Investment in organic sector will pay dividends
OPINION: Let's face it. This country needs a healthy organic sector. It gives credibility to our claim to be 100 per cent pure, clean and green.
The beneficiaries are conventional farmers and growers, the ones who use chemical fertilisers, pesticides, drenches and antibiotics - all within international health safety margins, of course.
I'm not saying wealthy markets in Britain and Europe would not pay over the odds for our produce if we didn't have organic farmers. Those northern hemisphere shoppers already have an image of sheep and cattle grazing in green fields under snow-capped mountains that sustains our trade.
But the knowledge that we have a thriving organics industry adds to the picture.
And as fears grow about diseases and nuclear radiation it is becoming increasingly important to the retailers who supply those shoppers, along with our dedication to cleaning up the environment and curbing greenhouse gases.
Any indication that we are shirking our responsibilities and the knives will be out. We have experienced the ravings of ill- informed commentators, fomented, no doubt, by trade competitors and, disappointingly, by those at home with anti- farming agendas of their own.
That's why it is worrying to learn that Organics Aotearoa New Zealand, the organisation charged with promoting and advising the sector, has financial woes.
Organics has been doing quite well since it first appeared as a serious farming option around 10 years ago. The growth has been steady without the pyrrhic madness that has doomed such fads as ostriches, goats and chestnuts.
Production is valued at close to $500 million and the sector is convinced a target of $1 billion by 2013 can be met. The domestic market is the biggest earner - not surprising considering most of the 1100 certified organic farmers and growers are small operations feeding farmers' market stalls and specialty stores - but $170m is earned overseas, with the big contributors being dairy, kiwifruit, wine and apples.
Oanz sprang to life in 2005, the love child of a Labour-Greens tryst. Over the past 5 1/2 years, the organisation has received just over $5m of government funding, generous support for such a small sector.
The money has been used wisely - mainly advice to small and large farmers and growers on how to survive the sometimes painful three-year transition to certification, in surmounting export difficulties and in promotion in the political and corporate worlds.
But it runs out at the end of June. The National-led Government warned Oanz well before the current economic crisis erupted that it would be left on its own. The government funding was intended to help it bridge the gap to be self-dependent, but its efforts to find alternative sources have bombed.
It approached the farmer-levy- funded bodies for help and when that failed asked the Government to change the Commodity Levies Act so funds could be diverted to organics. That was unsuccessful, as was a search for corporate sponsorship. An attempt at extracting a voluntary levy from its members also failed.
Oanz hasn't given up yet. The next step is to ask post-harvest processors of organic food for help - soundings are positive. Member organisations will also be seeking increased contributions from their farmers and growers.
The hope is that with two or three income streams it can at least keep ticking over - $50,000 would allow that; $180,000 would be better, meaning someone who could network with Government and industry leaders could be employed.
It's not hard to see why the Government feels it can't contribute. It has pretty big money woes of its own.
But it should. It has already invested millions in an industry that has responded to this stimulus well. The land under organic cultivation rose from 0.5 per cent of all farmland to 1.5 per cent in the two years 2007-09. The wine industry is making big changes.
IT SEEMS counter-productive to turn off the tap now and risk devaluing that investment. Compared with other countries, we're well behind. Several European governments provide money to fund conversion, governments in such disparate economies as Argentina and China are investing and United States President Barack Obama recently announced a US$50m (NZ$62.5m) package for organics.
They recognise what this country seems to be failing to see - that there is a huge demand for organic food. It is the world's fastest-growing food sector, expanding 20 per cent a year for the past 10 years.
Forget about arguments over whether organics will feed the world or not. We can't do that anyway.
The fact is, a lot of people are prepared to pay a premium to get it. With our climatic natural advantages we are better placed than anywhere else to give it to them.
Then there's the argument I have already canvassed, that organics backs up our clean, green image.
We are a nation that depends on trade. This is an opportunity not to be missed.