The arguments raised in an article by this very publication (The unsustainability of organic farming, June 27, 2014) raise several important points.
The most significant and, as it happens, the opening word of the article is the matter of sustainability in agriculture. Organic farming holds no monopoly on sustainability, and neither do
the practices advocated by the authors. Chemical fertilisers are more likely to cause groundwater and surface water pollution through leaching and runoff, not least because they are misused and overused throughout the world.
As a result of high nutrient build-ups in lakes and oceans, we see algal blooms that remove the oxygen from the water and result in extensive fish kills and vast dead zones in some seas.
High levels of nitrates from fertilisers in ground water in Europe are suspected to increase cases of stomach cancers.
The importance of organic matter in soil is unarguable. Soil is not a sterile growing medium for plants – it is a living ecosystem that hosts a plethora of organisms, many good and some bad.
Over dependence on chemicals for crop production damages the soil biota and reduces organic matter which is so important for water retention, erosion control and the delivery of plant nutrients. That does not mean that all farmers should be organic. It does mean that all farmers should care for their soil.
Sustainability in agriculture goes much further than methods of plant nutrition. Farmers need to know that their soil will be able to produce crops as well (or better) in the future as it does now.
Fish farmers need to be sure that the water they depend on for their livelihood will remain free of toxic chemicals that might run off of farm land. Livestock producers must be assured that they will have access to sufficient clean water for their animals to drink, and enough feed for them to eat.
Communities depending on forest products also want the confidence that the forests will keep producing timber, fruits and other products of nature.
Honey production in Rwanda is on the decline, possibly because pesticides are killing the bees, as well as the insects that attack crops.
Bees are also important pollinators, without which food production would decline by an estimated 30 per cent. Sustainability in agriculture is dependent on natural resources such as soil, water and biodiversity, that are shared by all producers of food.
It is therefore essential that all producers care for those natural resources equally. This also contributes to the economic sustainability of their work, and to the social sustainability of their communities.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is working in Rwanda, and elsewhere, to support the development of sustainable production methods in all sectors of agricu lture and food production.
Every single one of us depends on agriculture, fisheries and forestry for the food we depend on every day.
We all want to ensure that this food will continue to reach our plates next year, in ten years and far into the future. For that to happen, we must pay close attention to the sustainability of everything that is done in agriculture, and by other users of the same natural resources.
The writer is a Senior Officer in Pesticides Management, Food and Agriculture Organisation