Monday, November 21, 2011

Yo-ho, Yo-Ho a Farmer’s Life for Me!

Week 13
Steph and Katelyn

In Development class this week (11/11/11!!), we headed out to an organic farm about half an hour outside of Windhoek. Upon arriving on the farm, we were given a warm welcome from Manjo Smith, the owner, who gave us all cups of coffee with milk still warm from the cows about fifty yards away. The coffee was meant to wake us all up for the exciting and extremely informative day we had ahead of us!

Next, Manjo gave us a tour of the farm and explained some of the organic farming processes. These processes include using compost rather than store-bought fertilizers for the soil and not using any kind of pesticides on the plants but instead natural microorganisms. Organic farming also involves planting many different kinds of crops to retain biodiversity and allowing the animals to have as much space as possible and not pumping the animals with any kind of hormones as can be the case on some large farms. The purpose is to keep everything as natural and as healthy as possible (Photo 1: Manjo’s dog had a lot of puppies, and Steph loved them all!)

Organic farming is often criticized for being non-sustainable as many believe it is not possible to provide the world enough food without the use of pesticides and monoculture commercial farming. It is argued that science and technology have made food cheaper and more easily accessible. Science has created “improved” seeds and fertilizers that allow plants to keep away pests while growing at a faster rate. Science-based and genetic engineering, as opposed to organic, farming may be a more realistic way to put an end to world hunger. Organic farming slows down the process of food delivery as it takes longer to grow and requires more human maintenance.

Manjo argues, however, that there is already enough food in the world, and that the real problem is the distribution and the politics behind it. Additionally, monoculture commercial farming has its own issues, including inviting in diseases and pests that can destroy an entire single crop population because of the lack of biodiversity. Thus, the more farmers spray, the more they need to spray, according to the film The Future of Food* that Manjo showed us. Additionally, the film mentioned the health effects of pesticides, such as skin irritations and increased allergies, and that they cannot always be washed off as recent technology has allowed for the creation of pesticides through genetic engineering that exist in all of the cells in the crop. Thus, all of the successive generations of the crop then have this pesticide. This creates never-ending health problems as we do not yet know the health implications of some of these pesticides (Photo 2: Getting out hands dirty by putting our newfound knowledge into practice).

Moreover, the prices of organically grown food in some areas of the world (such as the U.S.) are priced higher than the sprayed foods. We asked what Manjo thought of this. She suggested that our perception of food is misguided and we should be spending less money on vacations, gas, entertainment, etc, and more on the food that we put inside our bodies. She also pointed out that the U.S. government, for example, subsidizes the sprayed food, bringing the cost down. If the demand for organically grown food was there, the government could potentially begin to subsidize it, and bring the prices down. The key to organic farming is consumer demand. Organics have not caught on in Namibia yet, and therefore the demand lies mostly with visiting Germans who have a history of farming organically, according to Manjo.

In Namibia, however, the issue isn’t solely cost but also other factors. One of these factors is the lack of awareness of the benefits of organic farming and its purposes. Not all people have access to this information. Additionally, the organic markets are often located within wealthier neighborhoods, making it difficult for some to be aware of their existence. Also, the foods sold at the organic markets are often geared toward German diets as opposed to “traditional” Namibian cuisine.

In areas of the world where organic food prices are higher, cost is the dominant factor in organic’s popularity or lack thereof. In the U.S for example, non-organic and monoculture products are subsidized by the government, making them significantly cheaper than the alternative. Because of this, in stores where these products are sold side-by-side with organic foods, the healthier options appear vastly more expensive. Some people, especially those with families to feed, then often tend to purchase the cheaper products that are available in bulk in order to feed more people for less. It is also customary in the fast-paced culture of the U.S for some people to prefer to eat what’s quick, easy, and filling rather than what’s healthy and safer for consumption. In order to promote an affordable, healthy eating lifestyle, people have to be aware of where their food comes from, ask questions, and make their demand known for non-sprayed food. Perhaps if we could more effectively educate the masses on the risks of mass produced food, we could increase the demand for organic food causing the government to subsidize it and bring down the high costs.

What might be the most effective ways to inform others about the benefits of organic farming? A quandary exists regarding how to spread organic farming on a wider scale. The problem in places such as the US is that there isn’t a high enough demand for organic food in the market, and therefore the government won’t subsidize it. However, if the government doesn’t subsidize it, the prices will remain too high for the average consumer to want to purchase it over the cheaper alternative, keeping the demand down. It is possible that the government has to make the first step. By increasing advertisement and knowledge of the benefits of organic farming versus the negative consequences of the alternative as well as subsidizing the costs, demand would rapidly begin to increase as more people would strive to live this new healthy, affordable lifestyle (Photo 3: Manjo Smith teaching us the organic tricks of the trade out in the vegetable fields!).

In both Namibia and the US, awareness seems to be the most predominant reason organic farming is not as popular as it could be. Many people remain under the assumption that organic farming isn’t as sustainable as it is made out to be, and that in places where people are suffering from hunger it is unrealistic. However, in the long run, organic farming is not only healthier and more easily accessible, but also financially cheaper in many situations: as farmers can reuse their seeds from their previous crops as opposed to have to constantly purchase patented seeds and pesticides from overseas. Many are also completely unaware of health benefits that eating organic has over eating scientifically altered produce. Spreading awareness would ultimately help the organic farm industry grow as people learned the importance of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

*Koons, Deborah. The Future of Food. Lily Films, 2004. Film.

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