Organic is not enough

Biological farming provides a way for farmers to survive the price/cost squeeze, but it’s not a quick-fix solution.
Issue date : 03 April 2009

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Biological farming provides a way for farmers to survive the price/cost squeeze, but it’s not a quick-fix solution.

Many years ago I had to struggle through Botany 1 and Zoology 1 to complete my degree in Agricultural Economics. For someone more interested in mathematics and economics, it was a struggle.

I used some well-known rhymes to remember difficult names. The one for the major elements needed for plant growth goes like this: “C Hopkins Café Mg”. So plants need carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphate, potassium, nitrogen, sulphur, calcium and iron to grow.

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Chemical fertiliser contains nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (NPK) and in some cases sulphur and calcium. Plants consist mostly of carbon, but in the race towards higher yield, the role of carbon has been largely ignored. For many years, the proponents of biological farming methods were ridiculed as “muck and mystery” farmers. But in time, farmers realised they had to use more fertiliser to get the same yield as in the past. There was a slow but continuous decrease in soil fertility.
Then a few brave souls queried the wisdom of continuously increasing fertiliser, and the organic agricultural movement started in the 1930s and 1940s.

Organic agriculture
Organic agriculture uses manure, compost, biological pest control, mechanical cultivation and excludes or strictly limits the use of so-called artificial fertiliser, pesticide and genetically modified organisms. But organic farming restricts the available resources a farmer can use, and it’s generally more expensive to produce products this way than with conventional practices.

A recent Californian study identified some of the problems pertaining to organic farming:

  • High cost of production.
  • Difficulty obtaining price premiums.
  • Difficulty securing stable markets.
  • Losses during the transitional period.
  • Limited access to technical assistance.
  • High labour cost.
  • High certification cost.

So organic farming is only profitable if the farmer can secure a niche market that will pay more for the organic produce. The market for organic products is growing, although the current financial crisis has slowed this growth as consumers switch to lower cost, non-organic produce. However, there are opportunities for farmers prepared to switch to organic production, provided they can grow quality produce and sell it to discerning and affluent consumers. Studies in the UK have shown consumers buy organic products mainly because they feel good about the benefits to the environment.

Although organic production is complex and difficult, its principles remain sound. It makes economic sense to use fewer chemicals, minimise cultivation practices and improve soil fertility at the same time. However, it’s not necessary to exclude all chemicals and tillage.

Biological agriculture
Biological farming combines chemistry, physics, biology and microbiology with sound farm management practices. It combines conventional and organic farming practices to ensure optimum crop yield. Biological agriculture attempts to minimise the use of chemicals. One of its cornerstones is the improvement of soil fertility by promoting microorganism activity. Farmers who apply the principles of biological agriculture report higher yield and lower total costs.

These farmers emphasise it’s more difficult to apply biological farming methods than it is to use traditional fertiliser and chemicals. They also say one should have a flexible approach to biological farming. Sometimes conventional practices are needed to solve a particular problem. The change-over from conventional to biological agriculture takes a few years. Farmers need more information about the factors influencing plant growth. The first step for farmers who want to become biological producers is to attend a course in soil fertility – they’re held periodically by biological farming organisations.

Practical aspects
Biological farming needs compost and manure and works best if crop production takes place in conjunction with livestock production. Intensive livestock producers are particularly well-positioned to move towards biological production. But, like nearly all agricultural technology, biological farming isn’t a quick-fix solution for management and structural problems. Farmers with management problems will probably just hasten the demise of their enterprises with biological farming methods.

Farmers battling increasing costs and stagnant product prices can improve their profitability if they adhere to biological agriculture principles. It’s the only way a higher yield can be achieved with fewer bought inputs. In a few years’ time, the debate between biological and conventional agriculture will become as irrelevant as the one between non-hybrid and hybrid maize seed. As happened then, the early adopters will reap the benefits. Dr Koos Coetzee is an agricultural economist at the MPO. All opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect MPO policy.     |fw