“Rural Australia is really hurting. And the cuts to services really hurt. Health services are cut, banks close, schools close, farmers suicide. Areas have 21% unemployment. We are bleeding people in the country… Yet organic farming is a sunrise and success story going against the trend,” said Andre Leu, a tropical fruit farmer from northern Queensland, chair of the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) and vice-president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
With the balance of power firmly in the lands of three country Independents, regional issues are back on the national agenda. “The people of rural Australia have put some of us here. They expect a return for having done that. As far as I’m concerned, they will get a return,” said Queensland independent Bob Katter at Wednesday’s National Press Club address.
But will organic farming — traditionally seen a alternative movement and now gaining a more mainstream presence — benefit from the rural attention or suffer in favour of conventional farming practises?
Australian organic farming expects to pass $1 billion in annual retail sales this year, according to the second ever industry report by Biological Farmers of Australia, released last week. To compare, export of Australian livestock is worth about A$1 billion. Seafood exports are worth $1.3 billion. Australia’s nut industry is expected to be worth $1 billion by 2016.
Leu and Katherine DeMatteo — the president of IFOAM — spoke on Wednesday afternoon to a small group of passionate farmers, retailers and other interested parties at the Royal Society of Victoria about the current state of the organic industry, both in Australia and internationally. Among the scientific data they reeled off was the fact that organic methods improve water holding capacity, meaning organic crops hold up better in drought conditions than conventional crops. They argued that organic crops are higher yielding and therefore can benefit areas in dangerous need of food security, such as Africa. They maintained that pesticides found in conventional crops are a growing health concern, such as rising numbers of ADHD in children.
The organic industry is hoping for more governmental support, since currently it’s an industry created with “negligible support from government”, explains Leu, over a cuppa made up of organic Australian tea, milk and sugar, and accompanied with organic macadamia filled brownies. He says he regularly gives presentations to ministers and government advisers on the many ecological and health benefits of organic farming, but “we can’t break through the walls of dogma within government departments.”
“Government thinks organic is fringe” said organic vegetable farmer and former World Board member of IFOAM, Liz Clay. But things are slowly changing. Thanks to the work of bodies like OFA, an Australian organic standard now applies — standards and regulations being one of the key problems facing organic farmers worldwide — and can be used by the ACCC and courts when prosecuting farmers that claim to be organic but don’t meet regulations.
Perhaps having a few regional MPs with additional power will further aid organic agriculture, even if the divide between conventional and organic farmers remains.
Bob Katter supporters all farmers, both organic and conventional, says Leu. Bob Katter this week announced that “revival of local agriculture through food security planning” was one of his top priorities. MP for New England Tony Windsor is a former farmer and campaigned on issues involving water usage in the Murray Darling region — the foodbowl of Australia — and says profitable, viable, sustainable agriculture is one of his key aims.
NSW Independent MP Rob Oakeshott — whose electorate covers both major regional hubs and farmland — has been focal in campaigning for local produce and sustainability.A few weeks ago on Twitter Oakeshott asked “Do food miles mean anything to anyone?” and “If we could push a certain local co-op to stamp the food miles on their products, would that increase their consumers?”. Earlier this month Oakeshott spoke about food security, saying “it has been exciting to observe the revival of agriculture that’s happening in our region, with Farmers Markets, more diverse produce and the concept of ‘fresh and local’ all complementing some of the traditional industries of beef cattle and dairy.”
All of which sounds positive for organic agriculture. And while much is made in the media about desperate farmers going bankrupt, according to Leu, more organic farmers are critically needed in Australia.
Leu recounts a story from up his way in northern Queensland. He says that conventional dairy farmers have been struggling up there and going broke. All dairy farmers pay a milk levy — mandated by government and then controlled by Dairy Australia — and can receive financial support in times of need and the levy can even support their relocation. Yet the local organic biodynamic diary up there is struggling to keep up with demand and desperately needs more organic farmers. So why isn’t the milk levy used to help support farmers to transition from conventional to organic up in Queensland, rather than having them stop farming altogether and moving away from the region? asks Leu.
Dairy Australia disputes the claim. Steve Coats, manager of farm research and extension for Dairy Australia, explains that the milk levy is used to invest in research, development and education across the supply chain, but preference isn’t given to one farming method over another. “During the drought in the Murray Darling and after Cycle Larry, we supported the capacity of farmers to get individual advice to make the decisions they need to make about whether they want to stay in the industry, expand or leave the industry. We’ve offered this support since 2002-03, when things became far more volatile.” But there is “certainly not discouragement” for farmers who wish to adopt organic, biodynamic or more ethical farming methods, says Coats, “we don’t discourage and we don’t particularly encourage. We’re quite Catholic in our method.”
It’s not just the dairy industry dealing with different farming practises. Just this Tuesday a meeting in Canberra, coordinated by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, brought several agricultural industries together in “a significant attempt to make sure all industries who are developing with different supply chains — biodynamic, organic, conventional, ethical etc — understand what we’re all doing in those spaces and what type of support is out there,” says Coats.
Moving from conventional to organic farming takes a few years, but results in more drought hardy soil with better water absorption, thanks to increased humus content. Carmel Righetti, a Victorian sheep farmer who supplies organic wool to luxury fashion labels Metalicus and Gorman, says “conventional farmers need to be freed from the burden and oppression of big multinationals”, who often control supply, debt and pesticides used by conventional farmers.
Australia has more hectares of land used for organic production than any other nation in the world. Global organic sales are worth $50 billion annually, and the biggest markets are the US and Europe, although the Asian market is growing 15-20% annually.
These farmers hope that with a new national focus on agriculture, the organic industry will get to play a part in the conversation.