Organic agriculture can be a winner Editorial
Stabroek News
February 26, 2002

A very topical issue on the agricultural front these days is Guyana's "potential" for organic agriculture. Spurred by the visit of HRH Prince Charles two years ago and a commitment he made to purchase organically grown cocoa for his Duchy Originals organic food company (from which proceeds of sales fund his many charitable projects throughout the world), the government has plunged into the concept with a flurry. A national organic agriculture policy document has been prepared and a five-year organic development programme envisaging the production of passion fruit, papaya, shaddock, cashew, honey and a variety of vegetables is being developed. The British Government has also jumped on board by providing tangible support to the organic cocoa project in Region l and, more recently, facilitated the visit of a soil scientist from Soil Association, a major lobby and certifying body for organic agriculture, to evaluate Guyana's potential for organic agriculture. Even Mash 2002 this year will take on the fad when the Ministry of Fisheries, Crops and Livestock's two hundred and fifty member band hits the streets with portrayals that expound the virtues of organic foods.

There is sufficient information at hand to convince even the non-health conscious public of the benefits of eating natural foods. But, it would be useful to clarify what organic really means. Definitions abound and range from the basic, "foods in which no manufactured pesticides, fertilisers or herbicides have been used to grow them and with no chemicals added to keep them fresh", to the complicated, "organic agriculture is holistic production management systems which promotes and enhances agroecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity" or "organic production systems are based on specific and precise standards of production which aim at achieving optimal agro-ecosystems which are socially, ecologically and economically sustainable", and even to the snobbish, "organic food means quality food which has not been spoilt by pesticides, fertilisers and a wide range of other 'nasties'". Within the gamut of definitions proffered, the commonality lies in the restriction of the use of artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the maintenance of healthy soils and sustainable production systems. HRH Prince Charles sums it up beautifully with the statement "Organic farming delivers the highest quality, best tasting food, produced without artificial chemicals, genetic modification, and with respect for animal welfare and environment, while helping to maintain the landscape and rural communities".

With such convincing arguments and the growing number of health disorders linked to the foods we eat, it is no wonder that retail sales of organic products have grown steadily. The Organic Trade Association (a membership based business association representing the organic industry in Canada, the US and Mexico) estimated the growth at 23% per annum in the US in the l990s and projected an increase in sale value from US $9.3 billion in 200l to $20 billion by 2005. Soil Association projects even higher growth of the organic food industry in the United Kingdom, reporting a l00% annual growth since l998. In Germany organic food sales are estimated at US $2.l billion and in the United Kingdom, Italy and France they stand at US $l billion each. Though significant, organic foods still constitute a very small share of the total food market, representing just about l% of total food sales. Nevertheless, these developments provide exciting prospects for small developing countries such as Guyana. A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report entitled "World Markets for Organic Fruit and Vegetables" states "The economies of many developing countries are dependent on the export of a relatively small number of (mostly agricultural) commodities. Diversification of agricultural production is of utmost importance. Consumption of organic foods is expected to outgrow domestic production in developed countries, which will leave room for significant organic imports".

Thus a new window of opportunity beckons and we welcome the news that the government is preparing to place some emphasis in its diversification programme on the production of organic foods. Let's face it, commercial large scale agriculture, as exists for rice and sugar, is not a reality for the other agriculture sub-sector of Guyana in the short to medium term, and the more realistic options lie in the specialty foods and organic markets where smaller quantities can be sold at premium prices. And we do not envisage a significant surge in demand for organic foods by Guyanese consumers, given that there is no national outcry and lobby group for safe and healthy foods. One often shudders over stories told about the indiscriminate use of chemicals via cocktails (mindless of the chemical reactions taking place), or under the notion "the more the better" or by lack of adherence to manufacturers' instructions on length of withdrawal periods. Guyana does not even have the facilities to optimally test for chemical residues in food. Penalties on food manufacturers are almost always based on the presence of biological agents, and for this we must commend the Government Food Analyst Department for trying to maintain standards with the limited resources available. So we must aim for North American and European markets where consumers are that much more health conscious and willing to pay higher prices for quality assured foods. But they are also sceptical and will be particularly so relative to food coming from developing countries and the certification systems employed. Remember, too, that they are not simply demanding organic foods, but strict adherence to quality control with instituted Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems and application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures for food that is disease free. One mistake on our part could have disastrous consequences on our future as an organic food producer.

Caution must also be sounded in the choice of areas selected by the Ministry for organic production. Regions l, 2, 9 and the Essequibo islands are quite obviously the ideal areas given the fact that agriculture in these areas has traditionally been organic and sustainable. But lack of transportation, infrastructure and electrical power will limit the choice of commodities, restrict processing options and reduce overall competitiveness. It would seem more practicable to develop some organic growing zones on the coast involving groups of farmers who can be trained and certified. The Guyana Sugar Corporation will produce its first organic crop of sugarcane this year at its Uitvlugt estate. If such a large industry with inherent complexities in the field and factory relative to separation of organic and non-organic canes can accomplish such a feat, then so too can the growers of other crops on the coast.

Lastly, we urge the Ministry to steadfastly stay on course and keep the programme in focus. Guyanese are tired of political promises, acts of expediency and photo ops for the ministers. We would not like the programme to die a natural death, as have so many other initiatives which were embarked on with pseudo-enthusiasm in the past. For example, we are still waiting for the promises to materialise on the pineapple processing plant, the coconut water plant, large scale cashew nut production in the Rupununi, availability of plants at the government nurseries and the development of the Intermediate Savannahs, to name a few. We believe that organic agriculture, risky and difficult though it may be, is a "potential" winner. Let's run with it.