Organic farming is better for us – in theory

Long gone are the days when organic farming was conducted by some bearded “tree-huggers” who sold their home grown products on the flea markets of San Francisco or Amsterdam. Organic is big business today. Organic products are taking more and more shelf space in supermarkets and global food and feed companies have established their own organic brands. For almost any agricultural good there is an organic version, from milk and eggs to ice cream, beer, cotton and pet food.

On consumer level the market for organic products is driven by the desire for food safety and the fear of residues from pesticides, fertilisers and feed additives. But organic farming is off course not just agriculture without fertilisers and antibiotics. It was originally based on the idea of maintaining a closed nutrient circulation within the whole system of a farm. Animal production always played a key role in this concept by recycling waste crop material and providing healthy products and natural fertilisers.

Organic animal production, taken by itself, used to be less productive than conventional systems. Feed efficiency, growth rates and product yield where 20 – 30 % lower. Traditional organic farms also used different breeds that where robust and more adapted to outdoor housing or represented dual purpose breeds. Lower product yields where compensated by the overall productivity of the farm, more diversity, lower inputs, and finally higher sales prices at market.

However, everything changed completely as large supermarket chains took organic products on board. Selling the romance of traditional farming to the consumer the products themselves became commoditized. The price-spiral hit organic farmers merely overnight. Imported organic goods are no longer reduced to coffee and tea, but now also include chicken, ham, seafood, cheese and various feedstuffs that compete with local production. Supermarkets use their global network and pull organic products from anywhere around the world into the most profitable markets.  They are also fast. While the authorities in Europe and America are discussing regulations and labelling standards, the supermarkets already have established their own organic certifications and brands.

Ironically, organic farmers, who originally stood for alternative visions and out-of-the-box thinking, responded with the most conventional answers of all conventional answers: specialisation, consolidation, growth and increase in performance. Soon feed mills started offering organic supplements and compound feeds because the increase in animal performance should only be achieved through an increase of inputs. A significant percentage of these organic feeds is imported from far away. Organic pigs, cows or chicken where once fed peas, home grown grains and pasture, but now an organic formulation shows almost no difference to conventional diets including a broad range of processed industry products such as soy meal, sugar beet pulp, brewer’s yeast or milling by-products.

When you visit and organic dairy, poultry or swine farm today you will need someone to tell you, that it’s organic. You will find the same high-performing breeds as elsewhere, stacks of bagged premixes and feed company trucks driving in and out. It will look significantly different than the flower-power cooperatives we had a few decades ago.

Simultaneously conventional farming and animal production have also quickly adapted to consumer demands through better monitoring of the use of pesticides and fertilizers, the ban of critical substances and in feed antibiotics and finally, approved animal welfare guidelines. This starts to blur the fine line between “conventional” and “organic”. The terminology used on both sides is colourful: “natural”, “controlled”, “local”, “bio”, “traditional”, “fair”, “certified” and so on. It does not really help consumers to split the difference. What will a consumer choose at a grocery store in down-town Chicago or London? Imported, frozen, organic lamb from New-Zealand or the fresh cut fillets from a conventional local producer? Which is more organic in the original sense?

It is a unique scenario where feed companies could take responsibility by protecting this specific market and by setting the standards. Organic feed production is possible and can be very profitable, but it has to happen in a sensible context. It’s a matter of definition and control. To guarantee label declarations and to handle a whole new product stream is challenging. The availability of commodities and the danger of cross contamination are serious issues. In return farmers must therefore reward their feed suppliers with long term planning and reliable contracts. Who else but feed companies has the experience and skills to do these things and to protect organic animal production? Farmers do understand, but it has to be communicated to the consumer too.