Chances to grow tomato under organic agriculture in Mexico: Are conventional systems a choice or a need?
State and federal governments have, over the last few decades, provided subsidies for agricultural development. These subsidies were principally directed at the maize sector but in the last five years they have been used as part of campaign to encourage farmers to diversify into other crops such as vegetables.
The farming community, 16 de Septiembre, is representative of villages that have switched to growing vegetables. 16 de Septiembre is a highly-intensive tomato-growing area where farmers use large amounts of agricultural chemicals. The authors visited this community in 2006 as part of a study on agricultural production and the impact on health and child nutrition (Ríos et al., 2007). During the 2006 study, tomato producers confirmed that tomato is a lucrative crop but that the hot and humid conditions favor pest and disease problems. Local farmers commented that the application of pesticides was the only way to ensure production. In 2006, the most popular pesticide was Furadan, an extremely toxic insecticide.
We re-visited 16 de Septiembre in 2010 and discovered that most tomato producers had stopped using Furadan because of health concerns. Farmers said that while they would much prefer to practice organic agriculture, they remained daunted by the challenge that this poses. We investigated further the challenges that farmers face if they want to switch to organic production. We conducted a survey to 99 producers of 16 de Septiembre and to 96 extensionists working in the Frailesca region, in order to quantify feasibility and desire to change.
The surveys were focused on to know how many of the producers and extensionists use or recommend pesticides because they have not had opportunities to implement organic agriculture, how many would like to implement organic agriculture and how many think that organic systems are not feasible if they do not have support.
Additionally, we conducted semi-structured interviews with four tomato producers in 16 de Septiembre, four local extension agents and two organic tomato producers, one from 16 de Septiembre and other from the nearby community of Los Angeles, this, in order to inquire the hurdles and needs to shift perceived by the producers and extensionists The interviews focused on discovering more about 1) whether farmers believe that organic tomato production is feasible; 2) whether farmers are interested in implementing organic production; 3) the obstacles to switching from conventional to organic production; and 4) what changes are needed to facilitate this switch.
Reasons why the conventional producers do not shift to organic systems
Most of the farmers in 16 de Septiembre are on the receiving end of government support programs for agricultural production.
1. Feasibility and desire to shift
The vast majority of both, producers and extensionists, affirmed that they use or recommend pesticides because they have not had opportunities to implement organic agriculture (Table 1). Producers have been carried out conventional production systems, since this is the type of agricultural production supported by the government; likewise the extension agents have been worked in the agricultural programs which promote this type of production. Therefore neither the producers nor the extension agents use and recommend pesticides because is their conviction but rather as part of their work.
The majority of farmers and extension agents reported that the implementation of organic agriculture systems is feasible for the production of tomatoes. Other farmers and some of the extension agents, on the other hand, said that is no alternative to the conventional agriculture systems. The surveys showed that a high proportion (78%) of producers would like to implement organic agriculture, however, they also report that there is a risk that agricultural production could go down and therefore they would not get the enough profits to maintain a production system in that conditions (Table 1).
Further questioning revealed that one of the reasons for farmers’ reluctance to shift to organic agriculture is their fear that by doing so they would not qualify for the government support programs that they currently access. 67% of producers interviewed said that they would implement an organic system but they have not done so because the governmental agricultural support programs promote the use of pesticides rather than organic production. 65% of extension agents said that the implementation of organic agriculture is not possible since there is little support from the government to switch from conventional agriculture (Table 1).
2. Hurdles to shift
In the semi structured interviews producers also mentioned that an obstacle to converting to organic production is a lack of knowledge on how to implement organic production systems. There are some training course on organic agriculture but the producers stated that in those courses, practice and demonstrations are not included and when someone try to replicate what has been learned, it does not work and they lose a part of their harvest. Other example was that sometimes they receive bio pesticides and products as part of the subsidies but they do not know how to use it, furthermore these products are provided only once, thus then they have not enough money to invest in the regular purchase of these products.
The second reason was the lack of economical resources: in this issue, the most problematic hurdle described by the producers is regarding the first years of organic production, since the decrease of the production and the lack of commercialization result in lower profits and therefore, they have lower capability to invest in the agricultural system. Finally the third reason was the encouraging of use pesticides of the governmental programs to producers by the provision of the technological package with pesticides instead encouraging alternative production systems. The producers interviewed stated that they depend of the subsidies to produce and they have to take advantage of the agricultural inputs they receive, since they cannot buy all required inputs from themselves.
Two extensionists think that organic agriculture systems are unfeasible and therefore they did not stated hurdles. Other two think that it is feasible, however they do not recommend these systems since they stated that the producers do not have the proper conditions to implement an organic system e.g. they stated that producers do not have enough economical support and knowledge, hence, to involve them in a system that could makes them fail with their crops and therefore to affect their household income.
Other reason of not recommending was the lack of trust of the producers in the extensionists and pesticide dealers, since they do not accept the recommendations of extensionists; they prefer the advice of their neighbors instead. The organic producers stated that the main challenge they face is that the market for organic produce is not well developed and there are not price premia for organic tomatoes. In the background they think that the scarce support of the government together with the programs that provides pesticides to the producers do not help them to implement organic systems. Other obstacles were that sometimes is not easy to find the substances needed, and the producers are not organized and do not trust in innovation.
One example was the strive emerged among a group of producers because one of them win a economical support to create an association of producers growing tomato under organic agriculture, however this was able only for a few producers and he had to select only some of them, with the possibility to create divisions and conflicts among producers.
3. Needs to shift
Within the aspects that producers think that should exist in order to shift to organic agriculture are; fair governmental programs to support economically and with training to those farmers whose want to implement organic agriculture. About this issue they gave examples of programs in which they have to compete with large scale producers to achieve the support for agricultural production, and they claimed to be at disadvantage, in relation with large scale producer whose frequently achieve the support. Thus they would like programs which include small scale producers. They also would like that in the courses demonstrative plots should be carried out in order to increase their trust in the organic agriculture, they also claimed that these demonstrative plots should be carried out in experimental and not in the plots of the farmers. Finally they think that subsidy programs should be constant during the first years of the production in order to face the initial losses of the profits.
An example of this was a producer who shifted from conventional to organic agriculture being supported by a research project, however the a few months these projects do not economical recourses anymore to support the production, therefore this producer had loses and he shifted again with conventional agriculture again. The extensionists basically are focused in the trust of the farmers; one of the extensionists had the idea to include the organic agriculture in a farmer to farmer project (Guevara et al., 2003), since by this way the produces would increase their trust to organic agriculture. The organic producers think that coaching about to how to organize among the producers should be also include in programs supporting organic agriculture. They also mentioned that as a result the commercialization should be easier than only one producer instead.
|Feasibility and |
desire to shift
|Proportion of producers and extensionists who use or
recommend pesticides because they have not had
opportunities to implement organic agriculture
|Proportion of producers and extensionists who would
like to implement or recommend organic agriculture
|Proportion of producers and extensionists who do not
implement organic systems, since these are not
supported by governmental programs
|Table 1. Feasibility and desire to shift of extensionists and conventional producers,
results obtained from the of the surveys
|Feasibility and |
desire to shift
|Interviewees whose think organic agriculture is feasible and would implement or recommend||3/4||2/4||2|
|Hurdles to shift||- Because it is unfeasible
- Because producers do not accept advises
- Because the producers do not have the conditions to implement
|- Lack of training
- It requires high inversion
- They get a technological package
|- Search for market
- The support programs are inconstant
- They get a technological package
- Products are not available
- There are strife among the producers
|Conditions needed to shift||- Trust of the producers||- If in the programs there are courses that include demonstrative plots
- Fair and continuos programs
- Economical support during the first
years when the production decreases
|- Organization and bonds of union among the producers
- Support to commercialize
|Table 2. Feasibility, desire, hurdles and needs to shift according extensionists, conventional and organic producers, results obtained from the semi structured interviews|
A new way forward
The example of conventional and organic tomato producers in La Frailesca demonstrates that a new working relationship is needed between input suppliers, farmers, extension agents and buyers, such a relationship can be achieved within an agricultural innovation system.
Agricultural development is an immensely complex process and it can be viewed as an integrated social-technical system in which farmers and service providers create solutions to production and livelihood problems, often taking advantage of new opportunities through the modification of new technologies and existing production systems (Hall et al. 2005). In the agricultural sector, innovation is a central strategy to achieve economic, social and environmental goals. Furthermore, farmers participate in social change not as passive subjects, but rather as social actors whose strategies and interactions shape the outcome of development within the limits of the information and resources available (Sumberg et al., 2003).
What is, hence, needed is a systems approach in which innovation is the result of a process of networking, interactive learning and negotiation among a heterogeneous set of actors (Klerkx et al., 2009). An innovation system can be defined as a network of organizations and individuals that are focused on bringing new products, new processes, and new forms of organization into social and economic use. An innovation system consists of a web of dynamic interactions among researchers, extension agents, equipment manufacturers, input suppliers, farmers, traders, and processors (Hall et al. 2005). The desire of tomato producers to switch to organic production in La Frailesca could be more readily realized by the fostering of an agricultural innovation system.
Organic agriculture experiences
In our visits to 16 de Septiembre, we met Freddy, he is a tomato producers who had been his tomato by conventional systems. Once he had contact with researches from the agricultural University of Chiapas, who invited him to an international farmers meeting which was carried out in The Netherlands. There he saw tomato growing under organic systems. This event motivates him to attempt organic production, thus he organized other 20 producers from his community. Nowadays they are growing tomato under organic system, hoping it works and then convince even more producers from 16 de Septiembre.
Other experience was in Los Angeles, there we met a group of women that motivated by a promoter of organic agriculture from an NGO, submitted a project of tomato growing under organic systems. In our last visit to this community, the tomato plants were health and the tomatoes were almost ready to be harvested. To see these results their husbands have become convinced to attempt organic systems. These experiences demonstrate the positive attitude of the producers to shift to organic systems if they have the proper support to do that.
Text: Adriana Ríos González, Héctor Javier Sánchez Pérez and Jon Hellin
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