The people who live on the tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius are willing to pay almost twice as much for certified organic vegetables than for the conventional produce sold in supermarkets. The reason why is interesting.
Mauritius gained its independence from Britain almost 50 years ago and has been slowly modernizing ever since. Since the 1970s, when the island’s economy relied almost entirely on commercial sugarcane production, the country has worked hard to diversify by expanding financial and manufacturing industries and attracting tourists. However, it is hard to argue that while the incomes of the islanders continue to rise, so have the rates of cancer. Many people believe the higher cancer rates are directly associated with the chemicals used in conventional agricultural farming.
Therefore, many residents are willing to pay more for healthier, organic produce.
Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, the recently-elected finance minister has now called for 50% of all domestically-grown goods to be organically grown or “bio certified” within the next five years. He promised to support the project by providing about $500,000 in the first year alone.
Not everyone is optimistic. Jaqueline Sauzier, the general secretary of the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture pointed out that, “It is very difficult to grow organic here.”
Sunita Facknath, dean of the University of Mauritius Faculty of Agriculture, noted that the island’s subtropical climate combined with the longtime practice of using fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides makes large-scale organic production a challenge on the island. She surmises that, “Full organic may be difficult in the near future; Mauritius has too long a history of agrochemical dependence. It’s actually a vicious cycle.”
The island’s major growers instead favor “smart agriculture” over growing truly organic produce. Smart agriculture is a sustainable type of agriculture that uses “responsible levels” of chemical additives rather than eliminate them entirely.
Pierre-Philippe Lenferna de la Motte, the sales and marketing director of the agriculture division at Medine states that, “Organic is just not reliable enough.” Medine is one of Mauritius’ largest commercial farms that recently converted to smart agriculture. Medine produces about 7% of the produce sold on the island and advertises its “reasonable” use of pesticides.
Since the Mauritian government does not have a formal system of testing and labeling organic foods, the “reasonable” claim is a courtesy. Growers can market themselves as being organic, healthy or “bio” without actually having to substantiate those claims.
But, there are some farmers who believe that on a small scale, true organic agriculture is a reality and can be economically sustainable.
Daniel Nicholas Bernasconi, a local farmer growing and selling organic produce on the island believes that, “If you’ve worked your fields right, you can grow organic.”