What is organic farming?

Organic farming, also referred to as biological farming or ecological farming is a legally defined and regulated ‘whole system’ method of food and fibre production. This whole system approach recognizes the close interrelationships between all parts of the production system from the soil to the consumer.  Some of the core principles of organic farming are:

  • Encouraging biological cycles involving micro-organisms, soil fauna and plants.
  • Using sustainable crop rotations, composted manure and vegetable waste to build fertility.
  • Avoiding soluble mineral fertilizers and agrochemical pesticides.
  • Prohibiting growth hormones and the use of routine antibiotics from organic livestock production.
  • Ensuring animals are free to express natural behaviour, e.g. free ranging

Benefits of organic farming 

Around the world organic farming is proving to have many wide ranging benefits.  The UK Government stated in their 2002 Organic Action Plan that “organic farming is better for wildlife, causes lower pollution from sprays, produces less carbon dioxide and less dangerous wastes, has high animal welfare standards and increases jobs in the countryside.”  

There is also mounting scientific evidence from places such as the Rodale Institute in the US to show that organic farms have higher levels of organic matter. Soils with higher levels of organic matter have been proven to be better at sequestering carbon and retaining moisture than those soils with lower levels of organic matter.  Ability to retain moisture is of particular importance in countries such as Australia that experience frequent drought and low rainfall levels.

Besides the environmental benefits of organic farming, organic food has also been shown to have health benefits.  An independent review of the evidence in the Journal of Complimentary Medicine (2001) found that organic crops had significantly higher levels of all 21 nutrients analysed when compared with conventional produce, including vitamin C (27% more), magnesium (29% more), iron (21% more) and phosphorous (14% more).  Organic spinach, lettuce, cabbage and potatoes showed particularly high levels of minerals. 

It is true that there have only been a small number of studies regarding the beneficial health effects of organic food and more are needed. But three studies presented in the Lancet (1994 – 1999) suggest that an organic diet can also have a positive effect in regards to fertility and the prevalence of allergies.  This helps explain why consumers are so keen to purchase certified organic food and why both the domestic and global organic market is the fastest growing agri-food sector.

What is organic certification?

Any certified organic product sold in Australia must by law display a certification symbol and number such as Australian Certified Organic’s ‘Bud Logo’.  When consumers see this symbol they can be sure that the product complies with a set of standards that are enforced on behalf of AQIS by a certifying body such as Australian Certified Organic.  The organic certification programme was set up in the 1980’s to ensure that what is sold to consumers as certified organic produce is indeed just that.

Certification is maintained by organic producers, processors and marketers through the following means:

  • Annual audits and spot (unannounced) checks are carried out to ensure full compliance with the strict Organic Standard.
  • All operators must maintain an OMP (Organic Management Plan) and update itannually.
  • There must be a clearly auditable trail of all product sold by a certified operator to prevent fraud.

Australian farmers require a minimum of three years of organic management before they can hold a certificate stating “Certified Organic”.  At the initial audit a soil sample is taken and sent to a laboratory to ensure there is no risk of residual Organophosphates and/orOrganochlorines that could contaminate future organic crops and animals. 

There is a transitionary certificate, “In Conversion to Organic”, which can be obtained after 12 months of organic production. Foods bearing either label confirms that those products are being grown organically on farm. The “In Conversion” product is from a farm that has been in the organic certification program and been producing organically for less than 3 years.  

Why is there a need for organic certification?

It can be argued that there is not really a need for organic certification and this could be especially true of developing countries. For example more than 60% of India’s arable land is under traditional agriculture, where no synthetic inputs are used. 

However in the global marketplace that we now live, unless the produce is being consumed in the local community and consumers have a trusting relationship with their local farmer, there is nothing to stop a farmer selling any produce and just labelling it organic, thus misleading the consumer.

Reasons for organic certification are:

  • protects consumers against deception and fraud in the marketplace;
  • protects producers of genuine organic produce against misrepresentation of agricultural produce as being organic;
  • ensures that all stages of production, processing and marketing are subject to inspection and meet predetermined requirements; and
  • adds a premium price to a product, which makes economic sense for farmers.

The cost of organic certification may be seen as an inhibiting factor, especially by those in developing countries.  This is recognised by many of the world’s organic certification bodies; for example Australian Certified Organic has an international grower group scheme.  The grower group scheme allows a group of farmers, for example 25 Coconut farmers, to combine their harvested crop and have it certified as organic under one group certification.  This reduces costs significantly and makes it a lot easier for the farmers as it generally means that only one person is in charge of the paperwork.

Is organic certification necessary?

Consumer demand for chemical free and environmentally sound high quality produce is increasing. Organic food and farming is now being more widely recognised as an economically viable option to provide this. With retail sales of organic food increasing by 15%+ per annum both on a domestic and global scale, the market is growing at a faster rate than any other area of the food & drink industry. Organic certification is important to ensure that we protect the integrity of the word organic by certifying farmers and food processors alike.  Of course in an ideal world there would be no reason for organic certification as synthetic chemicals would not be used, but until we reach that utopia organic certification really is necessary.