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How many compromises can organic farming afford?

Jensen, Karsten Klint; Forkman, Björn and Sandøe, Peter (2010) How many compromises can organic farming afford? Working paper, Institute of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen . [Completed]

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Organic farming commits itself to a number of substantial values, and thereby it sets itself apart from conventional farming. In general, conventional large-scale intensive farming only commits itself to producing what the market demands. The market is, of course, regulated by national and international legislation. Within the limits set by legislation, international competition leaves very limited freedom of action for producers. This puts the responsibility for the state of affairs largely on the consumer or legislators.1 If, for instance, consumers would like to have better conditions for farm animals, the conventional farmers would, in theory at least, be happy to provide it as long as a sufficiently large segment of consumers are willing to pay more to cover the costs of increased animal welfare. If they are not, the farmers can hardly be blamed for the given state of affairs. By way of illustration, modern intensive agriculture has increased production efficiency dramatically during the last 30-40 years. But it is also known to have created a range of problems, for example in terms of adverse effects on the environment and welfare problems for the production animals. Because of these problems, conventional intensive agriculture has earned a bad reputation among large segments of the general public in large parts of the industrialised world. However, even though improvements up to a certain point regarding animal welfare and environmental effects pay off in terms of higher output or lower costs, improvements which go beyond this limit involve increased production costs. And, if the product is not sold with a special premium, it will not be possible for farmers to make such improvements. Therefore, the creation of improvements which go beyond the bare minimum, defined by the requirements of efficiency, are largely left for political regulation - and a number of initiatives have been taken in order to improve the situation. However, such initiatives are at risk of being hampered by the everlasting requirement for producers to increase productivity in order to maintain competitiveness on a more and more globalised and price-driven food market. Organic producers are met with the same requirement to increase productivity. However, organic farming differs in theory by taking responsibility and producing according to value-based standards derived from set principles. Admittedly, there is a gap between the organic principles (e.g. IFOAM 2005) which have been stated to capture value ideals adhered to by organic producers and the various national and international standards (e.g. EU regulation 2092/91) which translate the values into operational rules (Padel 2007). The standards are naturally mostly concerned with measurable and/or auditable properties of the production and thereby leave out those aspects of the principles, which do not easily translate into such measures. Moreover, the standards are the outcome of a political process involving numerous stakeholder groups which therefore results in compromises between various concerns. Still, states of affairs in accordance with these standards represent a value-based level of aspiration, which organic farming, at least for the time being, implicitly endorses as ‘good enough’. For many people, therefore, organic farming appears to be a superior alternative (Yiridoe et al 2005, Hughner et al 2007). Even though organic farming only covers a small percentage of the food market, the expressed sympathy in the general public in most EU countries appears far greater than the market share. It is probably for this reason that organic farming in Europe has become the subject of increased attention from the political sphere. Against the background of this very roughly painted picture, organic farming has committed itself to outperforming conventional farming in a number of areas, albeit with somewhat higher costs. However, organic farming faces some real challenges. Some of these are problems it shares with conventional farming, e.g. problems with mastitis and foot diseases in dairy cows and the killing of male chickens in laying hens. However, in light of the greater expectations to organic farming regarding issues such as health and care (Torjusen et al 2004, Zanoli 2004), the problems are likely to be perceived as being more of a challenge to organic farming by consumers and the political system. Other challenges are more specific to organic farming, e.g. the high mortality rate of out-door reared piglets and the higher prevalence of feather pecking and cannibalism in laying hens. These challenges are very serious for the organic movement, since consumers will have great difficulty understanding how the organic standards can allow organic farming to perform worse than conventional farming in important areas.
In these cases, it is more difficult for organic farming than for conventional farming to blame the market. Of course, organic farming is also subject to economic constraints. But if it starts to defend itself in the face of problems by referring to economic constraints – which is something that conventional farming tends to do – it is likely to lose its special status in the eyes of the public. Therefore, cases in which organic farming fares worse than conventional farming represent a great challenge to organic farming. As already indicated, the organic stand has led many consumers to expect organic farming to take greater care of human health, animal welfare and the environment than conventional farming. If some of these are persistently adversely affected, consumers are likely to become disillusioned. In this paper, our aim is to analyse and discuss the challenge faced by organic farming in cases in which production seems to have more severe problems than conventional farming. This we do with reference to the case study of welfare problems in organic egg production. Before going into the case, we start by trying to conceptualise the organic values and priorities. Then we move on to illustrate how the challenges relating to our case can be understood in the light of these values and priorities. Finally, we discuss potential responses available to organic farming.

Summary translation

Mens konventionelt landbrug blot forpligter sig til at producere, hvad efterspørgslen dikterer, påtager økologisk landbrug sig et etisk ansvar for at producere i overensstemmelse med standarder, der er afledt af økologiens egne værdier og prioriteringer. Dette forhold er formentlig forklaringen på den bredt udtrykte sympati, der hersker for økologien. Men det gør også økologien sårbar i de tilfælde, hvor produktionen ikke synes at leve op til økologiens egne værdier.
Gennem en analyse af økologiens værdier identificeres en fundamental prioritering i økologien, nemlig at miljø, dyrevelfærd og menneskelig sundhed skal tjenes gennem et "sundt" økosystem, snarere end gennem isoleret behandling af symptomer. Det følger heraf, at hvis dyr, mennesker eller miljøet vedholdende fungerer dårligt i økosystemet, så skal løsningen søges i at få økosystemet til arbejde "sundere".
Nogle af de velfærdsproblemer, som findes hos økologiske æglæggende høner, ville ifølge økologiens ideer løses ved små flokstørrelser, men denne løsning realiseres ikke på grund af økonomiske hensyn. For andre problemer mangler der ideer til løsning. Denne case er måske ikke i sig selv repræsentativ for al økologisk produktion, men den rejser alligevel et principielt spørgsmål om, i hvilket omfang økonomiske hensyn tillader økologien at gå på kompromis i forhold til egne værdier – et spørgsmål, som det er relevant for økologien at overveje i lyset af, at nye markedsandele ofte vil være betinget af, at merprisen i forhold til konventionelle produkter må være beskeden.
Artiklen peger på to mulige strategier: den pragmatiske, hvor man indrømmer, at det kan være nødvendigt at gå på kompromis, og den idealistiske, hvor man afviser alvorlige kompromiser på bekostning af, at visse former for produktion ikke vil være realisable.

EPrint Type:Working paper
Subjects: Values, standards and certification
Animal husbandry > Health and welfare
Values, standards and certification > Consumer issues
Research affiliation: Denmark > DARCOF III (2005-2010) > CONCEPTS - The Future Outlook for the Organic Market in Denmark
Deposited By: Andersen, Assistant Professor Laura M
ID Code:18793
Deposited On:17 May 2011 11:18
Last Modified:13 Mar 2022 11:39
Document Language:English
Refereed:Not peer-reviewed

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