resources for N.Z. organics
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.
Farmers' Market New Zealand,
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.
Organic Aotearoa New
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
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.
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.
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 (www.bio-gro.co.nz),
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.
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
"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 three years.)
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
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 convinced.
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 other.
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 business.
"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."
--Seager Mason, BioGro
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
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.