Australia’s appetite for organic food is at crazy-milkshake levels. But unlike crazy milkshakes, even though organic food costs up to three times more than conventional, it continues to be one of our country’s fastest growing industries.
But how much do we really know about Australian organics? Here are 10 things that surprised us when we looked into organic food in Australia – they’re both better, worse and slightly more nuanced than we’d expected.
1. Domestically, it’s not regulated
In Australia the use of the word “organic” is not regulated, so when a stall claims they’re organic at your local farmers market, no one is checking that they truly are. In 2009, guidelines were introduced, but these are voluntary.
So, if you’re wanting to buy guaranteed organic, it’s best to make sure you buy from certified growers and producers. Certification is your guarantee that the farm has been operating according to organic principles for at least three years (although it will up the price tag).
Certification is identified by one of the seven logos. Each certification body uses the voluntary guidelines as a starting point and adds on their own criteria. So yes, seven different logos, that each mean seven slightly different things. It can get confusing. Thankfully, a National Organic Mark is soon to be released to help streamline the situation.
2. It’s not totally pesticide-free
Organic farming doesn’t ban the use of all pesticides, it only bans those that are synthetically made.
What does this mean?
It’s often assumed that pesticides that occur naturally are somehow better for us than those that humans have created. However, as more research is done into their toxicity, it’s been found this isn’t necessarily true. Natural doesn’t mean non-toxic or safe. Many natural pesticides have been found to have potential or serious health risks.
3. For animal products, it means good things
As you may have guessed, certified organic animal products have to be grown free from hormones and antibiotics. All those synthetics are out of the picture. Livestock also has to be free range and pasture-fed to achieve certification.
But wait, there’s more!
Beyond the farm gate, livestock must be killed in a certified organic abattoir. That’s one that has comfortable holding pens with feed, water and bedding. It’s an abattoir that doesn’t kill animals in sight of others and the animals have to be rendered unconscious before they’re killed. Live export is also forbidden.
As for eggs – organic standards are equal to the strictest interpretation of any of the varying free-range standards available.
4. Productivity of organics is often unfairly measured
Organic farming is often seen as a “less productive” way of growing food but it all comes down to how we look at productivity. It’s often calculated on the yield of a particular crop, but doesn’t always consider the “true cost” – ie. the human health and environmental cost of those synthetic inputs, and the more tangible dollars we all end up paying to deal with those environmental impacts (more on those later).
Done properly, organic farming is about longer-term productivity and resilience. Good soil for example helps retain moisture that can assist through periods of drought.
5. We pay hidden costs that make non-organic farming artificially cheap
For the consumer one of the deterrents of buying organic is the higher price tag, which reflects higher labour costs and smaller economies of scale.
Although conventional farming is currently cheaper, Converte’s John Ridley explains this may start to change: “The only reason we are using so many chemicals is because they’re so cheap – it comes down to having cheap oil which we probably won’t have that in 10 years time. Nearly all chemicals used in conventional farming are reliant on having cheap oil. When we don’t have cheap oil no one’s going to have a choice anymore.” Plus, when you consider Australian tax payers shell out $7billion each year to subsidise fossil fuels, conventional farming starts to look a little more expensive!
6. Australia has the largest area of organic land in the world
“People think that organic is still a really small industry,” says James Meldrum of Whole Kids, an organic snack company. “But in Australia we actually have the largest area of organic land in the world.”
A lot of that is livestock – but on a per hectare basis we are the largest in the world. “Australia is seen as the clean way to grow food – people look to Australia as a benchmark,” says James.
7. Organic food isn’t automatically more nutritious
There seem to be plenty of contradicting studies about whether organic food is more nutritious. That may be because we’re looking in a different direction. As John Ridley from Converte, who make organic liquid fertilisers, explains: “You have to add trace elements, nutrients and minerals into the system to be able to get them in your food. Some organic systems are purely based on composting and you’re getting a crop that isn’t chemically tainted but not very nutritious. At the moment it’s hard for the consumer to know the nutritional quality of their food – but the technology is definitely coming.”
It makes sense that nutrient-dense soil grows nutrient-dense food. So if you’re wanting nutritious food, ask your farmer how they’re building up their soil – not just an organic label. Which brings us to the next point.
8. Soil health might have more impact on health
Principles of organic farming are based on healthy soil, not just pesticide use. The health of the plant and the whole farming system should then follow. John Ridley describes it like a human body: “If you have a healthy system you don’t tend to get hit by too many diseases and you’re unlikely to ever need to turn to medicine.”
So what is “healthy soil”? “It’s a softer, more porous soil, one that will retain more moisture and support more biology,” explains John. “If you’re a good farmer, it should ensure a productive farming environment.”
9. Soil health also matters to biodiversity
By many calculations, the living soil is the Earth’s most valuable ecosystem to humankind. It provides ecological services such as climate regulation, mitigation of drought and floods, soil erosion prevention and water filtration. The Soil Association also says that an organic system is one that significantly supports biodiversity, with up to 50% more plant, insect and bird life found on organic farms.
10. Organics can turn around environmental degradation and climate change
Over 29,500 tonnes of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and plant growth regulators are used each year in Australia. By minimising chemical use, organics can help to protect farmland.
By buying organic you are also reducing chemical run off and residues in drinking water, waterways and coastal areas. Runoff is the main cause of diminishing marine life, and in case you’ve been living under a rock, it’s also making our wondrous Great Barrier Reef more vulnerable to bleaching, and making it really hard for it to recover.
Supporting organic can also have substantial positive climate change and ecosystem outcomes according to the Department of Environment and Conservation, since agriculture in Australia is the second-highest contributor of greenhouse gases. Reducing nitrogen fertiliser use in organics lower emissions and provide both economic and environmental benefits according to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
Organic farming also captures CO2 back into the soil. In 2003, The Rodale Institute showed that if 1000 medium sized farms converted to organic production, the carbon stored in the soil would be the same as taking 117, 440 cars off the road every year.
So where to from here? In John’s view it’s biological farming that’s the way of the future. Biological farming is not as prescriptive as organics. You’re focusing on the biology of the system – they call is agro-ecology now – you’re farming in an ecological way.” Even if you don’t see any “agro-ecologically grown” labels popping up at your local farmer’s market quite yet, it may be time to start asking new questions of your next load of veggies.
Hungry for more? Check out what we found out about pesticides in Australia.
Image credits: Julia Gove, Nikki To and Amanda Sacks for Youth Food Movement