Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is the sky the limit?

Around thirty-five years ago interest in organic farming developed into a market-oriented concept, and that is when standards and certification were born, to be followed later on, by public regulations. Since then, and recently through a deep global recession, in almost all markets organic sales have maintained their growth. The area of organic farmland also continues to grow, but there are signs that there are limits to this growth. For example, in the last decade, the organic area of a few European countries has actually shrunk or been at a standstill for some years. In most cases this has been associated with changes in how those countries have implemented the European Union support programmes. Small farmers also leave organic certification, not because they stop farming organically, but because they want no involvement with the formalised organic sector and the hassle of certification.

It would be possible for all agriculture to be transformed into following organic methods. It would not be easy. Some aspects of organic farming might have to change. For example, it is hard to see how a total rejection of human waste, now prominent in organic regulations in the EU and the USA, could be combined with a full scale conversion to organic systems. Sewage systems would have to be improved so that what comes out of us could go back to where it came from, as with other cycles in nature. If organic farming was the norm for food production it would also be a logical step to abolish the practice of a special label and special certification. It would be more natural to insist that non-organic food is labelled – with warning messages if needed.

In most countries with an organic movement that has been ‘big’ for many years, most of the farmers that can easily convert to organic systems have already done so. This can be clearly seen by comparing, say, dairy and poultry farms in Northern Europe. In most Northern European countries it is relatively straightforward to convert a dairy farm to organic; the changes in management and infrastructure are not that dramatic. However, a comparable poultry operation is much harder to convert. This can be clearly seen in the proportions of poultry and milk sold respectively. Not only are poultry difficult at the production level; supply is limited and those that do convert demand good prices. So, ultimately market shares are affected as the proportion of buyers shrink when price premiums go from ten to hundred percent.

The strength of consumers’ voluntary choices as a force to change society can be seen when it comes to new technologies that transform our daily lives. Consumers use mobile phones because they are convenient and handy. Consumers buy TVs because they like to watch it. Hundreds of millions are on facebook every day. Certainly, peoples’ voluntary actions have a tremendous potential for change. The organic choice is a somewhat different choice. It is the first, and most the prominent, example of a process-oriented ecolabel, and as such a poster child for those that believe the market can fix all sorts of problem, including the lack of internalisation of costs. Producers and consumers of conventional food do not have to pay the true cost of production of conventional, non-organic food. The cost is paid by tax payers or future generations. If all external costs – that is the costs for water purification, soil degradation, health effects just to mention a few – were incorporated into the price of non-organic food those foods would be more expensive than they are today, some might be on par with organic, some perhaps remain cheaper others more expensive than organic food. The question of whether some consumers should voluntarily shoulder the costs while others can be free-riders is not only a practical one, but also a philosophical and ethical one. It may also be the reason for? that health – the only aspect of consuming organic products where the benefits are accrued by the consumer – is the killer argument in favour of buying organic products. The environmental or animal welfare benefits of buying organic foods are shared by those buying conventional food. It is rather naïve to believe that this system will be the system that carries organic production from a couple percent to the mainstream. The organic labelling system is a forerunner, but it certainly needs assistance for the transformation of agriculture to a situation where ‘organic’ is simply normal.

Leader in the upcoming issue of The Organic Standard

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