February 9, 2009 / 4:02 PM / 11 years ago

More organic food production could help Africa--UN

GENEVA, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Demand for organic foods will keep growing despite the world economic crisis, creating an opportunity for farmers in poor countries, the United Nations’ trade and development agency said on Monday.

In a research note, UNCTAD projected that sales of certified organic products would reach $67 billion in 2012, up from $46 billion in 2007 and about $23 billion in 2002.

“Even in this current economic crisis, where demand for most products is dropping fast, demand for organic products continues to grow,” it said.

Sales of organic fruits, vegetables, grains, eggs and meats — produced without synthetic fertilisers and pesticides — shot up in past years on claims the food is healthier, tastes better and causes less ecological damage than conventional agriculture.

The typically pricier products have lost some momentum as a result of economic stress in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, hurting some specialist retailers such as Whole Foods Market WFMI.O. But organics remain broadly popular among rich-market consumers, especially parents of young children.

UNCTAD said the resilient interest in ecologically-friendly production represents an opportunity for developing nations, who produce and export a large share of the world’s organic goods.

Poor-country farmers, who often struggle to compete against their subsidised and technologically advanced counterparts in Europe and the United States, could benefit from growing and exporting more organic foods.

“Studies from Africa, Asia, and Latin America indicate that organic farmers earn more than their conventional counterparts,” it said, estimating that organic foods carry price premiums for farmers ranging from 30 to 200 percent.

In Africa, where the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says agriculture accounts for 57 percent of employment but just 11 percent of export earnings, UNCTAD said ecological farming techniques could have an especially large impact.

“Organic production is ... particularly well-suited for smallholder farmers, who comprise the majority of Africa’s poor,” it found.

Using more natural techniques such as composting, mulching, and crop rotation could help African crops yield two to four times more than they now do, UNCTAD said, citing soil scientists.

Drawing on a study of 331 Ugandan farmers, it concluded that “conversion to organic was fairly easy, involved little risk and required few, if any, fixed investments. The organic households became more food-secure due to higher incomes.”

Between 20 and 24 percent of the world’s organic farms are now located in Africa, a continent whose lagging food production has drawn the attention of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in recent years.

Only about 14 percent of Africa’s 184 million hectares of arable land is under cultivation, according to FAO statistics. (Editing by Giles Elgood)

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