Going organic

Organic farming is the third fastest growing industry in Australia, after superannuation and gemstones, so why is it still so hard to buy cheap organic produce?

I do get impatient when I’m lining up at the ‘Organic Markets’ and the customer in front of me holds up the queue, points to a cumquat and asks, “Is this certified organic?” The answer, “It’s not certified organic, it’s chemical free,” might encourage the sale, but is a tad misleading.

The stalls at Addison Rd and Orange Grove Markets that do not display a ‘certified organic’ sign are usually farmers that grow their own fruit and veg or buy from other farmers that, mostly, do not use chemicals. Not using chemicals is only one component of becoming certified. It takes three years for a farmer to achieve organic certification and they are audited every year to ensure they comply with the Australian Certified Organic Standard.

Certified organic horticulture growers manage pests and weeds without synthetic chemicals, improve soil fertility and maintain and encourage biodiversity on the farm.

The certification process is thorough but can be costly. While farmers are encouraged to get certification, many elect not to and use other types of certification/naming to brand their produce.

Ausveg, the national peak industry body for vegetable and potato growers, have their own certification program called Enviroveg, developed specifically for vegetable growers. Enviroveg is a project facilitated by Horticulture Australia Limited (another industry body) and is funded by the National Vegetable levy, with funding matched by the Federal Government. Enviroveg growers are “engaged in environmentally responsible vegetable production,” which is an euphemism for “chemically sprayed” produce. Ausveg is partnered with Bayer (a global pharmaceutical giant) and Syngenta (a Swiss-based agribusiness behemoth). These two strategic partners may not necessarily think producing either “chemical free” or “certified organic” produce is possible, let alone commercially viable.

Syngenta recently commissioned a report by Deloitte Access Economics to evaluate the “Economic Impact of Paraquat” on Australian farmers. Paraquat is a non-selective herbicide that is linked to the onset of Parkinson’s disease and is banned in 32 countries. The report was launched in Parliament last month and cites yield losses of $1.8 billion dollars for Aussie farmers over a ten-year period if it was banned. Syngenta markets a paraquat-based herbicide.

With such heavyweight corporations backing the agenda of Australian agriculture, it comes as a big surprise to the industry and many farmers that Horticulture Australia Limited is putting up $1.2million to help farmers attain organic certification. For the first time the organic industry was invited to attend Ausveg’s national conference in Cairns recently.

Expect the debate to get even bigger as the pharmaceutical companies start to lose market share to certified organic farmers. Remember that it is you, the purchaser, who drives the market – so go buy a certified organic chemical free cumquat, but don’t hold up the queue.

• Words: Cindy Mullen

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