Eating organic has its advantages for our health. Now, a new study says it’s also financially healthy for farmers.
A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers compared to conventional farming. Currently, organic farming accounts for 1 percent of agricultural practice on the globe.
David Crowder, Ph.D., and John Reganold, Ph.D., researchers from Washington State University, conducted the meta-analysis. They wanted to find out if organic farming was profitable and thus had more incentives to expand.
Getting the Dirt on Farming
The scientists looked at 129 studies and found 44 that met their criteria to be part of an analysis of costs, gross returns, benefit/cost ratios, and net present values. Their analysis covered 55 types of crops in 14 countries, spanning five continents. It’s the first large-scale examination measuring economic sustainability of the two types of farming.
They noted that the premiums paid to organic farmers ranged from 29 to 32 percent above conventional prices. Even though organic crop yields were as much as 18 percent lower than traditional farming yields, the breakeven point for organic agriculture was 5 to 7 percent.
Crowder said that organic premiums were consistent over the past 40 years, and prices likely have not declined compared to conventionally grown produce.
“Organic produce is certainly more accessible to people than in the past because the market has grown rapidly over the past decade,” he said. “Growth in farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, as well as increased accessibility at the supermarket, have made organic produce more accessible to many people in the U.S.”
The authors say that better government policies could boost adoption of organic farming.
“Most growers that we work with, and probably in the United States in particular, do a little bit of organic and a lot of conventional,” Crowder said. “If they make a little bit of money on that organic acreage they might convert more of their farm.”
To become certified organic farmers, a farm must go through a three-year period. During it, they must detail how their land was managed and show that synthetic chemicals and fertilizers were not used. They also must show that they used organic practices.
“This can be a challenging period because farmers are often learning new production techniques and get lower yields, but they don't get the premium from their organic products,” Crowder explained.
In their analysis, Crowder and Reganold found that organic farmers have similar total costs compared to conventional farmers. They pay more in labor, which accounts for mechanical pest control instead of spraying the yields with pesticides. That is offset by less pesticide use, however.
“It is also important to note that some studies have shown that increased labor costs on organic farms can be beneficial by expanding the workforce in certain areas,” Crowder said.
Is Organic Healthier?
Knowing that organic farming is profitable to farmers is a useful tidbit of information for those who want to eat organic produce. But what’s in it for us?
According to a 2007 study from the U.K.’s Newcastle University, organic produce has up to 40 percent higher levels of nutrients including vitamin C, zinc, and iron. About a dozen other studies have shown similar results.
“Given that organic farming practices have been shown to promote healthy soils and biodiversity, reduce nitrate leaching and pesticide use, promote equally or more nutritious foods, [and] the fact that they are also financially sustainable means that organic has room to expand as a market force globally,” Crowder said.