ORGANICS: A new organic era for New Zealand?

6 September 2016

A growing sector. A recent merger between two of New Zealand’s largest organic organisations. Plans for a national legal standard for organic certification within two years. Is the organic sector ready for lift off?

It is estimated that $217 million worth of organic produce was bought and sold in New Zealand last year. Organics earned a further $250 million in exports. The global organic market is set to hit NZ$100 billion this year.

New Zealand is experiencing instability in conventional milk prices. A national water pollution crisis is pointing to the limits of intensive livestock farming. Organic production cuts pollution and adds value. It’s an obvious alternative. But it’s still strange for some to accept. How can what many consider an eccentric hobby become a mainstay of the NZ economy?

The origins of the Soil & Health Association date back to 1941. It was originally formed in Auckland as the Humic Compost Club. It is one of the oldest organisations of its kind in the world. 

The founders were concerned at the ‘poor state of national nutrition due to the low priority given to sustainable, organic farming’. Three quarters of a century later their concerns remain relevant. 

The New Zealand Biological Producers and Consumers Society Incorporated has been around since 1983. It’s more commonly known as the BioGro Society. The Society owns BioGro NZ Ltd, one of New Zealand’s largest and best-known organic certifiers. It certifies and accredits more than 600 producers. These include farmers and manufacturers across New Zealand and the Pacific. It also partners with international certifiers to meet requirements in the EU, US, Canada, Japan and more. 

The BioGro Society recently re-evaluated its mandate to educate and advocate for the promotion of organic production. It became clear that this part of its work was duplicating effort with Soil & Health. 

So after negotiations and paperwork the BioGro Society will cease to exist at the end of this month. It will pass BioGro NZ Ltd into the ownership of the Soil & Health Association. BioGro’s continued commercial expansion can then directly support the Association’s work. 

Gaz Ingram is chair of the BioGro Society.  He is also Organic and Biological Manager at Farmlands Co-operative Trading Society.

“It’s time to get serious about lifting organics to the next level. Organic needs to become the new normal. It offers clean, green and practical solutions to many of our current problems, including environmental, health and climate change issues. The refreshed organisation will promote these with renewed vigour.”

Marion Thomson is co-chair of the Soil & Health Association. She  added: “If we and future generations are going to survive and thrive, we urgently need to shift to producing food and other products that are organic, high value, safe, sustainable, GE-free and ethical.”

For Soil & Health, this means more support for three main areas of work. Keeping New Zealand free from genetically engineered organisms. Increasing engagement with business and youth. Reducing the use of pesticides and agro-chemicals.

“We could be leaders in organic and sustainable production. I want it to be normalised. But people aren’t necessarily making the connection with what our organisation actually does. I think a lot of people think of us as a load of old fogies making compost and growing food in our back yards!”

The merger comes at a time of strong growth in New Zealand’s organic wine industry. There is also sustained expansion in organic exports of dairy and fruit. The domestic organic market in everything from food to clothing is growing.

There remain quite a few different organisations representing and advocating for organic producers, retailers and wholesalers in New Zealand. 

Organics Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ) is the federation that brings many of them together. Doug Voss is OANZ chairman. He recently hit out at criticism that New Zealand’s organic sector was lagging behind the rest of the world. He argues it actually punches well above its weight.

“New Zealand’s organic sector is worth around half a billion dollars in a market of around 4.4 million people. This compares to a $1.2 billion sector in Australia, a market with five times the population.” 

“The NZ organic sector on a per capita basis is considerably larger than Australia’s, and many European countries, including the UK and France. While there has been a decline in land under organic production in some types of farming, organic production in other areas has increased significantly, for example wine is up by 128%.” 

Doug’s view is that New Zealand’s established organic players are growing. In dairy Fonterra’s success is inspiring others to convert. But there is still a lack of organic meat production. More support is needed to help producers go through the three year conversion process.

Key competitors in Japan, the US and Europe are also growing rapidly. One of the ways New Zealand’s organic sector plans to keep up is to create a national certified organic standard.  

NZ is one of the last countries in the OECD that doesn’t have legal or regulatory protection for the phrase ‘certified organic.’ This makes it hard for consumers to know and trust what is organically certified. It makes it more complex to make large scale international import and export deals. 

The sector is now working with the Ministry of Primary Industries to work up the regulations needed.

Doug said: “That will encourage a lot of people to get involved. It’s a pretty confused standard situation at the moment. We will end up with a more fit for purpose system. The main thing is that the sector is united on it. We need to go through the detail. But I will be disappointed if we haven’t achieved that within two years.”

It is envisaged that BioGro and AgroQuality would still be certifiers under the new regime. There is also likely to be new Commerce Commission guidelines about advertising organic produce. And we should see a new single NZ Certified Organic mark, so shoppers need only keep one badge in mind.

Doug is excited about the boost this could offer an already booming sector.

“We hope the growth will continue. Once you have a growth spurt the challenge is to maintain. One of the issues we are going to have in NZ is the ability to supply. That will come down to existing producers expanding or being able to attract in new organic producers converting from conventional production methods.”