Price is a recurring theme in conversations about organic meat and eggs. I’m often asked – Why is organic meat is so expensive? Is the cheaper organic product being sold in some stores really organic? Why should I pay $6 or $7 a dozen for organic eggs? What are the benefits?
The simple answers are that organic feed costs a lot more (there is not enough supply to meet the demand) and there aren’t the same economies of scale seen in more intensive conventional systems. But the point is that organic farming is essentially different and will remain so. It’s a production system that protects and sustains ecological systems and promotes health. It is also based on fairness and humane treatment of animals.
Organic animal husbandry focuses on providing living conditions which allow animals to express their natural behaviours. Such care leads to a reduction in stress which in turns promotes the health and vitality of the animals and a higher resistance to disease. An appropriate diet which mimics their natural preference and is free of GE crops, increased space allowances, access to pasture and the outdoors whenever weather conditions permit and respectful handling are all part of the organic approach.
Conversely many conventional farms would be classified as intensive animal husbandry systems with a focus on maximizing productivity for profitability. Such operations often rely on the use of veterinary drugs to prevent disease, increase gains and generally prop up the system, whereas organic farmers try to eliminate the need for veterinary drugs and only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary to prevent suffering of the animal. Interestingly those breeds which do well in conventional systems and gain weight quickly do not necessarily do as well in organic systems. Sometimes changing breeds is the smartest move an organic farmer can make instead of waiting for their livestock to adapt. Either way it’s a costly endeavour.
The farmer who wants to convert to organic production will often have to make extensive modifications to existing infrastructure to comply with the standards elaborated for each species. For example sows cannot be housed individually and farrowing crates are not allowed. All pigs need to be provided with areas, either outside, or inside with deep bedding, to allow them to exhibit their natural rooting behaviour. Poultry barns must have natural light and floor areas which allow the birds to scratch and dust bath and rabbits need space to run, hop and dig.
Relative to the number of animals, organic farms generally need a larger land base whether to provide outdoor areas for poultry or more grazing for dairy cows. Pasture must be provided for ruminants during the grazing season with enough acreage available to allow for an adequate rotation to prevent long term damage to the soil and grass cover and to prevent the build up of parasites. We can all agree land is expensive and if more is needed to provide enough pasture, the cost of production increases.
As the scale of organic production increases to meet market demand so do the challenges. One wonders how far one can go without compromising the system. We are seeing larger operations now than existed a few years ago and this has helped lower the price in some markets but the goal is not to produce organic meat and eggs at prices comparable to conventional.
All organic farming should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the heath and well-being of current and future generations and the environment. Paying that extra dollar supports farmers doing the right thing for their animals, for the land, for the health of the environment and for our own health. Is it worth it? Most definitely yes!