Why organic food is costlier?

It seems counter-intuitive but the current sense of the word ‘Culture’ seems to have been derived from the word ‘Agriculture’ and not the other way around. And it is ironic that there is almost no culture left in mainstream agriculture anymore.

What we are now seeing is not synthesis, which is what agriculture needs, but complete isolation and breakdown of processes. On the surface and for economic benefits in the short term, it seems to be working for the majority of the population. But only a minority seem to be privy to the knowledge that the linear systems of industrialized forms of agriculture are causing widespread destruction.

By breaking down processes such as soil fertilizing, seed saving, pest control etc., the conceiving of agricultural policy has lost vision of what needs to be done to make growing of food sustainable in the long term. There is such little interaction between the individual process owners that the dependencies between them is no longer studied. Therefore most research is failing to visualize that the indiscriminate chase of productivity increase of a single crop is doing severe damage to biodiversity and soil health.

Malabar Neem, Guava, Star Gooseberry, Jamun, Neem growing in a ground cover of tulsi, grasses and several edible greens. The multiple layers perform different functions and work with each other

Top reasons why organic produce is expensive

To answer the question at hand, there are many reasons for this, but I would like to highlight the top few:

1. Mechanization of farm operations such as ploughing helps farmers achieve economies of scale. With economies of scale comes efficiency and ease of operations. And with them, abuse of resources. With so much fossil fuel use in agriculture, we are borrowing from the future of our children. The environmental cost and social costs are too high for this kind of farming to be sustainable in the long run. It is now common knowledge that fossil fuel usage is one of the major causes of climate change. A debt based financial system has ensured availability of cheap petrol diesel and tractors promising them higher productivity. Yet, farmers are the most indebted people in this country.

Regenerative farming mostly relies on observation and physical work. Both of which need time and effort. The processes of making compost, manual harvesting, weeding vegetable beds, mulching trees all need much more labour than mechanized forms of farming. The higher cost of organic produce is money directly going to the pockets of farmers and labourers. Whereas, industrial farming fills pockets of heavy industry captains, bankers and fossil fuel manufacturers.

2. The absence of farming families and communities in the village economy has reduced the opportunities of cooperative farming. With large scale migration that happened to cities post economic liberalization of 1990s, rural youth got attracted to manufacturing and services industries. Instead of giving impetus and revolutionizing the agriculture industry with organic ways of farming, we commenced the process of destruction of natural resources in the world’s 2nd most populated country.

When entire families and joint families were involved in farming, the cost of operations of a farm were low. By tearing apart the village fabric, the average farmer has to now rely on external laborers to carry out jobs in his farm. And an organic farmer who is dependent on more labour because of its nature as highlighted in previous point, spends even more.

3. Subsidies by Central and state government are currently almost exclusively for industrial agriculture. Subsidized fertilizers in no way make sense any more. Free power and water is further accelerating the depletion of groundwater tables making the situation worse for everybody.

I don’t know if MNREGA provides labour at the farm for organic farming. If any one of you reading this knows, please email me on sudhakar2310@gmail.com or drop in a comment below

4. Productivity decrease during the first few years of conversion from industrial farming to natural ways of farming needs a cushion in the form of higher prices of produce

5. People think that organic farming is a fad and doesn’t make a lot of difference in their lives or future generations. So demand for organic farming is not growing at the rate needed for prices to increase. Without demand increasing, supply won’t increase easily. And without supply increasing, it won’t be possible to achieve economies of scale for even small aggregators.

Regenerative farming is organic farming++. It is a mode of farming in which you let life in the soil thrive. Disturb the soil minimally, create circular nutrient cycles with companion planting, keep soil covered, use only compost to fertilize the soil when needed. In the pic : Banana and papayas among coconut mango trees with a ground cover of chillies, lemongrass, pineapples, chillies, Rosella, etc.

Majority of cost for regenerative or organic farming

1. Improvement of soil health and production of organic fertilizers

2. Preserving biodiversity and pest control. Destroying is easy, creating and preserving life is difficult in the present day and age

3. Increasing water retention by land management practices

What are the changes needed for making organic food cheaper

1. Governments : Dismantling of incentives to cultivate food industrially over a 10-15 year period. Build incentives for rural youth to generate employment in agriculture to arrest rural – urban migration.

2. Society : Increase diversity of food basket – introduce more native and seasonal produce. Pay more for food which takes more effort to grow. Encourage children to learn more about soil, agriculture and food.

3. Businesses : Direct procurement from farmers. Reduce layers of supply chain between farmer and consumer

4. Farmers : Add value to produce and sell directly to consumer as much as possible.

Papayas need nutrient rich soils to grow. The size of papayas is a testament of the power regenerative farming. Leaving the soil undisturbed let’s mycorrhizae fungi thrive which ensure nutrient (esp. phosphorus) availability to the soil. Green manure such as glyricidia (in the background of the pic) are very important to regen farming. The roots of which form associations with rhizobia, a bacteria which fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere.

P. S. My amma wants us to price products on parity with conventionally farmed products or with a small premium. I was on the fence regarding this for quite some time. In the long term, once soil health is excellent and there is plenty of biodiversity, the cost of organic cultivation should come down. But about 5 years would be needed to achieve this at each farm. The time needed for India to convert a majority of the farms to organic farming would be even more because the transition would have to be gradual and slow. This blog primarily addresses the pricing of organic produce for these first few years.

Regards

Sudhakar

sudhakar2310@gmail.com

4 Comments Add yours

  1. 5 years sounds about right to get a piece of land thriving and conditioned to support organic farming. In an economic sense it seems very far out and unreasonable, but in an objective practical sense it’s really not that long at all. Post secondary school takes 4 years to get each student to ‘entry level’ and costs a lot of money and that’s an acceptable practice, so 5 years to get a fully conditioned piece of land that will produce efficiently really isn’t as unpractical as it appears.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sudhakar says:

      Yes. Exactly. And most of that happens in an organic farm is biomimicry. Our education system barely mimics nature and rarely does it train students about natural systems.

      Like

  2. Arun Lakshmanan says:

    Appreciate the insightful reasons you have brought about. Without Govt subsidies at grassroot level for localized-labour employing, regenerative farming communities, I wonder how the minimum 5 year-break even scale is even achievable. 73 years of independence, and Gandhi’s Talisman in each NCERT note – and yet, how did we miss this (need for non-industrial farming to be promoted with direct or indirect subsidies )?.

    Liked by 1 person

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