GENET archive


2-Plants: Organic cotton is possible and highly profitable in Zambia

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Br. Paul's Organic Cotton and Vegetable Farm
SOURCE: Institute for Science in Society, Uk, Press Release, by Mae-Wan Ho
DATE:   4 Nov 2005

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Br. Paul's Organic Cotton and Vegetable Farm

Jesuit brother breaks all the rules he learned in agricultural college,
and shows how to bring food security to the world

Organic cotton is possible and highly profitable

Brother Paul Desmarais of the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre of
Lusaka in Zambia is a happy man. He has just demonstrated that cotton can
be grown organically, and furthermore, at yields up to more than twice
the national average. That is quite an achievement as cotton is notorious
for consuming the most agrochemicals of any crop, some 21 percent of that
consumed worldwide; and most people have been led to believe that cotton
cannot be grown without chemical sprays.

"I am confident that anyone can grow cotton organically in Zambia", says
Br. Paul, beaming from ear to ear. You need to do only two things:
increase the fertility of the soil with organic matter, and put extra
local plant species into the cotton fields to control insect pests."

Plants that are sick or doing poorly will be the first to succumb to
insect pests; so keeping a crop healthy with fertile soil reduces insect

The species inter-planted with the cotton crop are those that attract
pests away from the cotton crop or beneficial predators, or provide home
for beneficial predators; many species serving both purposes. For
example, munsale (sweet sorghum) attracts bollworm and aphids as well as
a host of beneficial insects; nyemba (cowpeas) provides a habitat and
food source for ants and predatory wasps, and also attracts the pests
leafhoppers, aphids and bollworms; sanyembe (sunhemp) is highly
attractive to beneficial insects as a border crop and controls nematodes
as well. Delele (okra) attracts bollworms, caterpillars and leaf eaters;
milisi (maize) traps aphids on tassels and bollworms; mupilu (mustard)
attracts beneficial hover flies and parasitic wasps as well as aphids on
which they feed. Malanga (sunflower) attracts bollworm moths to lay eggs,
and the beneficial lacewings that feed on aphids. A horizontal row
containing a mixture of all these were planted for every 20 rows of
cotton in the field bordered by sunnhemp on two sides. A host of other
species can be planted, adding to the diversity of the farm. A variety of
trees, such as Sesbania , Leucaena , and other indigenous species can act
as windbreaks and provide habitat for farmers' friends and provide
material for composting and making teas.

The experiments started in 2003/04, planted in the Kasisi Centre, and in
farmers' fields in Chongwe district (see Table 1). The yields are
calculated per 0.25 ha in the first instance to make the different size
plots comparable. The two grades were from one harvest and refers to the
quality of the cotton, The cotton companies pay more for grade A and less
for grade B, and still less for grade C. The yield in KATC was twice the
national average. Good yields were also obtained in the farmers' plots in
Lusoke and Mulalika. In Old Kasenga and Ndubulula, the poor yields were
due to insufficient weed control and late planting respectively.

Table 1. Yield of organic cotton in 2003/04

The economics of organic cotton from the KATC was compared with that of
conventional cotton in the villages (Table 2). As can be seen, the net
profit from organic production was more than twice that of conventional.
The organic plots not only gave higher yield in the main cotton crop,
they also provided harvests from the inter-planted species that could be sold.

The input costs for the organic plots were higher due to the extra labour
and costs of preparing composts and manure teas. Less cottonseed is used
in the organic fields due to inter-planting, but the yield was still
higher. If the cotton were sold on the organic market, it would fetch a
premium and increase income still further for the household.

Table 2. Comparing the economics of organic and conventional cotton in 2004

In the following year, 2004/05, only grade A cotton was harvested. The
yields went down because of the poor rainy season (see Table 2); but they
were still better than the conventional national average for that year,
which was 580 kg/ha. The seed cotton was tested for staple length,
strength, etc., and the results were slightly better than most
conventionally grown seed cotton samples. So even with the lower prices
paid that year (as market price had gone down), farmers were still able
to record a profit because of the lower input costs.

Table 3. Yield of organic cotton in 2004/05

Organic vegetables that increased in yield year by year

Kasisi has actually been growing organic vegetables several years before,
and the results are even more stunning. Land was contracted out to a
company which started growing in 2000, the organic yields were 40 to 60
percent those of conventionally grown crops, but increased in successive
years while those of convention crops decreased. By 2004, the organics
were out-yielding the conventionals by 2 to 3 fold (see Table 4).

Table 4. Average yields for organic and conventionally grown vegetables

While yield increased year by year under organic management, production
costs decreased (Table 5), partly on account of setting up costs during
the first year, such as liming and rock phosphate amendments, and partly
because the labour required for pest control diminished as soil fertility
and plant health improved from compost and green manure, and the organic
integrated pest management regime became more mature and effective in
preventing pest attacks. The carrot crop was introduced when the soil
fertility had already been built up, so there is little or no difference
in production costs over the three successive years.

Table 5. Production costs of organic vegetables over a five-year period

Farmers' own open pollinated varieties outperform commercial hybrids

Hybrid seeds are sold by companies for their potential to give higher
yields than non-hybrid seeds. But because they do not breed true, farmers
must purchase the seeds from the companies every year if they want to
keep up the same performance. In contrast, non-hybrid seeds, or open
pollinated varieties (OPVs), though lower yielding, have allowed the
farmers to save and replant seeds every year. That is what every student
of agriculture and genetics has been told, and it has become a dogma
among academic plant scientists that open pollinated varieties can never
yield as much as hybrids.

Br. Paul has proven them wrong. OPVs, obtained from local small-scale
farmers who have been saving them for years, gave yields equal or better
than some hybrid varieties grown under the same organic management
regime. Table 6 shows the yields of OPV and hybrid maize under organic

Table 6. Comparing OPV and hybrid maize under organic management

The high yields from OPVs show that they perform better in low external
input systems, as opposed to hybrids that require high external inputs to
fulfil their high yielding potentials. That is good news for small-scale
farmers, not only in providing food security, but also the right to save,
exchange and replant their own seeds, which they have had for millennia,
instead of depending on the companies, and worse, in the case of GM
crops, pay extra "technology fees".

"We are told that hybrid maize seeds will yield three times as much as
the OPVs." Br. Paul says, "But one member of staff at Kasisi last year
planted an OPV maize variety using compost and manure teas as fertiliser.
Well he has been able to sell his surplus maize to his neighbour who
planted hybrid maize seed and used fertiliser. Who has food security?"

"Some farmers do even better. Another family went into organic production
since 1998, and has been able to buy a donkey, a bicycle, roofing sheets,
a colour TV, a maize grinding mill, and pay for the university fees of a
daughter." Br. Paul continues, "They were able to feed themselves when
they farmed conventionally, but never had any money left over. They
produced food for the house and managed to repay the fertilizer loan, but
after going into organic production, they have much more money at their

Unlearning his lessons at university Br. Paul was raised on a farm in
Southwestern Ontario in Canada, one of the most productive farming areas
in the country. He says, "My dad used a lot of fertilisers and chemicals.
We were modern farmers like many others in the area, quick to adopt new
technologies, using more and more fertilisers every year, applying
herbicides and spraying for pests in large tomato field."

Br. Paul majored in plant pathology while studying for his agricultural
degree, his studies were focussed on the Green Revolution. He confesses,
"When I came to Zambia, I naively thought that I would change things
here. During the first 15 years, I promoted the use of fertiliser,
chemical spraying in the vegetable gardens and using hybrid seed. It
finally dawned on me that we were not going anywhere. Every year farmers
were asking for loans to buy seed and fertiliser. Farmers made some money
on maize production in only two years out of those 15 years."

As he looked round, he realized it was not only at Kasisi and in Zambia,
or Latin America that farmers were doing poorly. It was the same in
Europe and North America. "In North America, farmers I knew personally
have gone bankrupt. They would have been considered role-model farmers,
doing everything according to the advice given by the government
agricultural extension officers and agricultural universities. But they
went bankrupt and lost their farms. The excuse offered was that
inefficient farmers were being weeded out."

In Zambia, 80 percent of the rural population are poor. Many farmers
cannot even produce enough food to feed their own families. They are
continually asking for loans to buy farming inputs. Fertilisers arrive
late, if at all in the villages. Now, they have been advised to add an
equal amount of lime to the fertilizer.

Transport is a big problem; there are virtually no roads for vehicles in
remote areas. To make things worse, a fuel crisis has taken over the
country in the past weeks and everywhere you go, long queues for petrol
snake towards empty petrol stations waiting for promised deliveries.

In the 1980s, someone suggested to Br. Paul that he should look at
organic agriculture, but he thought it was strictly for a small left-wing
group who had enough money to pay for this type of farming. Nevertheless
when he returned for home leave in Canada in 1988, he visited organic
farmers, and found them to be successful. He studied the principles of
organic agriculture in Ontario and adapted them to the situation in
Zambia, and has never looked back.

"The staff at KATC, once convinced of the organic way of farming and the
value of indigenous knowledge, have been very much in the forefront in
explaining this to their fellow country folk." Says Br. Paul.

The Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre trains small-scale farmers in 5-
day residential courses on the principles of organic agriculture and
indigenous knowledge, on organic vegetable production, organic cotton
production, internal control systems, farm management, beekeeping,
agroforestry, seed multiplication on farm and dairying.


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