Organic Farming in South Africa

Introduction: Organic Farming In South Africa

In terms of land area, number of farms and product sales, organic agriculture has experienced impressive growth over the past few decades. Today, certified organic farms occupy 1% (or slightly more) of global agricultural land.

$100 billion

Worldwide organic product sales

3.2 million

Hectares managed using organic methodology

1.2 million

Organic producers

The rise in organic production over the last two decades has largely been driven by changing consumer preferences towards healthier and more environmentally-friendly choices. 

How many organic farms are there in South Africa? 

There are about 250 certified organic commercial farms in South Africa.


In 1999, just 35 farms gained organic certification in South Africa. By 2000, this number increased to about 150. According to estimates from Grolink, the number of certified organic farms grew to 240 farms with a total area of 43 620 hectares in 2002. 

In Africa, South Africa has the third largest area under organic farming (50,000ha) behind Tunisia (154,793ha)  and Uganda (88,439ha).  Approximately 20% of the total area under certified organic farming in Africa is in South Africa.

In contrast with other Sub-Saharan countries, South Africa has a substantial domestic market and local demand for organic products, along with access to the export market in Europe and the USA.

Along with certified organic producers, South Africa is also home to hundreds of non-certified farmers (generally small-scale farmers) who follow organic principles and market their products informally through local villages or farmers markets. 

Certified organic produce in South Africa started with mangoes, avocadoes, herbs, spices, rooibos tea and vegetables. South Africa now produces a much wider range of products, including organic olive oil, wine and dairy products. gained

What Is Organic Farming?

Organic farming in South Africa involves producing food crops and livestock in a way that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. Rather than the use of inputs with harmful effects, organic agriculture relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions. Organic farming methodology combines innovation, tradition and science to promote fair relationships, improve health, and benefit the shared environment.


  • Texture
  • Depth
  • Density
  • Nutrient holding capacity


  • Water infiltration
  • Water holding capacity
  • Amount of organic matter
  • Respiration.

The definition of organic agriculture

According to IFOAM – Organics International, organic farming is: 

“A production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.”

What is the difference between organic and regenerative agriculture?

One of the key differences between organic farming and regenerative farming is that regenerative agriculture is defined by ecological outcomes, whereas organic agriculture is not. Instead, certified organic agricultural production is defined by a set of rules that are put in place by governments. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements’ (IFOAM’s) definition is broader and speaks to sustaining the system, which is in line with regenerative farming goals, although regenerative agriculture takes this a step further by focusing not only on sustaining, but rehabilitating agricultural systems. 

What is the difference between organic and sustainable agriculture?

Although organic farming and sustainable farming can be closely linked, certified organic farming needs to adhere to a precise set of criteria. Sustainable farming is more of a philosophy of agriculture that looks to future-fitting the entire system.

What is the difference between permaculture and organic farming?

Organic farming and permaculture complement one another, sharing principles such as avoiding synthetic chemicals. With permaculture, however, the focus is on the design of a self-sufficient system that links the farm to the consumer.

Organic Farming Certification In South Africa

For nearly two decades, the absence of an official certification system hindered the organic sector for nearly two decades. Now, the SAOSO Standard for Organic Production and Processing is included in the IFOAM Family of Standards. Any certification program will usually comply with IFOAM standards. 

There are two levels of organic classification: 

  1. Organic Certification – The farming process and produce has been inspected over a period (normally about three years) by an independent certification agency to verify organic authenticity.
  2. Organic in Conversion – During the certification process, producers may communicate that they are “organic in conversion”.

What does the organic certification seal mean?

Certification organisations assure consumers that products which claim to be organic meet the required organic standards. 

  • No harmful chemicals have been applied for at least three years
  • Annual certification inspections have been done
  • There is a detailed record of practices and an audit trail
  • Ecologically-friendly methods and substances have been used to improve the soil and control pests

The History of Organic Farming

While food labelled ‘organic’ first gained a foothold in the global market in the 1960s, organic agriculture is an ancient practice. Especially in less developed parts of the world, small-scale and subsistence farmers have been using organic farming methods for generations. These activities are often without organic certification, which can be time-intensive and prohibitively expensive to obtain. 

According to Organic Farming: An International History, the number of commercial organic farms was “negligible” prior to the 1980s. Organic foods were introduced on a large scale in the early 1990s, mainly in developed nations. 

In South Africa, the Organic Agricultural Association was established in the early 1990s.

Why Do We Need Organic Farming In South Africa?

In light of degrading soil quality, climate change and water shortages, it has become crucially important to preserve South Africa’s natural resources. Added to this is the challenge of feeding current and future generations sufficiently and adequately. 

Yet conventional farming practices are causing global warming, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss and land degradation, along with various other environmental impacts. This chemical industrial model is simply unable to alleviate hunger and poverty, which is why we need to look to alternative solutions like organic agriculture.

385 million

Cases of unintentional acute pesticide poisoning per year


Organic systems increase species richness

The Benefits of Organic Farming

The adoption of organic farming methods benefits soil health, water consumption, climate change and helps farmers increase their yields and profits. Rather than relying on expensive and harmful chemical inputs which damage the environment and lead to diminishing returns, organic farming methodology focuses on using scientific knowledge and harnessing natural processes. 

The health benefits of organic produce 

Consuming products contaminated by harmful pesticides carries a range of human health hazards, including increased risks of cancer, reproductive problems and neurological damage.  Organic produce, on the other hand, has higher vitamin and mineral content, is free of chemical residues and is usually more flavoursome too. 

Since the adoption of chemical inputs in the 1930s, we know that the concentration of essential minerals such as calcium and iron has been decreasing in fresh produce. A meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed publications focusing on the quality of organic vs chemically produced food found “statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods.”

The environmental benefits of organic farming

Organic farming methodology promotes a range of environmental benefits, including: 

  • Improving soil and water quality
  • Promoting pest regulation
  • Reducing exposure to pesticides
  • Protecting biodiversity
  • Enhancing nutrient recycling mechanisms
  • Providing a regular supply of organic matter

Feeding the future 

With an exclusive focus on productivity, our current global food system is rife with inefficiencies and imbalances. We’re producing enough calories, but they’re not necessarily reaching the right people in the right places. 

With organic farming economics, organic agriculture could help to alleviate the number of people suffering from hunger, especially in developing countries. Diversification of production is a basic principle of organic agriculture. This can contribute to the improvement of food security and improvements in nutritional levels in rural communities. In addition, the expanding market for organic products globally provides opportunities for smallholder farmers in developing countries, helping them to access new markets and trigger rural development. 


Organic farming is more readily adaptable to poor or emerging farmers who cannot easily access the costly external inputs and high-tech training inherent in commercial farming. It can also be more labour-intensive, which increases community impact through job creation. 

Organic Agriculture Challenges

The confines of certification

Although the goal of organic farming is to empower farmers to manage their environment in a sustainable way, certified organic farming has taken a form that moves it to the industrial model of agriculture—where profit is the main purpose. The cost of organic certification can be prohibitive to small-scale farmers, which contradicts the principles of agroecology.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Questions remain about the effects of organic farming on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), and methane (CH4), and its impact on climate change relative to conventional agriculture

Land use 

One of the biggest challenges for scaling up on organic agriculture is the yield-to-land ratio. Although some crops have higher yields under organic management, the majority of organically-produced crops show lower yields than those produced under conventional agriculture. 

Although land that’s farmed organically emits less greenhouse gas on average than conventionally-farmed land, this is nothing compared to the carbon-sequestering potential of natural forests, for example. A natural ecosystem can contribute to climate mitigation and support biodiversity far better than any agricultural land can. With this in mind, it makes sense to farm more intensively and leave more land to nature. 


Consumer pressure continues to play a major role in the growth of the organics movement. But only wealthier sectors of a population may be able to justify paying more for organic produce. Even though prices should come down over time due to economies of scale, higher prices are unlikely to disappear entirely. 

Food security 

One of the main criticisms levelled at organic farming is that it is unable to feed the world. It’s true that organic agriculture cannot produce massive surpluses by forcing super-growth. But, over the long term, organic agriculture productivity equals out in a more sustainable way. Organic agricultural methods can also easily be transferred to people with few or no previous skills, giving them a permanent ability to grow subsistence gardens at a low cost.

Organic Farming Methods

The holistic organic farming methodology refers to creating ecological balance within a farming system. Soil health is promoted through the use of natural compost, crop rotation, cover crops, minimum tillage and mulching. The goal is to value biodiversity and avoid synthetic chemical inputs.

The organic farmer views pests and diseases as a sign of imbalance in the soil’s health and fertility. Rather than applying inputs to address the symptoms, the farmer will look to build the plant’s natural resistance through nutrition. 

When it comes to livestock farming, organic meat suppliers are required to treat animals humanely and allow them to mature naturally. They also graze naturally in a free-range environment, with the organic farm producing 90% of the feed. This results in high-quality meat that is free from contaminants and additives such as chemicals, antibiotics and hormones. 

Organic farming methods include:

Crop rotation

Crop rotation means alternating between different crops on the same piece of land. This helps to diversify the microorganisms in the soil and reduce soil erosion. Crop rotation also breaks the life cycles of several insect pests, diseases and weeds. 

Green weed management

One of the key principles of organic farming is avoiding the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. This can be achieved through mulching (covering the soil between plants), which also limits evaporation and therefore uses less water. Green weed management also includes using natural predators and sprays to kill weeds and pests. 

Cover crops

A cover crop is a crop that is planted to primarily reduce the amount of soil erosion that a farm experiences. The types of cover crops that are popular include legumes, grasses and brassicas. These crops help to suppress weeds, build productive soil, and help control pests and diseases. They are easy to maintain and can be replanted when the new planting season begins.

Agroforestry systems

In an agroforestry system, trees are grown together with annual crops and animals. This results in greater complementary relations between agricultural components. 

Farming indigenous crops

Choosing indigenous crops can be more environmentally friendly, as fewer resources are required to produce maximum yields. This enhances food security amid lowering rainfall and other challenges. 


This transitional farming method uses complementary crops to increase organic matter in the soil, improve biodiversity, maintain soil moisture and reduce soil temperature. 

Minimum tillage

Minimising tillage means less soil disturbance, maintaining the nutrients, biodiversity and integrity of the soil. 

How To Start Farming Organically

There are a number of elements to consider for South African farmers who want to farm organically:

  • What is expected of an organic farmer?
  • Which products are allowed or prohibited?
  • Which agricultural methods are used in organic farming?
  • How to register and certify as an organic producer?
  • How and where to market organic products

A sensible first step is to get a copy of the new South African organic regulations. From there, you can decide whether you’d like to farm organically (without certification), or become a certified organic producer or just farm organically. 

If you would like to become certified, you’ll need to contact an organic certification body accredited under the IFOAM standards. You’ll pay a fee to have your farm inspected annually. Once you have been certified organically, you’ll receive a registration number from the certification body and you can start selling your products under the specific certification body’s logo.

Do I need to certify the entire farm as organic?

As an organic producer, you do not need to certify your entire farm organically. You also don’t have to certify all your crops. However, there must be a clear difference between certified organic and conventional crops.

How long does it take to become certified organic?

The transition period to switch from conventional farming to organic farming is determined according to organic regulations. For annual crops such as vegetables, the process is typically two years and three years for perennial crops like fruit trees and vineyards.


Organic agriculture has an important role to play in the long-term transition to a more sustainable way of feeding the planet. It is suitable not only for large-scale commercial operations, but also for smallholder farmers.

Organic produce also responds to consumers’ growing demands for higher food quality and better food production methods that cause less damage to the environment. This is a key driver for the growing organic food market. 

Yet the potential market for organic agriculture in South Africa is still largely untapped and needs to be realised with organised interventions on various fronts.

 Want to harness the opportunity and learn more about organic farming in South Africa? Get in touch with the team.

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