Can organic and resource-conserving agriculture improve livelihoods?

Organic and resource-conserving agriculture (ORCA) offers farmers a way to protect the future productive capacity of their natural resource base, say Bennett and Franzel, in a study published in the International Journal of Agricultural sustainability.  The study further provides evidence that, in certain cases, ORCA initiatives produced livelihood improvements for poor smallholders.costa-rica-coffee-growing

A rising global population requires higher agricultural productivity, but increasing the use of inorganic nitrogen to achieve that poses a further threat in the face of global warming and climate change. Against this backdrop, some researchers suggest that organic and resource-conserving agriculture (ORCA) has sound potential for improving the livelihoods of smallholders in Africa. ORCA practices include integrated pest and nutrient management, conservation tillage, agroforestry, aquaculture, water harvesting and livestock integration. These technologies replenish soil, improve water management and reduce the risk of crop failures.

ORCA makes the best use of natural goods and services without compromising their future use, and promotes social, environmental and health goals along with productivity gains. Resource conserving agriculture does not exclude synthetic agrochemicals if they improve productivity without harming the environment. Organic agriculture uses many of the same technologies as resource-conserving agriculture but prohibits all use of synthetic chemicals. Certified organic agriculture is primarily a legal distinction in that certified products are verified to have been produced according to specified standards often codified in national law. Organic-by-default occurs where fertilizers are unavailable or too expensive. ORCA is often considered to involve high costs and low returns relative to conventional farming systems.

The study sought to:

  • assesse the potential of ORCA as a complement to Green Revolution systems
  • scrutinise yields, product prices, food security and incomes in cases where smallholders converted to ORCA
  • identified factors that determined whether smallholders adopting ORCA systems sustainably improved their livelihoods or not

Improving smallholder production systems, markets, productivity, sustainability and incomes is a key focus of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry—of which the World Agroforestry Centre is a key partner. The study analysed   publications about ORCA adopted by smallholders in Africa and Latin America. Selected case studies were analysed in two ways: first, the impacts on food security, yield and incomes were summarised. Then the cases studies were segmented according to dimensions such as region, farming systems and market orientation to identify patterns of success or failure.

The researchers found 11 studies reporting on 31 ORCA conversion initiatives: 14 in Africa and 17 in Latin America. In African initiatives, farmers grew cocoa, coffee, cotton, fruit, herbs, maize, pineapple, vanilla and vegetables. In Latin American initiatives, farmers produced bananas, cocoa, coffee, fruit, honey, sugar and vegetables. It was noted that yield improved in 19 of the 25 cases that reported on it, food security improved in seven of eight cases, and net income improved in 19 of 23 cases. The systems from which farmers converted (conventional or organic-by-default) and the degree of market orientation strongly influenced the gain in incomes.

Successful ORCA initiatives do not occur spontaneously, but rather require a variety of skills from smallholders and their allies. These skills include adaptive farm management, effective producer organizations, entrepreneurship, capacity to innovate, value addition and boundary spanning. Having to acquire these enabling skills is simultaneously one of ORCA’s strengths, as it helps smallholders to navigate changing environmental and market conditions. The following enablers help smallholders achieve sustainable livelihood gains in ORCA initiatives: adaptive farm management; producer organizations; business strategy development and entrepreneurship; strengthening knowledge processes and capacity to innovate; and boundary spanning, which refers to the acquiring and coordination of resources and institutional innovations required for ORCA to sustainably improve livelihoods.

ORCA interventions emphasize adaptive capacity, empowering farmers to experiment with the best production and marketing strategies for their circumstances. The capacity to respond to changing natural/agronomic conditions will take on increasing importance with climate change.

Suggestions for further research include:

  • explore whether and under what circumstances ORCA practices can improve livelihoods compared to other farming systems
  • define methods for measuring yields, food security and incomes
  • study the trade-offs involved, particularly considering the high levels of facilitation required in most ORCA initiatives
  • analyse the long-term benefits as projects build human capital

Due to certain limitations in the case studies, generalizations cannot be made about the degree of net benefits ORCA can provide, but the results do attest to the potential worth of pursuing more rigorous research. Specific research priorities include assessing costs, benefits and impacts on livelihoods; building natural capital; building social and human assets; optimizing partnerships and maintaining competitiveness.  Such research could form a sound investment for the millions of smallholders who currently produce food for almost 1 billion of the world’s poor.

Read the full open source journal article here.

Mica Bennett & Steven Franzel (2012): Can organic and resource-conserving agriculture improve livelihoods? A synthesis, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability,

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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