interviewBy Femi Ibirogba
Dr Olugbenga AdeOluwa is the Vice-President of the Association of Organic Agriculture Practitioners of Nigeria (AOAPN). He spoke with Head of Agro-Economy Desk, FEMI IBIROGBA on what organic agriculture implies, how it can feed the growing population and dangers inherent in genetically modified crops and animals.
You have been promoting organic agriculture in Nigeria, but many people, including academics like you, have expressed reservations about the possibility of feeding about 200 million Nigerians with organic foods. What do you think?
I think those that are insinuating that organic agriculture cannot feed the whole population of Nigerians do not understand what they are saying. Many of them do not understand what organic production is all about. We are talking about sustainable land use in a way that can also be intensified. It sustains whatever resources we have for farming in crops, livestock or wild management and production so that whatever we have today, we can use tomorrow and our children in the future can still use these resources.
This has been practised in many countries of the world and we have found that it is sustainable, but the challenge is that people criticising it do not really understand it, including professors of agriculture.
Can you then shed more light on organic agriculture?
Organic agriculture has been defined by different organisations to reflect principles and expectations of each. Some of these important definitions are below.
IFOAMS-Organics International defines organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which enhances agro-ecosystem health, utilizing both traditional and scientific knowledge. Organic agricultural system relies on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs.
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasises the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems.
The European Union (EU) defines organic production as an overall system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, the application of high animal welfare standards and a production method in line with the preference of certain consumers for products produced using natural substances and processes.
It has many definitions depending on different ideologies and schools of thoughts. I will synchronize these definitions into a lay-man’s language by saying organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the ecosystem and promotes good health. We mean the health of the farmers, the consumers and the environment. We are talking about a sustainable production system that depends on judicious use of environmental resources in a way that is not hazardous to humans. It combines both scientific and traditional forms of knowledge that have been preserving the ecosystem for years.
What are the major indicators of organic agriculture, for some people believe that in it, there is no use of improved varieties, pesticides, fertiliser and other agro-chemicals?
Those are the various misconceptions about organic agriculture. It does not mean you cannot use fertiliser, high-yielding varieties or insecticides. What organic agriculture promotes is that, should it happen that you have to use these, you have to use organic fertiliser, pesticides, and improved seeds that have been done in natural ways, but not genetically modified or dangerous chemicals. It uses conventional breeding of natural segregation, aggregation and recombination of genes. It is not that they are picking cells in animals and putting them in plants.
Organic agriculture even involves mechanical devices for weed control, land preparation and preservation. It is not the old-time agriculture that we are used to. It is not.
How can one differentiate organic farm products from non-organics?
The major indicator is the whole audit of the system. Facially, one cannot differentiate between organic and inorganic farm products. You will have to audit the system before you can differentiate. Let us take vegetables for examples. You can get vegetables from a farmer claiming to have produced such organically. I am a trained organic inspector. Therefore, I have to investigate how he produces it. I have to find out where he got the seeds, which fertiliser, pesticides and weeding methods he used. Organic standards must be followed.
Do you have the database of farmers practising organic agriculture in Nigeria?
To some extent, we have, especially of members of the Association of Organic Agricultural Practitioners of Nigeria. But we are also aware that there are other farmers somewhere trying to do something similar but are not yet captured.
How many members do you have?
I do not have the number handy now. Based on the captured organic land in the country, Nigeria has about 55,000 hectares of land used for organic production.
Can you give us an insight into the financial value of the organic market in Nigeria or around the world?
In the world today, the global value is around $92 billion per annum. It has skyrocketed since 1990. The strict standards that producers have to follow either in crops, animal production or processing ensure that people are healthy. This has been the driving force behind the rising demand. When it comes to the value, it depends on whether it is for exports or local markets. The market, most of the times, determines the financial value.
The domestic market in Nigeria, except in Lagos and Abuja, has not put premium value on organic products. Traditionally, middlemen would buy from farmers at the farm gates and sell at higher prices. So, farmers do not make gains. What the organic supply chain is doing now is to bridge the gap between the producers and the consumers.
How does a farmer get certified for producing organic foods?
We have our association at the stale levels. If a farmer wants to get certified, he would contact the state chapter and the chapter will conduct training and audit, and the certificate is issued nationally, for integrity and quality assurance.
There is a controversial GMO cowpea variety approved in Nigeria, and people say it is dangerous while others counter that there is nothing wrong with it. What do you see?
I think we should not deceive one another. At the global level today, there is no sufficient information to prove that the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) would not turn to something else in the nearest future. What the GMO technology does is taking genes from other species entirely and put them in plants or animals, and the concern about this is that you can have a recombination of genes in generations of the species and nobody is sure what the effect could be. It could become anything. It is risky. It could turn to anything else. In countries where they plant them, they do not eat them.
What do they do with the products?
Well, they sell, maybe to food-insecure countries and some sell to poor people. But those that are aware and have good consumer knowledge do not eat them.
Look at the issue of glyphosate, herbicide which has been in use for years. Until scientific evidences come linking glyphosate to cancer, the report that it was causing cancer was rejected eight years before the linking evidences were presented. The report was rubbished until everybody could see the link.
With conventional agriculture, Nigeria has not been able to feed itself, based on the volumes of imports. Can organic now perform the magic?
I think that statement is relative. The issue of importation has different dimensions. It has policy and right orientation dimensions.
What have we done specially in rice that we are said to have become largest producers in Africa? How much of fertiliser have the farmers used? We have only changed our policy and orientation. We are popularising what we have. In organic agriculture, it can happen the same way.