Awareness about the poor animal welfare standards on conventional farms has grown rapidly over the past few years, however, a major barrier to buying more humanely-raised (organic and free range) animal products for most people is the increased cost. There is no doubt about it that more humanely-raised animal products cost more, but there are good reasons for this.
It is not simply a matter of organic and free range farmers charging more for their animals just because they can. The fact is that when you raise an animal with adequate space for them to move around in, allowing it to exhibit natural behaviours, and feed it good quality food without the addition of hormones and antibiotics, it does cost more.
Below I list the main reasons why it costs more to raise animals according to organic and free range principles and hence why you pay more for them.
More space needed
While cows and sheep are generally raised outdoors in Australia, conventionally-raised poultry and pigs are raised indoors in cages or sheds. In contrast, organic and free range poultry and pigs must have space to roam and therefore more land is needed to farm in this way. As an example, the maximum allowed indoor stocking density* for conventionally-raised chickens can be up to 4 times higher than that of free range chickens.
Increased labour costs
Organic and free range methods of farming are more labour-intensive when compared with conventional farming methods, meaning that more people are required to do the job. This is because many of the processes involved which are automated on conventional farms, for example collecting eggs, is done by hand on organic and free range farms. Labour is a very expensive commodity, particularly in Australia where wages are high.
Increased growing time
As organic and free range animals are not fed growth hormones or antibiotics, they generally take longer to grow to market size. This means a longer lifespan (e.g. 63-80 days for an organic chicken compared with 35-49 days for a conventional one**) and consequently increased feed costs over an animals lifetime.
Increased feed costs
In addition to the point above, the cost of organic feed is higher. Organic crops are more expensive to grow for a number of reasons. For one, organic farmers don’t use artificial pesticides and must instead use more labour-intensive methods of pest control, such as hand weeding and crop rotation. Also, natural fertilisers, such as manure and compost, are more expensive than synthetic ones.
The costs of certification
Not only do organic and certified free range farmers need to pay an annual certification fee, they also incur additional costs associated with the modification of farm practices and the ongoing record keeping and education required in order to meet the standards.
No economies of scale
As most organic and free range farms are small-scale enterprises they cannot achieve the economies of scale that large-scale, intensive farms can. Now my understanding of economic theory isn’t great but put simply this means that larger producers have reduced production costs while smaller producers have higher costs.
So, although due to large-scale factory farming, we have come to expect cheap meat, eggs and dairy products, the price of organic and free range animal products much better reflects the true costs of producing a high quality product, which is better for the animals and ultimately for us the consumers.
You may not realize it but cheap animal products do come at a cost. I will explore that issue further in a future post. Until then, as always please remember to consume with care!
* All chickens are kept indoors in sheds at night for their protection.
** Contrary to popular belief chickens are not fed hormones, as this practice was banned in Australia in the 1960s. Antibiotics, however, are commonly used to prevent outbreaks of disease and to promote growth. The use of hormones is widespread in the conventional beef industry.