methods can be easily taught to people with no previous agricultural experience. This empowers people living in primarily rural areas with the ability to create subsistence gardens at a low cost.
Challenges of transitioning to organic
For the most part, the biggest challenge is converting to organic thinking, particularly for farmers driven by financial incentives. If farmers are not invested in the overall environmental benefits of organic farming, then they may give up before the three-year mark. However, those that push through should see huge benefits by the fourth or fifth year.
One of the biggest criticisms of organic farming is its inability to create massive yields. However, this is only true in the short-term. Over time, organic production is much more consistent, more environmentally sustainable and boosts local economies.
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