Selected resources for N.Z.
Soil & Health
Association of NZ www.organicnz.org
N.Z.'s largest member organization supporting
organic farming and gardening. Publishes a bimonthly
general-interest magazine as well as a series
of detailed production guides on Organic Pastoral,
Organic Citrus, Organic Avocado,
and Organic Summerfruit.
A low-cost certification program designed for
N.Z. producers serving the domestic market. Excellent
website with info for both farmers and consumers.
New Zealand, Inc.
Not a comprehensive listing of N.Z. farmers' markets,
but a good place to start. Recently put out a
handsome full-color Guide to Farmers' Markets:
New Zealand and Australia, 2007.
New Zealand www.oanz.org.nz
The online entry point for OANZ. Includes a growing
catalog of resources for transitioning farmers
as well as market and consumer information.
Our Organic Future:
Cottage or Corporate?
The country's first national organic conference,
scheduled for August 2007 at Lincoln University
in Christchurch, reflects similar questions to
those being posed these days in the U.S.
“Organic” or “local”?
Asked how the organic vs. local debate intensifying
in the U.S. and the U.K. might be affecting New
Zealanders' view of the long-term prospects for
their organic export market, Mason said he welcomed
the discussion as a sign of consumers' renewed
engagement with food issues, but added that "organic
is clearly the way to go."
A true assessment of the environmental impact
of different food systems, he suggested, would
calculate production costs plus transportation
costs rather than simply measuring food transport
distances. With its famously efficient production
methods, New Zealand would probably fare pretty
well in such an assessment. Most of its agricultural
exports travel by ship, not by air. It takes less
energy per ton to move freight from New Zealand
to California by ship than from California to
New York by truck.
That's not to say that New Zealanders themselves
are not thinking about the costs of far-flung
food. Ian and Heather Atkinson, who raise organic
lamb on the North Island, have shifted their focus
from the export to the domestic market in part
because they get more satisfaction from supplying
food to their local region than from supplying
supermarkets in Britain.
August 9, 2007: New Zealand's organic export
sales are currently estimated at just under NZ$95 million
(US$74.3 million), growing at 10 percent per year; domestic
sales are valued at more than NZ$100 million, about half of
which is produced in-country with the remainder imported.
Ten years ago, export sales were pegged at just NZ$12 million
while the domestic market was negligible.
That's huge expansion by any measure, but if organic supporters
have their way it will be just the beginning. A national Organic
Sector Strategy report, commissioned by the government
in 2003, proposed a target of NZ$1 billion in annual sales
by 2013, which would require a considerable increase in the
rate of growth.
Is this possible? The atmosphere at the BioGro headquarters
a barn-like space on the sixth floor of a modern building
in downtown Wellington, the nation's capital, feels cautiously
optimistic. Michelle Glogau, BioGro's chief executive, is
buoyed by a recent trip to BioFach in Germany, where IFOAM
(the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements)
has been publishing jaw-dropping statistics on the growth
of global organics while tirelessly seeking to establish some
kind of baseline equivalence across individual countries'
standards. Seager Mason, the group's technical director, is
well used to running through the benefits, challenges and
vital statistics of organics in New Zealand. These facts and
figures paint a portrait in which the potential is enormous,
but its fulfillment of such a lofty goal is by no means guaranteed.
Trends in the making
With its subsidy-free farm sector and many environmental
advantages, New Zealand makes an interesting test case for
organics on the global level. The origins of the organic movement
here date to the 1940s, but significant growth began only
in the mid-1990s, when Wattie's—a leading canned fruit
and vegetable label—introduced its first organic line,
and Zespri—the kiwifruit marketing group—began
encouraging organic production to meet growing demand in Japan
and other overseas markets.
Organic apple growers were quick to learn from Zespri's success,
and other sectors, including lamb, dairy and viticulture,
have followed, albeit more slowly. Organic production now
accounts for 5 percent of total New Zealand kiwifruit output
and nearly 10 percent of N.Z. apples.
Demand across all these sectors remains strong. There are
"still not enough farmers" to supply Wattie's and
other processors, Mason says; demand for organic meat for
export is considerable, "particularly for lamb going
to the U.K.," while the pipfruit sector (apples and pears)
"could easily handle a 20- to 30-percent growth rate"
for the next several years. N.Z. organic apple producers are
currently enjoying "massive premiums," Mason says;
there's even a strong market for transitional fruit.
As in the United States, however, when you look at the actual
numbers of organic farms they seem surprisingly low. Current
figures show a total of around 850 organic primary producers
in New Zealand, including some 140 organic kiwifruit orchards,
100 organic pipfruit orchards, 60 or so organic dairy producers
and about 50 farms raising organic beef, lamb and wool.
As an export-focused country, New Zealand's organic evolution
has been strongly influenced by the establishment of organic
regulations in other parts of the globe. First came the European
Union Regulation 2092/91, then Japan's organic standard in
April of 2001, followed by the United States' National Organic
Program implementation in October 2002.
"There's been a big shakedown period each time in terms
of what's required, because these things can be read in a
lot of different ways," Mason says, but by now most of
these market-access and certification-equivalence issues have
been resolved. Today New Zealand enjoys Third Country Listing
with the EU and recognition by the USDA; BioGro is IFOAM-accredited
and recently received official foreign certification status
from the Japanese government.
The main challenge for the organic sector now is to figure
out how to encourage more farmers to make the transition so
supply has some chance of keeping up with demand. There have
been no direct subsidies for transitioning here, as there
have been in the E.U. and U.K., nor even payments to help
defray the costs of certification, as there are in the United
States. But there is some government money now available to
provide technical support to transitioning farmers and other
types of outreach efforts for organics.
Funding for the national Organic Sector Strategy study was
authorized under a parliamentary coalition forged between
the Green and Labour Parties after the 2002 elections; one
of the principal outcomes was the formation of an umbrella
organization known as Organics Aotearoa New Zealand (www.oanz.org.nz),
which has since been granted another NZ$2.15 million to work
toward the $1 billion organic sales target. The hope, Mason
says, "is to help the organic sector move up to the next
level." (OANZ has a mandate to be self-supporting within
A natural fit?
New Zealand's advantages in organics are largely synonymous
with its advantages in the farming sector generally: A temperate
maritime climate that favors grass-based farming, favorable
island biogeography combined with strict biosecurity protocols
to limit importation of new pests and diseases, relatively
low labor rates, a strong overall agricultural economy with
well-developed infrastructure and support services. Not to
mention what's referred to here as "Kiwi ingenuity,"
a cultural tradition of innovation and technical expertise
developed through decades of colonial making-do in the farthest
corner of the globe.
"Long-established organic farmers
have, against many hurdles such as no trading bank support,
limited science knowledge, few community colleagues with
experience, no access to proven livestock, etc., etc., developed
sustainable methods that are economically viable—but
very different from most conventional farming practices."
--NZ Organic Sector
Strategy Report (2003)
One strong point made by the Organic Sector Strategy document
has to do with the enormous natural synergy between organic
farming and New Zealand's "clean, green" image.
The N.Z. economy has two main pillars: tourism and agricultural
exports. Since the tourism economy relies heavily on that
pristine ecological image (witness the highly successful "100%
Pure NZ" overseas advertising campaign), enhancing the
extent to which the farming sector lives up to that ideal
is doubly valuable.
Like the United States and Britain, New Zealand has also
witnessed a culinary revolution over the past decade or so,
with terrific knock-on benefits for farmers. Although the
CSA model has been slow to take hold (Mason suggests this
is because Kiwis "prefer to shop"), farmers' markets
are undergoing a renaissance, with year-round, producer-only
markets springing up in towns large and small. There are outstanding
restaurants everywhere you go, many of them emphasizing fresh,
local, organic ingredients. The number of Slow Food chapters
is also on the rise.
A final plus for organics in New Zealand comes from the country's
GE-Free status, although the continuation of that status is
by no means taken for granted here. A 2001 Royal Commission
on Genetic Modification crystallized both the near-universal
popular rejection of GMOs and the government's perplexing
unwillingness to take a strong stand against them. A nationwide
moratorium on commercial release of GMOs was allowed to lapse
in October 2003, but so far has been maintained in practice
(although there have been a handful of research trials). In
a twist of political justice, it was public opposition to
genetic engineering that largely contributed to the success
of the Green Party in the 2002 parliamentary elections, which
in turn led to the coalition with Labour and the funding of
the Organic Sector Strategy planning.
Getting on the bandwagon
So what is holding farmers back from making the transition
to organic? Mason cites a lack of information, conflicting
advice from agricultural leaders and lingering prejudices
among the non-organic farming sector. An article by Mike Butcher,
technical officer for Pipfruit NZ, in the February 2007 issue
of Horticulture News provoked outrage among organic
supporters by declaring that New Zealand's temperate maritime
climate was "too wet" for organics. (Pipfruit NZ
is funded by a levy that applies equally to organic and non-organic
producers.) On the other side of the aisle, Green MP Sue Kedgley's
outspoken advocacy of organics has raised concerns about alienating
mainstream farmers, the very constituency that needs to be
Organic farmers in New Zealand, as elsewhere, run the gamut
from those motivated by philosophical reasons to those motivated
primarily by economics. Still, Mason says, many farmers here
"seem to think it's a flash in the pan." Chalking
this up to farmers' natural conservatism doesn't quite wash
in a country in which farmers have gotten used to following
market demand in the absence of subsidies. In fact, N.Z. farmers
are sometimes criticized for being too faddish, leading
to boom-and-bust cycles in niche sectors. Olive orcharding,
to take one example, has expanded from being more-or-less
non-existent 20 years ago to almost a million-tree industry
today, with small-scale producers selling farm-pressed olive
oils at farmers' markets from one end of the country to the
Vineyards are another case in point. Successive regions of
New Zealand have been transformed into wine country over the
past two decades, with bare land in promising areas now selling
for NZ$100,000-NZ$200,000 per hectare (roughly US$30,000-
US$60,000/acre) and higher, not including the price of the
vines, posts, trellising, machinery, buildings or other facilities.
Meanwhile, wine industry observers from Australia to France
are contending with a mounting wine-grape glut that threatens
to send prices plummeting and small-scale producers out of
"It's funny why wine is so much more attractive"
to would-be owner-investors than organics, Mason agrees. (Viticulture
is another growth category within N.Z. organics.) "It
could be that some people see it as too hard of work if you
can't do it with chemicals." It may also be that people
fail to grasp the sheer magnitude of the demand. "If
groups of farmers could be taken over to see these Whole Foods
Markets in the U.S. and the U.K.," Mason muses, they
would swiftly be convinced.
Critical needs: research, outreach
In terms of production, the biggest challenges faced by N.Z.
farmers converting to organic vary by sector, Mason says.
For vegetable growers it's weed control; for kiwifruit producers,
yield; for apples, it's black spot (the fungal disease Venturia
inaequalis, better known in the U.S. as apple scab) and
to a lesser extent yield. "For dairy, it's getting through
the conversion period; with sheep it's changing breeds, typically
to get through worms and lice."
With guidelines to these and other basic realities available
via the websites of BioGro and other groups, like the New
Zealand Soil & Health Association, "The questions
we get from farmers are different than what they were a few
years ago," Mason says. "It's rare now to have to
really take their hand at step one." Nowadays farmers
come to organic "either because they've got a strong
market demand, or because they've seen someone else doing
it. Their questions are not, 'What is organic?' but 'How can
I make my own farm/orchard situation work?' So they're looking
for quite a high level of information."
"There's never been a political
recognition that all agriculture benefits from research
that's been done in organic. In terms of value for money,
that's where research dollars should be spent."
It seems reasonable to look to the country's agricultural
researchers for some of this advanced advice. New Zealand's
ban on agricultural subsidies doesn't mean there's zero government
support for agricultural research (the heady dreams of Cato
Institute pundits in the U.S. notwithstanding), although funds
are limited. Four government-owned Crown Research Institutes—Crop
& Food Research, AgResearch, HortResearch and Landcare—do
primary and applied research on farm-sector-related questions,
and there are some initiatives afoot relevant to organic farming
systems (and certainly many concerned with agricultural sustainability).
Educational institutions are also recognizing the shift. Massey
University set up the country's first organic dairy research
facility in 2001, and a number of schools and polytechnics
now offer practical courses in organic and biodynamic management.
Still, Mason would like to see more. "There's never
been a political recognition that all agriculture benefits
from research that's been done in organic," he points
out. "In terms of value for money, that's where research
dollars should be spent." Many of the management practices
central to Zespri's "KiwiGreen" reduced-input program,
for example, grew wholly or partly from organic research.
Other crucial innovations have originated among pioneering
organic farmers. All eyes are now on the work to be coordinated
under Organics Aotearoa New Zealand to recognize those achievements
and spread their successes more widely throughout the country.