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Is organic food more expensive to produce? Fact or fiction

Mary L. González's picture
Also available in: Español

My work with small-hold cocoa farmers in Nicaragua has taught me that it is not true that organic production is more expensive, complicated to learn and unsustainable.
 
The Sustainable Agroforestry Cocoa Production Project (COCOA-RAAN) was implemented within the Autonomous Region of the North Atlantic, the largest in Nicaragua, with a budget of just US$ 1.9 million.  
 
The project, financed by the Japanese Social Development Fund, demonstrated that not only is organic production cheaper than conventional production, it also increases productivity, improves the environment as well as quality of life for farmers and offers the buyer a healthier final product.

For this project, farmers were trained in low-cost organic production techniques such as  preparing  compost heaps to produce compost and fertilizers for their fields. Before working with the COCOA-RAAN, farmers had to buy expensive fertilizers, which were also costly to transport and apply.

Transporting fertilizer from Managua to the Autonomous Region – located in the northeast of the country in the buffer zone of the world’s third largest biosphere, BOSAWAS- costs approximately US$ 1,000 per 200 quintals. Members of the cooperatives then had to pay to have it delivered to their respective farms, which are spread out throughout the area.

Now farmers like Omar Sujo, a member of the Bonanza Cooperative, prepare compost and organic fertilizer on their farms in just a month – a significant reduction in production time, which has also eliminated the need to use seedbeds. Savings are approximately 70%.

Don Omar also noted that planting on the farm saves an average of US$28 per hectare compared with planting seedbeds in greenhouses, and US$ 56 when transporting the seedbed to the farm, not including approximately US$ 1,400 per hectare for labor. Additionally, around 10% of the plants die when seedbeds are transported to the farm with a further 15% perishing during replanting. With this project, plant mortality dropped by 70%.

Plant stress has also been reduced. In eight months, the plants grow 90 centimeters high and 2.5 centimeters thick. These plants will be ready to produce in two years as compared to the four years required by the previous plants.

The higher price paid for organic cocoa is another major advantage and incentive. Organic cocoa sold to RAAN goes for approximately US$200 more than conventional cocoa. While the market price is higher, production costs are considerably lower and plants grow more quickly, which as a result, significantly increases farmers’ incomes.

Today COCOA-RAAN is contributing to safeguarding the third largest forest reserve in the world and largest in Central America. This is thanks to its clear strategy for beneficiary participation and capacity-building, continuous investment in human capital as well as the involvement of  men, women and young people  in creating household protected spaces and improve living conditions, all of which pay special attention to environmental conservation.

The project has demonstrated that organic production is not more expensive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It is cheaper than conventional production. What’s more, organic production also increases productivity as well as  improving both the environment and quality of life for farmers along with offering a healthier product to market.

Comments

Submitted by Kate Mandeville on

Thanks for the interesting blog. I'd like to point out, however, that there is very little evidence for nutritional differences between conventional and organic produce. Stating that the organic cocoa will be a healthier product on the market is not backed up by evidence. (See these systematic reviews: https://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685 and http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/90/3/680.full). The higher prices of organic food (as shown by the higher profits for the farmers here) are prohibitive for many people. In general, greater health benefits can be gained by eating more fruit and vegetables, not whether these are organic or conventional.

The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. In a recent study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, researchers fed organically and conventionally grown carrots to mice. Mice who ate organic had an increase in regulatory T cells, which are key for immune function. This study looked at the effects of eating organic food. In contrast, most simply compare nutrient and contaminant levels in organic versus conventional foods. As you pointed out recent studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine argue that there is still more research to be done to conclude categorically that organic foods are superior than conventional. One of the issues is that data concerning possible impacts on animal and human health of diets comprising organic or conventional produce are extremely sparse. Data from controlled studies are limited or poorly designed, and findings from these studies provide conflicting conclusions. There are no reports in the literature of controlled intervention studies in human subjects. Comparison of health outcomes in populations that habitually consume organically- or conventionally-produced foods are flawed by the large number of confounding factors that might contribute to any differences reported. Thank you for dropping such an interesting subject.

Submitted by Raj raina on

is it possible to get production cost per hectare using organic and non-organic methods? thank you praina@ifc.org

Yes, we have production cost per ha using conventional and organic methods. You can visit the online M&E www.monitoreo.acicafocnic.org or you can contact Isidro Mendoza (Imendoza@acicafoc.org) and we can share with you the impact evaluation report prepared by independent consultant. This document is under review, but we are planning to disseminate results. Please let me know anything else you need. Best regards

Submitted by Elizabeth Cuevas on

Economically and environmentally sustainable development that empowers people; Congratulations! The world needs more of these kinds of initiatives.

Thank you very much. We are doing our best to prepare initiatives to work on the Inclusive - Green - Growth agenda from different angles. Working directly with communities improving productivity and increasing their incomes while protecting natural resources is one of the goals we are strongly committed to take very seriously.

Submitted by Gwyneth Fries on

Thank you for this! We're looking at logistics for cocoa exportation in Grenada, and wanted to look into the high price for transporting fertilizers - perhaps there are some lessons to learn from this project!

I am happy to exchange the results and the experience with you. I am also implementing another one in Honduras named "COCOA BIOSFERA. We will have ready the evaluation of the COCOA RAAN in the next months. The idea is to disseminate its results and share the information with other practitioners and farmers. In the mean time check our website monitoreo.acicafocnic.org and the www.cocoaraan.com (this a cocoa and chocolate fair organized in Managua). Let's share experiences. We might be able to prepare a South- South exchange. Thank you. Regards

Submitted by Mercedes Castro on

Great job, congratulations to you and all the team that worked on this project. I hope you continue developing more ideas and projects to protect our enviroment and save our Pachamama

Submitted by Anonymous on

Many thanks for your comment. We are committed to do our best to protect the environment and to improve livelihood's of rural communities. Best

Submitted by Jon Paul on

Thanks Mary, this is a very interesting article that has also produced some interesting responses. I tend to agree with you about the relative costs of producing organic food, as many of the costs in modern non-organic farming are hidden or passed on to the general community or future generations; eg transport and environmental costs.
I will add an heretical note and say that the relative benefits of organic vs other foods will never be firmly established through more scientific research. I think everyone knows in their hearts, though, that food which is grown in a sustainable fashion has to be better for the world for a myriad of reasons - personal empowerment, less use of pesticides and fuel, soil enhancement...the list goes on and on.

Thanks Jon Paul. Indeed prices may increase because transportation and because marketing. As soon as the distribution chain for organic products is more efficient and volumes increase hopefully the price would drop. Please allow me to emphasize your points about other benefits of organic food such as the fact that (a) organic cash crops compensate for low financial returns of rotational periods which are necessary to build soil fertility; (b) higher standards for animal welfare; (c) avoidance of health risks to farmers due to inappropriate handling of pesticides (and avoidance of future medical expenses); (d) rural development by improving peoples’ livelihood's assuring a fair and sufficient income to producers, and finally (e) ensuring that people have the opportunity to have healthy choices. Once again Jon Paul thanks. Best wishes.

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