Profitability of organic farming in Europe


Organic farming in Europe has seen a
dynamic development over the past few years. From 1993 to 1999 the area under
organic management more than tripled, and a further significant increase is
foreseen. Financial performance is widely seen as an important factor
determining the acceptance of organic farming. Still, as several surveys have
shown, the motives for conversion to organic farming are numerous, and in the
past the ‘economic’ incentive was often less important in this decision than
other factors, such as concerns about the environment (see e.g. Schulze Pals
1994). This aspect should be kept in mind when evaluating the economic data of
organic farms. However, the strong growth in the adoption of organic management
practices following the introduction of financial support for organic farming
in most countries highlights the increased importance of financial aspects.

Materials and methods

Data collection for this study was carried
out by national experts in each of the EU and three non-EU-countries. Guided by
a standardised questionnaire, the national experts were advised to draw on
scientific journals, specialised literature as well as the relevant grey
literature, on the results of ongoing research projects and on farm accounting

The comparability of economic calculations
between countries is a common problem for economic analysis, due not only to
the differences in definitions. Different costs of living and purchasing power
parities make comparisons of absolute figures less meaningful. Therefore, all
analysed indicators of the organic farms were related to those of comparable
conventional farms, as conventional farming usually represents the most common
alternative agricultural production system. A comparison of these ratios can be
made between countries and studies, with differences in methodology and
definitions being of much less consequence for the results.

Results and discussion

Resources and production structure

In most countries, organic farms are on average
larger than conventional farms. Labour use is higher than on comparable
conventional farms, but the extent of the higher labour requirements is
strongly dependent on the farm type. The majority of the studies evaluated
report an increase of labour needs in the range of 10-20 %. While
intensive livestock farms may even reduce their labour needs due to a reduction
in stocking rates, extensive livestock farms often have similar labour
requirements to conventional management, while horticultural farms may need
more than twice the labour input of conventional farms. Production structures
of organic farms differ significantly from conventional ones, quite generally
the area of cereals, oilseeds and maize for silage is reduced. On the other
hand, the area of leys, fodder crops, vegetables, potatoes and pulses is
relatively larger. Stocking rates are on average lower, at 60-80 % of the
respective rate on comparable conventional farms.


In Europe, yields in organic crop production
are in general significantly lower than under conventional management. But,
these yield differences vary between crops, and partly also between countries
and regions analysed. For cereals, the range of observed typical yield ratios
is quite narrow for most countries, especially in central and western Europe.
Cereal yields are typically 60-70% of those under conventional management. For
most countries the studies evaluated show a high variation in both the absolute
and the relative yield levels of potatoes. This variation exists within
countries, between countries, and for data of different years. Vegetable yields
are often just as high as under conventional management. Few data are available
on pasture and grassland yields in organic farming, reported values lie in the
range of 70-100% of conventional yields, depending on the intensity of use. In
livestock production, performances per head are quite similar to those in
conventional farming. But, due to the lower stocking rates observed in organic
farms, performances per ha are lower.


An important aspect of the profitability of
organic farms is the opportunity of receiving higher farm gate prices for
organically produced goods than for conventionally produced ones. Prices vary
considerably between the different marketing channels. The realised average
organic price depends on the level of these prices and on the quantities market
via the respective sales channels. For many products, the calculation of an
‘average organic farm gate price’ has to take into account that in many cases
part of the production still has to be sold at conventional prices. Currently,
premium prices are very high for most crop products. In nearly all countries
analysed, average farm gate prices for organically produced wheat were
50-200 % higher than for conventionally produced wheat, while for potatoes
average premia were in the range of 50 % to up to more than 500 %.

In contrast, the average premium prices
realisable for livestock products are generally significantly lower.
Organically produced milk received on average a premia of 8-36 % on
conventional prices. Data on prices for organically produced meat was available
for only a few countries. While average farm gate prices for organic beef
exceeded conventional prices by 30 %, the respective premia was
20-70 % for pork. Still, during the last few years, prices for some crop
products came under pressure, while for livestock products, premium prices can
increasingly be realised.

Payments for organic farming

Organic farming is supported in all the
countries analysed within agri-environmental programmes. Payment levels and
eligibility conditions vary significantly between countries, and thus the
impact of these grants on the financial performance of organic farms may differ
regionally. While most countries support both conversion to and continuation of
organic farming, in France and Great Britain only conversion is supported.
Payment levels for arable land in first two years of conversion range from 100
EURO/ha/year in Great Britain to 470 EURO/ha/year in Finland and more than 800
EURO/ha/year in Switzerland (Lampkin et al. 1999).


As far as possible, the definition of profit
was based on the definition of ‘Family Farm Income’ according to Farm
Accountancy Data Network of the European Commission, i.e. profit represents the
return to the farm family’s own labour, land and capital. The most notable
exception is the UK, where net farm income was used as an indicator of

The analysis of the economic situation of
organic farms in Europe shows that on average profits are similar to those of
comparable conventional farms, with nearly all observations lying in the range
of +/- 20 % of the profits of the respective conventional reference groups
(Figure 1), but variance within the samples analysed is high. Profitability
varies between the countries surveyed, and between different farm types.

Due to the high price premia realisable in the
last few years, and the design of the general Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
measures (set-aside, compensatory arable payments), organic arable farms have
in several countries been more successful than the average. For dairy farms, in
general relative profitability is higher if measured per family work unit than
if measured per ha utilisable agricultural area. With the exception of one
study in Italy, the observed profits per family work unit were equal to or
higherthan in comparable
conventional farms in all countries for which data was available. On the other
hand, only for a few samples average profits per ha were at least similar to
the conventional reference group. Very few data is available on horticultural
and pig and poultry farms. The respective studies highlight both the risks and
the opportunities that exist for these farms. For specialised, highly intensive
farms, it would as a rule currently not be profitable to convert to organic

The economic performance is in most countries
significantly influenced by the support payments for organic farming, which on
average contribute approximately 16-24 % of profits in Austria, Denmark,
Germany and Switzerland. Even more important is often the marketing situation.
Data from Great Britain and Germany show higher prices for organic products to
account for 40-73 % of profits for arable farms, while the respective
share is lower for dairy farms (10-48 %).

Longer time series for profits of organic and
comparable organic farms were available for Germany and Switzerland (Figure 2).
Profits of the organic farms were slightly higher in almost all years in both
countries. In Switzerland, profits were clearly affected by the introduction of
direct payments for organic farmers after 1993, and the market entry of a large
retail chain. In Germany, falling profits per ha may possibly be due to the
expiration of the former extensification program, which offered higher payments
than the current support programmes according to EC-Reg. 2078/92. But what is
astonishing is the extreme similarity of the curves for conventional and
organic farms over the years. This indicates that external, non-systeminherent
factors like climate, prices and general agricultural policy are influencing
both farming systems in very much the same way.

Figure 1:     Profits of organic farms relative to
comparable conventional farms in different countries

Source: Own calculations based on FAT (diff. years) and BMELF (diff.

Figure 2:     Development
of profits of organic and comparable conventional farm in Switzerland and

Frank Offermann and Hiltrud Nieberg

Institute of Farm
Economics and Rural Studies

Federal Agricultural
Research Centre, Bundesallee 50, D-38116 Braunschweig, Germany,

Keywords: Profitability, Economics, Policy, Europe


The development of the political framework in
the European Union is likely to contribute to a further increase of organic
farming in the following years. The latest agricultural policy reform (‘Agenda
2000’) will further reduce production-related price support and move towards more
decoupled transfer payments, which increases the relative profitability of
organic farming systems. Several governments have included the goal of
increasing the area under organic management in their political programme and
raised support payment levels. However, in the long run, a sustainable
expansion of organic farming will depend on consumers willing to pay a premium
for organic products.


The paper is based on a report
which has been carried out with financial support from the Commission of the
European Communities, Agriculture and Fisheries (FAIR) specific RTD programme,
Fair3-CT96-1794, „Effects of the CAP-reform and possible further development on
organic farming in the EU“. It does not necessarily reflect its views and in no
way anticipates the Commission’s future policy in this area.


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