Environment & energy, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

11 June 2015

Organic farming has come a long way over the last few decades, and now it’s time for policy to catch up with that growth, writes Sarah Wheeler.

It’s time to give organic farming a fair assessment. It has one of the largest growth rates of any form of agriculture in the world, and millions of hectares in Australia are under full certified organic management.

There are many interconnections between food, energy, environment and water. As the world faces significant issues in relation to water and land stress, climate change impacts and resource conflict, many of these issues have been exacerbated by poor policy decisions and scientific mindsets.

There have been numerous examples of poor policy and scientific blindness in regards to organic farming in Australia. This agricultural practice values the welfare of both the producer and the consumer of food and fibre products, encompasses a range of systems, and is committed to conserving natural resources for the benefit of all future generations. It has one of the largest growth rates of any form of agriculture. In 2013, certified-organically managed land was estimated to be 43 million hectares worldwide, of which Australia had 17 million hectares under full certified organic management.

Photo by Neil Howardon flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilsingapore/4700708090

Photo by Neil Howardon flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilsingapore/4700708090

Australian agricultural policy has traditionally favoured and supported production intensive activities, and exhibited a systematic institutional bias against organic farming. Research has shown that although agricultural professionals have little to no knowledge about organic farming practices, they were still very comfortable proclaiming that it has too many costs, with very little benefit. There is much evidence of other bias, not just in Australia. One of the latest battles fought by the organic sector in Australia involves an organic farmer seeking damages alleging a lack of duty of care shown by a conventional farmer that resulted in the organic property losing its organic certification. Property rights (along with countless other institutional supports) are set up against those who try to farm sustainably and are affected by other parties: and this is the case for organic farming, and for farmers caught up in the coal seam gas issue.

Why should we care whether organic farmers are unfairly disadvantaged? Although yields are often lower in organics, there is considerable evidence in the scientific literature that organic farming outperforms conventional farming when it comes to food quality, environmental benefits, soil conservation, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

New research in Australia also indicates there are significant water saving benefits associated with organic farming. And even more interesting, the water saving benefits from organic practices outweigh the importance of water supply infrastructure. Such a finding is critical for Australian agriculture, especially irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin. It reiterates a need to change the focus of Australian government policy.

The current predominant policy is to encourage irrigators to adopt more efficient water-use technology through subsidy programs where savings are equally shared between consumptive and ecological use. But, such a simplistic and expensive policy is not the most effective (or cost-efficient) way to improve/conserve water-use, or to improve sustainability benefits from Australian farming.

It’s time to stop thinking about organic farming as a hippie hangover from the 1970s, and time for governments to reconsider the benefits that can be gained from developing more integrated, inclusive and comprehensive policies focussed on integrated soil, water and environmental practices.

There are many ways forward in this space, but for the organic farming sector in particular I suggest that one of the first things is to develop a key historical and current database of certified organic farms in Australia to allow for a clear, precise and accurate picture of the industry.

Such a database will need the cooperation of most certifiers, and the setting up of systems to record organic farming more clearly. From there, more integrated policy and research can be developed.

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