Organic farming is on a roll. According to a report published yesterday by the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the total number of organic pigs in the Netherlands increased to over 91,000, almost a quarter more than in 2017. Organic potato production in particular has shown a vast growth, but the production of organic milk also increased. In 2017, more than 223 million pounds of raw organic milk was transported to dairy companies. That’s over 12 percent more than the previous year. The number of organic eggs grew by 14 percent.
And yet, organic farming is still quite small in relative terms. Last year, 3.2 percent of agricultural land was used for organic agriculture and 2.9 percent of all livestock was organic, versus 2.6 percent a year earlier. Milk production is even lower with 1.6 percent.
Even though the upward trend in organic agriculture is good for people and planet, it has a few downsides. For one, the high price causes people with less money to prefer industrially grown fruit and vegetables. ‘And that is exactly why this form of cultivation may in some cases, be better for public health,’ says Professor Anthony Trewavas (Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology – University of Edinburgh) in the magazine Nature. ‘Industrial crops are cheaper than organic crops and reach more people. Because of the low prices, more people can get their minimum dose of vitamins. And there’s some strong evidence for that: ever since industrial pesticides came into fashion making vegetables cheaper, the occurrence of stomach cancer has decreased by no less than 50 percent,’ says a survey done by David Coggon and Hazel Inskip (Oxford University). As stomach cancer often occurs in people who eat little or no vegetables, prevention is directly linked to lower vegetable prices. ‘As long as organic vegetables are expensive, they won’t reach the poorest of the poor.’
Volkert Engelsman, CEO of a leading organic fruit and vegetable distributor and a well-known sustainable pioneer, talks about the definition of profit. Many people associate ‘organic’ with ‘too expensive’. And that is precisely the great fallacy, because it’s the regular products that are too cheap. All sorts of social costs are not included in the price.’
So what is a fair price? ‘That is the price at which all costs are taken into account, including those for people and the environment. . We have grown accustomed to low prices. And supermarkets compete strongly for the lowest price. While you could also distinguish yourself from competitors with a sustainable and fair range of products.’
Jeroen Candel of Wageningen University agrees with him: ‘Supermarkets now see that the importance of values such as sustainability, animal welfare, health and food quality is growing, and they play to that market. They have a large influence on the food industry: thousands of farmers and horticulturists and millions of consumers are serviced by only a handful of purchasing offices and supermarket formulas. For a transition to a more sustainable and fairer food system, we need to get those parties moving.’
‘Supermarkets have a wrong definition of profit,’ says Engelsman It is based on the misconception that our natural resources are infinite. We must adjust the definition of profit. If you only look at the health costs, organic pears are 19 cents cheaper per kilo than regular pears, because less pesticides are used. I repeat: organic products are not too expensive, non-organic produce is too cheap.’
This post is also available in: Dutch