A series of consultations with organic farmers are set to happen all over the country and last week one took place in Narrandera.
Conducted by consultants Policy Partners, the workshop in Narrandera was co-sponsored by the Riverina Organic Farmers Association (ROFO) and Bio-Ag.
“There’s a group of leaders in the organic industry who are pretty keen to change the sometimes fractious leadership,” said Policy Partners managing director Tony Webster.
Speaking after the event, Mr Webster said the workshop had been “a marathon session.”
“They wanted to keep going after lunch. We were supposed to finish at 12 and I got home at four.
“There was a lot of interest generated, particularly in more leadership at an industry level.
“They’re very interested to have more support, such as professional development of their business, or to have a peak body advocate for them in research and development,” Mr Webster said.
The consultations discussed in-depth the recent work by the seafood industry in building their own peak body, and what lessons the agricultural sector could learn from them.
“There seems to be something coalescing. I haven’t heard anyone say ‘I don’t think we need a peak body.’”
The organic agricultural business is one that stands to potentially contribute an enormous amount to Australia’s economy.
With agricultural exports preparing to fill the gap left by the mining boom, the organics industry could be set for success, riding the crest of the wave of clean, green produce.
Unfortunately for the sector, the absence of an overarching body have meant that instead of success has been replaced with fragmentation and frustration.
“There’s a lot of problems in the organic industry at the moment,” said ROFO president Rob Walker.
“People say that their products are organic but have no certification, so you’ve got no rules.”
A re-occurring theme was the frustration of farmers at the use of the word ‘organic’.
Because the word cannot be trademarked, non-organic growers, companies and sellers can market their goods as ‘organic’ even without certification.
It enables fraudulent operators to piggyback on the hard work that certified organic farmers do, even commanding the same prices.
Mr Walker believes there needs to be more policing of the industry and he believes certifiers can step into that role.
“The people who regulate it, our certifiers, I don’t think they’re doing enough; they’re getting a lot of money from not doing much at all.
“There are growers and sellers who go to the markets and tell people they’re organic, and sell their products at a premium level – without paying what we pay to keep us policed. Our certifiers should be able to can go down the local market and police it.”
Jane Crowhurst, and organic farmer from Blighty, also agreed that mislabelling was an enormous problem for the industry, but believed that the answer lay in consumer awareness.
“We need to get people to look for certified, instead of just looking at something that says organic,” Ms Crowhurst said.
“People need to look at what they’re eating. People need to look for the certified part. It [consumer education] is very lacking in Australia.
“Anyone can say it’s organic. You can grow 101 cauliflowers and say that they’re organic because you haven’t used pesticides, but that’s not the same as being certified.”