Biological farming can no longer be considered a matter of idealism. The strong "open sandals and woolly sock” image, formerly adhering to this sector, has made way for a more businesslike approach. Farming- economical comparisons show that a better living is to be made by breeding biologically than by conventional production methods. It is, however, a different way of working.
In biological crop farming, the cost price per hectare is higher, whilst the cost-effectiveness per kilo can be considerably lower. Added to this, risks to cultivation are higher, because pesticides against disease and plagues may not be used. The chance of poorer harvests is also thus increased. Still, the company balance of the average biological crop farm is 17,000 Euros more than that of conventional farms. This is due to the fact that the price of biological produce is much higher. In dairy farming, these differences are less obvious, but the earnings of a biological farmer are no less than that of his "normal” colleague. He earns more than five Eurocents, or about 15% more per kilo of milk.
The favourable earnings in biological farming are not the result of the method applied. In the agricultural sector, averages do not mean very much. In the biological sector, there are also farmers who run at a loss. In biological farming, it is also good entrepreneurship which will determine earnings, not the method used. The majority of farmers who make the switch (to biological farming) are normally well organized. They are generally around forty years of age, have a solid financial position and are looking for new challenges. They view the switch to biological farming from a business perspective and there is nothing wrong with that. It shows that the repulsive practices of conventional farming are not at all required in order to be able to make a decent living as a farmer.
However, that business perspective is only seen by a very limited group of farmers. In The Netherlands, only 0,6% of agricultural space is used for biological farming by more than 500 farmers. In Germany, Denmark and particularly Austria, these percentages are much higher. The annual increase in biological farming in those countries is also much stronger than here.
Blame for the disappointing growth in biological farming in The Netherlands Is often apportioned to the Dutch consumer. According to various market researches, he would be willing to pay more for biological products, but once in the shop, the majority of consumers go for the cheaper, conventional product. A small, but growing minority of consumers regularly purchases biologically grown products. It is not without reason that more than 60% of biological products are destined for the export market.
The Dutch consumer is obviously not thinking straight when it comes to food. This is not strange for a people that list the meatball, the rissole and the hot dog among their culinary masterpieces. In all three of these cases, offal from offal is used. Minced meat is made from meat residue. You don't want to know what a rissole and a hot dog contain.
The relatively small growth in the biological sector is not only the result of failure to sell on the domestic market. The structure of the Dutch agricultural business forms just as great a hindrance to progress here. This structure is characterised by a high degree of specialism: relatively large industries which only concern themselves with a very limited number of products in order to keep the cost price as low as possible. This formula, formerly so successful, stands in the way of a large scaled transition to a biological method of production. What also helps, of course, is that the hidden costs of conventional farming are not calculated into the prices in the supermarket. And neither are the subsidies.
In biological crop farming, soil diseases and other plagues are not treated with pesticides; the farmers try to prevent them rather. Many soil diseases are caused by the fact that the same crops are grown continually on a certain piece of land. Biological farmers work differently, by alternating the type of crop that is sown in a field. A field which has been used to grow peas one year, for example, will not be used for peas again for another six years. In the normal way, a crop farmer will keep to three crops: potatoes, wheat and sugar beet. To be able to alternate crops, more harvests are required, which requires more knowhow, because an approach like this makes it all more complicated. At the same time, the farmer's work becomes considerably more interesting.
Making the transition is not a simple task. Farmers wishing to do so must first produce biologically for a period of three years, before they become eligible for the bio quality mark. Their land must firstly be totally free of pesticides and artificial manure. The Authorities provide financial support during the transition period. After all, the farmer is producing in a biological way, but he is as yet unable to sell his products as "biological” and as such cannot ask the higher price.
There are several million Euro's available per annum for further stimulation of biological farming. That seems a large amount, but in fact it is not. Set against the more than 600 million Euros a year that go to Dutch conventional dairy farmers alone, the stimulation subsidy for biological farming appears to be only symbolic.
In other words: each year we provide more than 600 million Euros subsidy to maintain a dubious branch of industry and only have a pittance available to change this.
There are two trends in biological farming. The biological-dynamic branch is the oldest and came about in 1924, based on the anthroposophic philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. This otherwise controversial philosopher not only rejected the use of pesticides and artificial manure, but he also laid a connection between man and the cosmos. Biological-dynamic farmers are led in their method of farming by the stand of the moon and the stars. Following a calendar specially published for this purpose, they sow during a period of rising moon and harvest after full moon.
The second trend - ecological farming - came about during the Seventies, influenced by an increasing awareness about the state of the environment. Pesticides and artificial manure are also rejected by followers of this trend, but the stand of the moon and the stars is of no importance to this group. Both trends are attributed to biological farming and are both good for about half of the agricultural space. The growth in biological farming is mainly to be seen in the ecological branch.
Biological farming has become an internationally maintained and protected collective name. In 1991, the European Union laid down in a regulation the conditions which animal and vegetable biological products must meet. Approved biological products may carry the Eko quality mark. In The Netherlands, this is controlled by the Skal foundation, an organisation of biological farmers, processors and traders appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture.
In The Netherlands an exception to the European regulation was needed and it was acquired. It amounts to the fact that Dutch biological products are not actually biological, but may be called so. This is because, instead of artificial manure, crops in biological industries are given a diet of organic manure. This is exactly where the controversial issue lies for the Dutch bio farmer: stored in enormous manure silos.
Crop farming and market gardening begin with fertilization. A plant also needs to eat. On biological farms, no artificial manure may be used and organic manure (from cows, chickens, pigs) is normal. There is, however, no biological organic manure to be found in The Netherlands. As biological livestock farmers need the manure from their animals for their own purpose, they have hardly any surplus available. And so the biological crop farmers and market gardeners who do not keep livestock themselves, are dependent on manure from conventional farmers. The European Union allows this, but the question is hereby raised as to how "biological” the Dutch biological product actually is. That smudge has not yet been erased.
It is almost impossible for biological farmers to start a livestock farm alongside their crop farms. Investments in a dairy farm, for example are huge. Apart from land and cows, production rights (quota) also need to be purchased. To be able to work anyway profitably, a dairy farm would need a quota of at least 600.000 kilos of milk. This alone costs 1,2 million Euros, before there is even one cow in the field.
A similar story applies to pigs or chickens, only manure rights and not production rights are concerned here. In order to be able to produce sustainably, production needs to be done in an integrated way. This means a little of each type of farming: combined industries which operate in livestock farming alongside crop farming or market gardening.
This is not in line with the current trend in the agricultural sector where further specialisation is being pursued.