Organic vs Inorganic Farming Methods
The issue of whether organic food is healthier than conventional produce is still being debated by many scientists. What is certain is that organic food is far better for the environment and this in itself is an excellent reason to buy organic. What is often not considered is that organic food can in some cases be cheaper to produce as well. Organic farms are generally more self-sufficient, making them less vulnerable to recession and market swings and promoting sustainable agriculture in the farming community.
The difference in costs of organic farming and non-organic farming, arises from the different treatment of crops and livestock. Chemical inputs are used in non-organic plots to fertilize the soil, discourage pests and protect against diseases. Non-organic livestock are treated with antibiotics and hormones to prevent infection and stimulate growth.
Organic farmers may also apply certain chemicals to their crops, but those which they can use are strictly limited and very few organic farmers actually do, preferring organic substitutes such as compost or manure. Livestock may not be treated with antibiotics or hormones and only homeopathic treatments are used in the case of illness, otherwise they lose the right to brand themselves organic.
Chemical Inputs vs Labor Intensive Farming
Because they do not use chemical pesticides, organic farmers must discourage pestilence mechanically; by erecting physical barriers or covers, weeding by hand, trapping pests and other labor-intensive means. Disease prevention is more important than disease control. The sprays that many farmers use to control disease in livestock are not used by organic farmers who must instead concentrate on maintaining the good health of their animals.
As such, organic farmers incur lower costs in terms of chemical inputs but higher costs in terms of labor and machinery. Insurance costs for organic farmers can be higher because if disease prevention fails, it poses a greater threat. On the other hand, organic farmers are far more self-sufficient, requiring less finance and therefore, incur less interest on loans. Costs of organic farming in some countries can also be offset by tax credits and state incentives – organic farmers in general have fewer tax burdens than their non-organic peers.
The Cost of Organic Farming
It is not always a straightforward matter to say which farming method is cheaper. There is a complex trade off between the different factors that varies between types of produce and the constraints of the local environment. There have been several economic comparisons of organic and inorganic farming methods during the last couple of decades and these studies have shown how the benefits and costs of organic farming have tended to vary wildly.
For example, one analysis of organic vs inorganic crops in Iowa, was conducted between 1999 and 2001. Researchers found that the total production costs on inorganic farms were around 46% higher for corn and 12% higher for soybeans when compared to organic methods. The cost of inputs for conventional farms appeared to more than offset the additional labor costs incurred by organic farmers.
However, a study of Spanish citrus fruit production near Valencia suggested that organic methods were 25% more costly than inorganic methods. Organic fertilizer actually costs almost double that for inorganic production – possibly due to the poor quality of soil available – while labor costs were around 150% higher for organic farms.
In both cases, yields for organic crops were slightly, but not significantly, below those on conventional farms and were more than compensated for by the higher price at market of organic produce. Such methods can be beneficial to farmers in certain context, but the costs of organic farming vary from location and also by crop.
Economic Sustainability of Organic Farms
Where the costs are low, one of the main benefits of switching to organic farming methods is economic sustainability. A farmer with high costs can suffer greatly if he has a bad year due to depressed prices, recession or simply a failed crop. He may require loans in order to purchase necessary inputs at the start of the following season, increasing his costs still further in interest on the loan. A farmer with low costs is less vulnerable to such fluctuations in fortune – even if making the switch may affect overall yield or require that he reduce the size of his operation.
Such a situation has occurred in France, particularly among dairy farmers. A 2001 comparison of organic and conventional dairy production found that a farmer spends on average $200 less per year for each cow in an organic farm, and receive slightly more for the milk as well. Since the start of the global recession in 2008, farmers in France had been producing milk at double what they could sell it at. Switching to organic farming methods has helped many farmers to reduce their costs and help them out of crisis.
Since the turn of the millennium, France has seen a steady increase in the number of organic farmers at around 2.5% each year. In 2008-2009 the figures grew by 20%. The economic hardship has been the driving force behind the switch, while the French government has encouraged it with a series of tax incentives, in the name of promoting agricultural sustainability.
Whether organic versus non-organic farming is worthwhile appears to depend on the individual situation. In some cases, there is a clear advantage for organic farming methods – reduced finance, transportation and chemical input costs. In others, the cons can outweigh the pros, with increased labor required for sowing, harvesting, pest control and other tasks, making organic produce far more expensive.