Research in organic agriculture

Economic, social, environmental and political impacts

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Economic, social, environmental and political impacts

Prices and environmental issues are not the only concern of consumers. Product characteristics, such as taste, appearance, nutrition, shelf life, brand, image and other factors make up the total package. Knowledge about the production process, such as the assurance that no child labour or the destruction of rain forests has been involved, is a further characteristic that some consumers are interested in purchasing. These various characteristics come in a bundle, be it an apple, a banana or a can of tuna. Sound marketing involves providing consumers with products containing the characteristics they want and avoiding the expense associated with unwanted characteristics. There is little point in producing a product with an extended shelf life if consumers intend to eat the product immediately. Identifying the particular characteristics that consumers in different markets want is important.

A final point on expanding consumption and hence production of organic products concerns taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Such opportunities are most likely to relate to scares surrounding conventional food. Concerns over BSE and growth hormones in beef, and more recently the advent of genetically modified foods, raise in consumers' minds the importance of thinking about what they eat. Such events are likely to provide an opportunity for the organic industry to increase its market share if it can respond quickly enough to the change in consumer preferences.

Promotion (advertising) may seem in some ways to be a waste of resources, but has an important role in expanding the organic market. For example, in the early 1990s the organic market in many European countries was rather stagnant. In 1993, a combination of lower prices and advertising campaigns in which consumers learned about the availability and prices of organic products in Denmark meant a sudden increase in consumption of organic produce, which was maintained (Hamm and Michelsen 1996, p.217), and has expanded since that time. An assessment of the value of such campaigns and the scope for replication in other markets may well be a useful expenditure of research funds.

Governments and corporate bodies, (such as airlines or hotel chains) with a policy on buying only organic products, could make a huge difference to the total demand, especially at current levels. Some corporate bodies could be convinced that to be seen to provide or consume organic food could enhance their clean and green image. For example, in Denmark about one third of the total consumption of organic food is accounted for by institutional and commercial kitchens in the public and private sector. In the public sector are mentioned hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and residential and day-care institution; in the private sector hotels, restaurants, teaching institutions and the commercial transport catering sector (Danish Directorate for Development 1999). In Sweden, all train restaurants and cafe's on the main railway stations have at least one organic dish on the menu, leading to the expectation that 19,000 organic meals will be served per month (Ecology and Farming 1999, p.6).

So far we have identified the diversity of interests among stakeholders and discussed the scope for expanding the organic market by focusing on consumer needs and preferences. No mention has been made yet of other - overarching - kinds of research which has the potential to convince governments to change policies, for example to make organic agriculture easier to pursue for producers, or to increase research funding. Topics for such research could include present policies, pointing out where they discriminate against organic farmers (such as the EU policies of subsidies on area under certain crops), or potential gains from stimulating organic agriculture, although environmental research, mentioned above, would fall under this heading. This kind of research can, of course, also contribute in no small way to improving conditions such that the adoption of organic farm management methods becomes more likely. An example of this work is that carried out by five European universities over the last few years, funded by the European Commission in 1996 (European Network for Scientific Research Coordination in Organic Farming).

Next we look at current research priorities and expenditures before assessing whether better targeting of effort towards goals may be desirable.

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