To Increase Income and Competiveness, Public Policy Should Educate African Maize Farmers About the Benefits of Using Herbicides

Weedy Maize Field: Africa

Weedy Maize Field: Africa

Maize consumption is a major source of calories for millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Within the next few decades, the majority of people in Sub-Saharan Africa will be living in cities. Countries in eastern and southern Africa are increasing imports of staple foods, including maize. In order to be competitive, African farmers need to reduce the cost of producing a unit of maize. Herbicide adoption would greatly reduce costs of growing maize and lead to greater yields and farmer income and competiveness.

“Rural smallholder production remains highly labor-intensive. On average, family labor accounts for 62% of the total cost of maize production in Zambia’s small- and medium-scale farm sector. Promoting the identification and adoption of practices and technologies that save labor and/or identifying labor-productivity-enhancing technologies through research and development will therefore help to make Zambian maize more competitive and allow farmers to maintain profitability even at lower producer prices.

Although only 3% of fields had herbicides applied, regression results suggest the benefits of its use are quite high. All else equal, applying herbicides increases gross margin between ZMK 363,700 to ZMK 376,300 per hectare planted… The magnitude of this effect is fairly large compared to the national average margin of ZMK 1,108,542 (in other words, at the mean, herbicide use would increase gross margins by roughly a third). …these results indicate that public policy measure should be considered to educate farmers about the benefits of herbicide application, as its contribution to smallholder income growth and regional competitiveness may be comparable to and highly synergistic with increased fertilizer use.”

Authors: Burke, W. J., et al.
Affiliation: Zambia Food Security Research Project (FSRP)
Title: The cost of maize production by smallholder farmers in Zambia
Source: Food Security Research Project. Working Paper 50. March 2011. Available at: 

Organic Cocoa Growers Likely to Switch to Conventional Production if Financing of Inputs is Made Available

Weedy Cocoa: Ghana

Weeding Cocoa: Ghana

There are very few certified organic cocoa growers in Africa. The risks of trying to grow an organic crop are great. Many of these growers choose to grow organically because they lack financial resources to purchase inputs including pesticides. With financing of inputs, many of the current organic growers are likely to switch to use of conventional methods with pesticides due to greater yields, income and less risk.

“…the total market share of organically grown cocoa is still relatively very small and accounted for less than 0.5% of the total production in 2002 to 2005.

For producers who cannot afford inorganic inputs and who currently grow organic cocoa, there is a large amount of risk (both in price and in yield) involved with an estimated 30% lower yield compared with conventional (inorganic) production.

The obvious challenge for producers to produce conventionally is to obtain credit up front to purchase inorganic inputs. Given the advent of organizations like the Cocoa Abrabopa Association (CAA) established in 1998 in Ghana, credit is becoming more accessible to producers.

The current organic producers, who are constrained to do so because of a lack of microfinance opportunities to buy conventional inputs (fertilizer, fungicide, etc.), would probably switch to conventional if financing for said inputs became available, say through a microfinance program. Thus, an unintended impact of a microfinance program might be to lead to lower levels of current organic production.”

Authors: Mahrizal, L., et al.
Affiliations: Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, University of Arkansas
Title: Necessary price premiums to incentivize Ghanaian organic cocoa production: a phased, orchard management approach
Source: HortScience 47(11)1617-1624. 2012.

Herbicide Use on Cotton Farms Could Greatly Increase Income of Farm Families in Africa

African Cotton Herbicide Experiment

African Cotton Herbicide Experiment

The income of family farms growing cotton in Africa is low largely due to the small size of farms- about one hectare. A major reason that farm size is small is because fields are weeded by hand and there usually is not enough family labor to weed more than one hectare. With use of herbicides, the need for labor is reduced dramatically and individual cotton farms would be able to significantly increase their acreage and incomes.

“Under rainfed agricultural production, common throughout most of Africa, labor bottlenecks at planting and weeding times often critically constrain farm output. During the four to six week period following the first rains, farmers must prepare their soil, plant and conduct the critical first weeding.

Under these circumstances, early season labor constraints, particularly during the first weeding, set an upper bound on the cropped area a family can manage using only household labor. For the average farm household in central Zambia, with five family members, peak-season labor bottlenecks limit the area they can cultivate under conventional hand hoe tillage to about 1 hectare.

In Zambia, herbicide application, instead of weeding with a hand hoe, cuts peak season labor requirements in half.

When combined with dry season land preparation, this reduction in peak season labor requirements enables farm households to crop 2.7 hectares of land under hand hoe cultivation using only household labor. As a result, hand hoe farmers can increase their income from these three crops to 2.9 million Kwacha ($620) per year, triple what they can earn under conventional hand hoe agriculture…

This suggests that cotton company inclusion and financing of one round of herbicides in their cotton packs could potentially raise cotton production and household income considerably.”

Authors: Steven Haggblade and Christina Plerhoples
Affiliations: Department of Agricultural Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University
Title: Productivity impact of conservation farming on smallholder cotton farmers in Zambia
Source: Food Security Research Project. Working Paper 47. July 2010. Available at: 

Ebenezer Scrooge Returns as an Organic Ag Advocate

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge

Hand Weeding

Hand Weeding

Dickens’ fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge believed that young people should work. By not working, he considered the unemployed as “surplus population.” Organic farms require more labor particularly for jobs such as weeding fields by hand since herbicides are not used. Recently, an organic ag advocate in the UK invoked the name of Ebenezer Scrooge to explain how organic ag could make use of the current “surplus population” by putting the unemployed to work in the organic fields.

“Yet if Britain practiced Enlightened Agriculture based on small, mixed, quasi-organic farms we could easily be self-reliant in food. We could also employ all of the three million who are now unemployed, including or perhaps especially the one million unemployed under-25s, in jobs far better than the shelf-stacking and mail-order cold-calling that are now on offer. Instead we produce only about half our food while politicians wring their hands over what Ebenezer Scrooge in a remarkably similar economy called “the surplus population” who alas are left on the sidelines.”

Author: Colin Tudge
Affiliation: Writer
Title: Enlightened agriculture a people’s takeover of the food supply
Source: Food Ethics. Summer 2012. Volume 7; Issue 2. Available at:

California Avocado Production Would be 82 million Pounds Lower with Conversion to Organic Practices

New Orchard Weeds

New Orchard Weeds

California farmers produce 550 million pounds of avocados annually. 8% of the avocado acres are managed with organic production practices. A recent economic analysis by the University of California shows why so few avocado acres are organic. Even though organic avocados receive a price premium, lower yields (15% lower) means lower profits than avocados grown with chemical inputs. The 15% lower yields would mean a loss of 82 million pounds of avocados if all the California avocado growers switched to organic practices. Weeds are the biggest problem for organic avocado growers.

“Profitability estimate of organic avocados in these counties is lower than avocados produced conventionally. Though organic avocados are considered to receive $0.20 more per pound than conventional avocados, organic avocado production shows lower yield than the conventional production.

Based on our discussions with growers and the UCCE farm advisor, organic yield is considered lower than the conventional production. In this study, organic avocado yield is estimated at 15% lower than the conventional yield.”

Author: Etaferahu Takele, et al.
Affiliation: Area Farm Advisor, Agricultural Economics/Farm Management, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Southern California
Title: Avocado sample establishment and production costs and profitability analysis san diego and riverside counties, 2011 organic production practices
Source: University of California Cooperative Extension. 2013.

Southern California Vineyards Recover Thanks to Insecticide Applications

Grapevines Destroyed in 1999

Grapevines Destroyed in 1999

Temecula Today

Temecula Today

In 1999, about one-third of the vineyards in Temecula Valley, Riverside County, California were destroyed due to Pierce’s Disease which is caused by a bacteria transmitted to grapevines by an insect-the glassy winged sharpshooter. The disease seemed destined to spread throughout Southern California. However, research demonstrated that a carefully-timed insecticide application would prevent the sharpshooter from transmitting the disease to grapevines. As a result of this insecticide use, the wine grape industry in Southern California has recovered and is prospering.

“Twelve years ago a Pierce’s disease epidemic in Southern California wine grapes prompted a multi-pronged local, state and federal attack to contain the disease spread and find a cure or treatment.

Riverside County agriculture officials declared a local emergency in 1999 and 300 acres of Temecula wine grape vines were destroyed after they were found to be infested with the glassy winged sharpshooter.

Emergencies were declared, a task force was formed, and in 2000 $22.3 million in federal financial assistance was secured to reduce pest infestations and support research.

Research found that the Southern California epidemics were almost entirely the result of vine-to-vine transmission…. A protocol of applying one carefully timed application of a persistent systemic insecticide such as imidacloprid virtually eliminates the vine-to-vine spread.

Ben Drake is a Temecula-area wine grape grower and vineyard manager who began seeing problems from PD in the Temecula Valley as early as 1997.

We’ve found that if we apply (imidacloprid) at the middle to the end of May, before the sharpshooter moves out of the citrus and goes into the vineyards, we get levels of the material into the plant high enough that when the sharpshooter flies over from the citrus groves to try it, they just fly back where they came from. Or, if they feed long enough, it will kill them.

But just look at the Temecula Valley now to understand what’s changed: From 12 wineries in 1999, the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association website today lists more than 50 growers and 34 wineries…. A thriving agritourism industry has developed…. Existing wineries are expanding and new ones are under construction or in planning phases.”

Author: Christine Thompson
Affiliation: Reporter
Title: Grape growers urged to remain vigilant against sharpshooter pest
Source: Western Farm Press. 2011-12-12. Available at:

Mr Bittman, Reducing Herbicide Use on Farms is Not Simple

The New York Times writer Mark Bittman writes glowingly about a recent study¹ that reported on an Iowa experiment in which crop yields were maintained while herbicides to control weed populations were reduced (“A Simple Fix for Farming,” NYT,10-21-2012)². Bittman concludes that, “there was only upside—and no downside at all” in this study.  Rhetorically, Bittman asks, “Why wouldn’t a farmer go this route?”. That question was studied by rural sociologists from the University of Missouri and their findings³ show that it’s not so simple to reduce herbicide use—there are serious downsides. The study that Bittman cites reduced herbicide use by switching from spraying the entire field (broadcast spraying) to spraying just down the row of plants (banded spraying) and using cultivation to kill weeds between the rows. This technique of “banding” the herbicide spray in combination with tillage was widely-used several decades ago, but farmers changed to spraying the entire field without the need to cultivate. The sociologists asked farmers why they abandoned the practice and if they would consider using it again. The answer was…

“Operators are not rejecting the practice due to a perceived lack of knowledge of how the practice works or dissatisfaction with reductions of pesticide use or of water quality risks. … The reasons for discontinuing banding related to difficulties of implementing and maintaining the practice and consequently, potential negative impacts on yields and profits. Banding requires two major tasks—the initial banding and the subsequent two (or sometimes three) cultivations between the rows. In effect, it substitutes time, labor, and equipment for out-of-pocket pesticide costs and thus has important ripple effects in terms of time, labor, management, flexibility, and individual control.”

“Banding tasks need to be done on a timely basis; a shortage of labor during windows of cultivation opportunity can mean the growth of weeds to the point where they inhibit crop progress and effective cultivation, and thus decrease yields. Some operators report inabilities to find labor. We have ample evidence of the decline of availability of hired labor in most rural communities… Those people willing to custom cultivate are usually farmers themselves. And home farm demands, overextended commitments, and bad weather and machinery breakdowns can easily combine to delay or postpone custom cultivation beyond optimal periods.”

“Cultivation of large banding acreages requires continuous weeks of effort. Although such commitments were common practice before the broadcast use of herbicides, farmers who rejected banding criticize cultivation as too time-consuming, intrusive into other needed work, ineffective, and certainly one of those jobs they were not eager to resume.”

“Some farmers have purchased banding-related machinery or attempted to experiment with the practice only to find it too difficult to incorporate into tight farming schedules. … Effective cultivation also creates dependency on other external factors. In years with a particularly wet spring and early summer, for example, cultivation has to be postponed.”

“In summary, operators who abandon banding do so not because of water quality issues or lack of knowledge or even additional costs; they drop it because of time and labor requirements, custom labor constraints, loss of control over operations, and potential risks to yield and profitability. … In essence, while banding may work for water quality, it is not working for most farmers.”

¹Authors: A.S. Davis*, J.D. Hillª, C.A. Chaseº, A.M. Johannsº and M. Liebmanº.
Affiliations: *USDA ARS; ªUniversity of Minnesota; ºIowa State University
Title: Increasing cropping system diversity balances productivity, profitability and environmental health.
Publication: PLoS ONE. 2012. 7(10): e47149.

²Author: Mark Bittman
Headline: A Simple Fix For Farming
Publication: The New York Times. October 21, 2012.

³Authors: J.S. Rikoon, R. Vickers and D. Constance
Affiliation: Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia.
Title: Factors affecting initial use and decisions to abandon banded pesticide applications.
Publication: Agricultural Research to Protect Water Quality Conference Proceedings. 1993. February 21-24, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hand-Weeding Labor Shortages Result in Organic Crop Loss

Agriculture is facing a severe shortage of workers. Many fruit crops are even going unharvested because of a lack of pickers. Organic growers require more labor for tasks such as weeding since herbicides cannot be used. A recent experience by an organic grower in Washington illustrates the risk of going without herbicides in these times of labor shortages…

“Jon Warling, a labor contractor in Othello, said demand for workers is high and that an organic corn grower near Connell is discing under his corn because he can’t find enough workers for weeding.”

Author: D. Wheat
Headline: Labor committee hears litany of woe.
Publication: July 20, 2012.

At Mid-Century, German Crop Production Turned to Herbicides

In the 1950s and 1960s, as Germany industrialized, millions of workers moved from rural to urban areas and to factory jobs. When people left the farms, weed control technology was desperately needed to replace the major task of hand weeding crop fields. The introduction of herbicides saved German agriculture.

“Weeds cause drastic yield losses in food production, on average 25% in developing countries and 5% in developed countries, despite the control measures practiced. … Weed control is one of the major labour-consuming operations in traditional crop production, amounting from <30 up to about 70% of the total labour input.”

“In Germany, industry needed an increasing number of employees around 1960 and rural people left their fields. When this occurred there was no longer the question about traditional weed control with high labour input, but growing the crop with chemical weed control or no crop at all.”

Author: W. Koch
Affiliation: University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany
Title: Impact of weeds on developing countries.
Publication: Proceedings of the First International Weed Control Congress. 1992. Melbourne, Australia.

Organic Vegetable Crops Require Thousands of Hours of Weeding by Hand

The biggest constraint to the expansion of organic crop growing is the lack of chemical controls for weeds – herbicides. Hand weeding is often required to remove weeds from organic fields. A very large number of worker hours are required for weeding, as reported in a recent article from Germany…

“In organic crop production, manual control of weeds is still laborious in a number of row crops that have poor competitive ability. It is difficult to control weeds that grow within the crop rows (intra-row weeds) by physical weed control; typical figures for hand-weeding time are in the range of 100-400 hours/hectare in carrot, direct-sown leek and onion, and it has even been reported to exceed 1000 hours/hectare.” 

Authors: J Rasmussen¹, C B Henriksen¹, H W Griepentrog² and J Nielsen¹
Affiliations: ¹University of Copenhagen, Denmark; ²University of Hohenheim, Germany
Title: Punch planting, flame weeding and delayed sowing to reduce intra-row weeds in row crops.
Publication: Weed Research. 2011. 51:489-498.