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Has "Organic" Been Stripped of its Meaning?

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The term ‘organic’ has come to be understood by most consumers as ‘grown without synthetic chemicals’, which to most people’s surprise, does not always mean that farming practices are sustainable. The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform defines sustainable agriculture as “the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.”

Yet some organic farmers are participating in farming practices that, while still compliant with organic regulations, are not reflective of the sustainable farming practices and values on which organic agriculture was originally premised. Environmental damage, inefficient nutrient utilisation, heavy reliance on input substitution for pest and weed management, high energy use, limited cropping rotations and collapse of farmer co-operatives have been reported on organic farms spanning countries across the globe, including the Netherlands, Egypt, China and Brazil.

Some researchers argue that the rapid increase of international trade in organic products has resulted in complex regulatory systems that inadvertently lock out small-scale producers, particularly in developing countries, to market access and trade. Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) offer an alternative organic certification scheme that puts sustainability and small-scale producers back at the fore of organic production.

Shifts in organic agriculture

The organic agriculture movement began as a sustainable and fair alternative to industrial food production. Through its creation of alternative models of production, distribution and consumption, organic production prioritised sustainable practices that maintained a positive impact on biodiversity and resource conservation through small-scale production, crop diversification and the minimisation of external inputs. This organic system was embedded in local co-operative markets in which farmers and consumers actively participated, creating transparency and consumer trust.

However, as the organic sector rapidly expanded over recent decades, from local co-operative markets to a system of formally regulated global trade, an industrial organic sector has evolved which threatens to undermine the integrity and longstanding sustainable farm practices of the organic community. Prominent American food writer Michael Pollan highlights how the entry of giant supermarket chains like Walmart into the organic sector, for example, will likely result in simple input substitution of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers with their approved organic counterparts on large, monocultural farms, and the lengthening of the food supply chain, increasing food miles and energy use.

In an attempt to address this gap between traditional value-based organic agriculture and its globalised and industrialised form, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM) developed four key principles to inspire the organic movement in its full diversity: health, ecology, fairness and care. These four principles however, serve solely as a direction for the development of organic agriculture practices, and are only partially codified in national organic certification and regulatory systems.

Over the years, organic accreditation criteria have been consistently revised – and arguably diluted – so that organic standards become less prescriptive in an attempt to make them more accessible for producers. Whilst some organic certification schemes uphold fairly stringent standards such as biodynamic certification, an independent certification system managed worldwide by Demeter International, the broader organic movement has found itself caught within a paradox: the regulatory systems initially developed to protect its integrity are now reconfiguring and, indeed, threatening the core values on which it was originally founded.

Organic regulations

Organic standards and regulations are generally enforced through government or accredited third-party bodies. Third-party certification requires officially accredited independent bodies to perform a systematic examination of the farm. This procedure is costly, requiring extensive paperwork and complex verification procedures, often serving as a barrier to entry for smallholder producers in the global South.

High illiteracy rates among many smallholder producers in developing countries, for example, can impede the satisfactory completion of regulatory record-keeping requirements, sometimes leading to de-certification of small producers. In developed countries such as Australia, farmers must produce an Organic Management Plan, detailing the history of each paddock, a description of operating conditions, and a detailed explanation of how farming practices will be addressed and monitored. Input, harvest, sales and audit records must also be kept so that certifiers may scrutinise the products and processes that are utilised on the farm. These procedures are costly to the producer in both time and money.

Currently, there are over 60 regulations on organic agriculture practice worldwide, with each country deploying several approved certification bodies that differ in their standards and regulations – some more stringent than others. While most core values of organic farming are mentioned in EU, US, Canadian and Australian certification definitions, in other parts of the world, organic standards are generally limited to identifying allowed and prohibited substances within production and processing methods.

When it comes to biodiversity and resource saving measures, national organic standards often prescribe a minimum standard to which farmers must adhere, limiting the possibility of creating a truly transformative and sustainable agricultural sector. Australia’s NASAA Organic Standard, for example, requires only a minimum of 5% of total farmland to be set aside from intensive production to preserve biodiversity – which may be waived if the farm is less than 4 hectares.

Organic farming thus runs the risk of being engulfed by ‘conventionalisation’, in which the organic sector comes to differ only marginally from the industrialised food sector. In fact, this transmutation has already begun with intensive large-scale production units, increased crop specialisation and increased reliance on off-farm inputs (including machinery, fuel, fertilisers and feed).

On the retail end, rapid corporate consolidation has seen a number of small, independent organic brands such as Green & Blacks, Odwalla, LaraBar and Kashi, bought by corporate giants such as Cadbury, Coca-Cola, General Mills and Kellogg respectively, with these large multinationals acquiring organic brands in the hopes of cashing in on one of the food industry’s fastest-growing and highly lucrative niches.

An organic alternative: PGS

In an attempt to battle the co-optation of organic standards by industry and bureaucratic procedures related to third-party certification, groups of small producers have begun to implement alternative quality assurance systems such as Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS).

PGS differs to mainstream certification systems in that they incorporate a participatory approach while adapting to local markets and short supply chains. They enhance social control by encouraging shared responsibility among stakeholders, regarding quality criteria and transparency, and incorporating elements of environmental and social education for both producers and consumers. In practice, producers are directly engaged in the operating model of decision making, defining both production standards and rules of operation, engaging directly in the peer review of each other’s farms. Direct communication between producers and consumers is maintained through the provision of goods to local markets, with regular meetings and workshops held to build the knowledge base and general collective capacity of active stakeholders. PGS systems are thus created by the very farmers and communities that they serve, encouraging a re-establishment of authentic local food markets and cultures.

Sapphire Coast Producers Association (SCPA) Organics is an established PGS system that is fully functioning under SCPA-South East Producers, a not-for-profit registered association based in New South Wales, Australia. Upholding the belief that agriculture must be sustainable, SCPA champions the local, small-scale agriculture scene, serving as an incubator and network for a variety of local initiatives that support ecologically sound production practices. SCPA Organics stemmed from SCPA, which also supports local projects such as Bega Valley Seed Savers, SCPA Markets, SCPA News and SCPA Education.

Each of these initiatives work synergistically with SCPA Organics, spurring a thriving hub of enterprise, knowledge and resource sharing to promote a localised food economy that enhances regional food security. Based on the IFOAM principles, SCPA Organics works to shift the focus of ‘organic’ from prohibiting chemical substances to the strengthening of organic management practices and re-establishing the imperative for traditional organic values and alternate models of production, distribution and consumption. It takes into critical account the nature of a food system, and now industrial organic sector, that is largely fossil fuel dependent and operated by corporate conglomerates.

Through re-embedding food systems into their socio-ecological contexts, SCPA Organics, and other PGS systems worldwide, seek to implement a more holistic form of sustainable food systems than that maintained by mainstream organics.

Beyond organic

The need to unpack the concept of conventionalisation and tell a more complex story about organic agriculture is fundamental if organic production is to contribute to environmental, social and economic sustainability. While growing without synthetic chemicals is of course a better alternative to food grown with organophosphates or livestock pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones, the transformative potential of organic agriculture rests in its ability to transform the whole industrial food system. PGS allows for a new trajectory to emerge within organic agriculture, one that goes back to its theoretical roots to implement truly sustainable practices.

Photograph: George M. Groutas

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