By Barbara Harford I suspect I’m not alone among organic producers in being challenged with tedious regularity about the economics of the organic sector. If it’s not family and friends over the BBQ, it’s articles in the media. Basically the argument goes: How can you justify organic production in a land-strapped world, given that organic yields are below those achieved with conventional farming?
The debate isn’t new. In 1971, then US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz slated the organic sector. “Before we go back to organic agriculture in this country,” he said, “somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry.”
And so it went on.
The frustrating thing about this argument is that from a New Zealand perspective - and that’s what counts for New Zealanders - the debate is irrelevant and outdated. New Zealand shouldn’t even be thinking about feeding the world. Our future lies in quality not quantity; high value food production (with matching brands that tell the New Zealand story), not volume commodities. Organics ticks those boxes.
The Government’s goal is to double the value of our primary exports by 2025. That isn’t achievable without moving up the value chain, and organics fits with this economic strategy. But value and growth are no longer enough. Sustainability is the word on everyone’s lips.
Whether it’s dairy effluent polluting waterways, or fungicides and pesticides wiping out bee populations and found as residues in food, there’s increasing momentum around ensuring our farmers aren’t damaging the planet as they seek ever higher yields.
The phrase “social licence to farm” is increasingly mainstream. And again, organics ticks the boxes. At the very least, the lower yields of organic farming also mean less pollution and less use of resources - energy, fertilisers, water etc.
However it’s more than that. Organics is a whole market segment growing and meeting the needs of an increasingly discerning consumer. This trend is now embedded in mainstream marketing that makes it the fastest-growing multi-food sector in the world. Smart farmers are now aligned with the market and organic producers play a big role in the development of the local food movement, whether it’s farmers markets or supermarkets increasing the amount of food they source nearby. And the organic sector’s push towards more sustainable practices produces innovation which is often adopted more widely. Take the role the organic sector played in introducing safer, lower drift spraying regimes in kiwifruit orchards. The organic sector showed that traditional spraying practices weren’t essential; and this was part of a move to significantly tighter rules and penalties nationwide.
Meanwhile, leading sectors in New Zealand like wine producers and pipfruit farmers use their organic status to develop their own sustainability standards. Doing so gives them a minimum quality standard to leverage in the international market.
As we head towards an election, I foresee issues around sustainability and the “social licence to farm” coming further to the fore. Public opinion is increasingly turning against unsustainable farming. Look at the furore around cruelty to bobby calves. And the media jubilation when, in early January, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld the rights of Greenpeace to run an anti-dairy water quality ad.
“Greenpeace trumps dairy industry with river pollution ad ruling,” said TV3’s Newshub website.
From Green Party leaders to National’s “Bluegreen caucus”, politicians of all hues are preparing their manifestos for the future of farming in New Zealand. Already, OANZ has an important, ongoing, and positive relationship with the cross-party Primary Production Select Committee. Now we should be making it clear organics are a big part of the move towards sustainable production.
So when someone tells you organics are never going to feed the world, tell them they aren’t asking the right question. Organics are key to New Zealand’s future. They lift our exports (food, beverage, bodycare etc) higher up the value chain. They create jobs, build sustainable economic growth, and meet local demand through the rise of a conscious consumer and farmers’ markets. Sustainable means exactly that: we look after our ecosystems and if we do that, they will look after us, our grandkids and their grandkids.
Barbara Harford is an Organics Aotearoa New Zealand board member, representing OrganicFarmNZ.