Eosta, the European organic produce importer and distributor boasting the Nature & More brand, welcomed around 150 South African table grape producers to a special event in Stellenbosch on 10 May, aimed at highlighting the benefits of growing organic table grape.
"With conventional cultivation you are increasingly running into problems," said grape grower Easton Marsh from Lushof. "Annual droughts are becoming extreme, and public resistance to pesticides is growing. Organic cultivation can offer some solutions."
Eosta presented the Capitalizing on Sustainability Congress to inform conventional grape growers about the economic and ecological possibilities of organic cultivation.
"Since Jan van Riebeeck built the first vegetable and fruit gardens on the Cape, this country has always been a leader in agriculture", said Volkert Engelsman, CEO of Eosta. "But in recent years, South Africa has fallen behind in terms of sustainability. The share of organic in South Africa is now 0.05 per cent of the area. That is a missed opportunity, really."
According to Engelsman, the organic market can accommodate newcomers. "The total turnover of organic grapes in Europe increases by double digits each year, and there is a shortage of supply. We work with four fantastic growers, but there is room for more. We will be happy to advise and assist growers who want to convert to organic."
One of the barriers to converting to organic cultivation is that various conventional grape varieties are not suitable for organic cultivation. Varieties such as Thompson Seedless for instance require continuous chemical adjustment: to trigger bud break, to influence berry size, to thin the bunch, to obtain good colouring.
Breeding companies SNFL and Sun World, however, presented new grape varieties at the conference that were specially developed for organic farming.
Organic grower Warren Bam spoke enthusiastically about Allison, a new variety introduced by SNFL: "Nature does most of the work with this variety, as it should. As a grower, my most important task is to ensure a healthy, living soil."
The increasing droughts are another reason for growers to consider converting to organic methods, according to Eosta.
This year the Western Cape suffered from a drought that threatened to exhaust the total water supply of Cape Town. The grape harvest fell by 15 per cent, and most growers have used up their water reserves.
Eddie Redelinghuys, a pioneer of organic grape cultivation since 1997, still has enough water left for next year, and he told the congress how organic cultivation helps him cope with water shortages.
"Using conventional cultivation, the soil withers and can no longer retain moisture," he explained. "As an organic grower I work with compost instead of artificial fertiliser. As a result the water-retaining capacity is much higher; one can save up to 60 per cent of the water. If the entire Western Cape would farm organically, we would save at least 22bn litres of water per year."
Tobias Bandel of consultancy firm Soil & More Impacts, which advises farmers who want to go organic, pointed out that a living soil has many other advantages too.
"By taking care of the living soil, you solve the root of the problem," Bandel noted. "The plant has much better resistance to plagues and diseases. Moreover, you store carbon in the soil, which is a positive contribution to the climate problem."