The advantages of organic farming vastly outweigh those of conventional farming. However, the conversion from conventional to organic food production is one of the most challenging endeavors of the 21st century.
To illustrate the truth of both these arguments, I will explain what the challenges are of the conversion. I use the results from a research assignment two of my colleagues and I performed in 2002 and 2003 in The Netherlands.
A provincial board decided to join the national endeavor for an organic agricultural area of 10% in 2010. The most obvious expansion of organic agriculture in this province is that of organic dairy farming.
The most interesting aspect of the method we used is that it’s applicable in any debate about organic or conventional farming. Even in your personal life, the questions we asked are a very powerful tool to search for your own change potential.
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Table of contents
- 1 Search for change potential
- 2 Criteria for the analysis
- 3 Conversion without an effort
- 4 The advantages of organic farming: a world apart
- 5 Who is responsible?
- 6 Recommendations
- 7 The personal challenges, which come with the advantages of organic farming
Search for change potential
The problem was though that the growth of dairy farming in this province lagged. We were asked to investigate whether it would be possible to expand organic dairy farming and if so how.
Our research was conducted according to the book. We analyzed relevant literature. Talked with countless conventional and organic dairy farmers and key figures in the production chain (factories and retail), and government authorities.
To get an indication of the change potential of the dairy farmers, we used an analytic model based on the following questions:
- Do those involved share a common vision?
- How do farmers perceive the effectiveness of their performance?
- What is the influence of the social environment on the farmers?
- What are the situational conditions?
- What tools are available for the farmers to get feedback on achieved results?
Criteria for the analysis
To be able to interpret the outcome of our research from the perspective of the advantages of organic farming, it’s important to understand some of the criteria used in the analysis.
A shared vision is a complex of ideas based on the assessment of the physical, social and economic environment. It is the farmers’ ideology.
The perceived performance consists of some simple criteria, the farmers’ perception of his or her capacities, his or her performance, and the idea to be able to contribute to desired goals.
The dairy farmers’ social environment consists of many actors: colleagues, suppliers, consultants, the veterinarian, the dairy cooperation, the customer, and family and friends.
Situational conditions have a substantial impact on the farmers’ performance. However, the farmer can hardly influence these conditions. The most important are: market developments (price, supply, and demand), legislation and regulations, financing and technical possibilities, and the physical environment.
Most dairy farmers only use two feedback tools to control their efforts: economic (costs and income) and production (kilograms of milk). The challenge is to also develop feedback tools measuring environmental (air, water, biodiversity), animal welfare, and food safety objectives.
Conversion without an effort
In the province we investigated, there were 1,421 dairy farmers in 2002 and 2003. Only 40 of them were organic. Altogether, the farmers produced 574 million kilograms of milk a year. The growth in the number of organic dairy farmers lagged behind compared to the national growth.
This is striking because the conventional dairy production in this province is very extensive. This means that the conventional dairy farmers could very easily convert to organic. As a matter of fact, almost without any effort.
Of course, the business operations, the management of the farm had to change. However, this was the same all over the country. Moreover, in the years preceding our research, the dairy industry and supermarkets invested heavily in expanding their organic dairy sales. Why did this province lag behind?
The advantages of organic farming: a world apart
Already in the first stage of our research, it appeared that conventional and organic dairy farmers did not share the same vision. They live in separate worlds. The conventional dairy farmers believe that the differences between conventional and organic farming, substantiate beyond the control of the individual farmer.
The conventional farmers believe that the so-called situational conditions, such as the market, laws and regulations, technical and financial possibilities, and the lack of pasture, determine the possibilities to farm.
In contrast, the organic farmers emphasize the substantial similarities between conventional and organic dairy farming. Organic dairy farmers also cherish the management skills required to operate an organic dairy farm. Conventional dairy farmers have far more doubts about their own farming capacities.
Moreover, the debate about conversion to organic is also burdened by ideological controversies. This is attributed to the lack of hard and unambiguous performance criteria for organic dairy farming. However, organic and conventional dairy farms use the same, predominantly economic, conventional feedback tools. The difference is that organic farmers are also aware of the impact of their efforts on the environment, animal welfare, and food safety.
Who is responsible?
All those who are involved in dairy farming, whether in production or in distribution, agree on one thing: the demand for organic dairy executes a key role in expanding the supply. They’re also all convinced that retail has the main task to increase demand. But the biological dairy products in the supermarket generally differ very little from the conventional products. Which hampers growth in sales.
Moreover, one should not underestimate that a significant expansion of the demand, also requires a significant expansion of the capacity of the dairy industry, and in the number of organic dairy farmers. Based on the 10% – target of this province, the number of organic dairy farmers needs to grow from the current 40 to between 140 and 170.
Based on our research we concluded that it should be possible to expand organic dairy farming in this province. However, the desire to convert to organic is very small among the conventional dairy farmers. Moreover, the target of 10% can almost only be achieved when the farmers, the industry, and retail combine their efforts. This is almost impossible because no one feels responsible for the realization of this target.
Based on our research, we offered the following recommendations. The first is that organic farming should much more be seen as an individual choice of an individual farmer. A farmer who capitalizes on the specific demand he or she identifies in the market.
The second recommendation is that there is a need for clear and unambiguous criteria and indicators, which provide feedback on the environmental, animal welfare, and food safety ambitions of organic farming.
The third recommendation is that a gradual growth of supply and demand of organic dairy is only possible when farmers, the industry, and retail arrange a contractual deal.
Even when these recommendations are taken to heart, the growth of organic dairy farming remains a big challenge. Specifically, conventional dairy farmers should pick up this challenge. In the end, it’s their stubborn belief that they lack the capacity to convert, which obstructs the serious growth of organic.
The personal challenges, which come with the advantages of organic farming
Why should we question our own beliefs when it comes to organic farming? There are many advantages of organic farming: the environment, animal welfare, and food safety are all better off.
How can we change our beliefs when it comes to organic farming? Start to answer the first question: who is responsible? The answer is: we all are responsible.
Next, we need to answer the following five questions on a very personal and responsible level:
- Are my ideas, is my ideology based on facts?
- What capacities do I need to profit from the advantages of organic farming?
- Who holds me back?
- What holds me back?
- Do I care for the environment, animal welfare, and food safety?
Even when you answer these questions to your satisfaction, the conversion to organic is a very big personal and family challenge. However, the world will only improve when we all make the effort to face our challenges.
What are your answers to these questions? Please respond in the comment box.