Australian organic farming and finding the middle ground

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Australian organic farming and finding the middle ground

The eco-friendly and nutritionally beneficial philosophy surrounding the organic industry has Australian consumers hooked with only 28% claiming they were unwilling to pay price premiums for organic produce, according to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). But what does this mean when it comes to pesticides? At we speak with Australian produce industry players about the fine print of this increasingly popular market.

It seems that ‘going green’ is receiving greater attention worldwide, yet there have long been debates about the nutritional advantage of organic versus conventional fruit and vegetables. It is often suggested that selecting organic produce reduces both your intake of food additives and exposure to pesticides, but should the term 'organic' be synonymous with 'pesticide-free'?

European Union-based blog Pesticide Information reported that while organic pesticides are claimed to be 'naturally-derived', this doesn't give any clear information about their relative impact on the environment.

Nevertheless, the growing demand for organic produce is undeniable, with supermarket giant Woolworths purchasing well-known organic food chain Macro Wholefoods.

"In the last six months we have seen organic fruit and veg sales increase by over 20%, when compared to the same time last year," a Woolworths' spokesperson explains.

"800 of our 850 stores now offer organic options with range varying depending on the size of the store and local demand."

DAFF says it is a market that depends on a premium message.

"Communicating to consumers that an organic product has special qualities is very important to gaining a price premium."

Not only Woolworths, but the majority of Australian supermarkets are placing their packaged organic goods in the health food aisle, subtly creating a nutritional hierarchy.

"In terms of consumer behavior, the group primarily purchasing organic products are driven by both health and environmental concerns," adds the Woolworths' spokesperson.

Less attractive, but healthier

With the demand for this produce clearly on the rise, not only consumers but farmers also are faced with the question: Why go organic?

Peter Lohrisch and his wife own and operate Mango Hill Farm in the state of Queensland, located just outside Peachester near the Glasshouse Mountains. Mango Hill is completely Australian Certified Organic, aiming to provide a unique experience to guests with a traditional-style working farm.

Lohrisch explains that his wife is the main reason they remain devout organic producers.

"My wife is a lifetime vegetarian and aware of what is, and is not, healthy in the diet," he says.

"Further, my wife considers that people are becoming more aware of the benefits of organically grown foods and that there is a growing market."

Lohrisch believes the costs of farming organically are probably more than that of conventional farms, particularly on a small scale property.

"We are in a small way and so… we cannot cost effectively employ some of the more expensive methods which may assist the organic farmer."

When it comes to pest control, Lohrisch highlights that fungal problems are becoming more common, particularly in the northern ginger-growing region.

"As yet there is no effective remedy for this and it is apparently rendering some farms unworkable for ginger."

Lohrisch expresses his concern over the popular trend whereby a consumer chooses their fresh produce based solely on aesthetics, which he believes is enhanced using pesticides.

"Whilst people desire the perfectly presented fruit or vegetable, the irony might be, and probably is, that the less attractive organically grown variety poses far fewer hazards and is better in the diet."

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is adamant it does not allow dangerous pesticides to be used within Australia, claiming the country's fruit and vegetables are among the safest in the world to eat.

"Before an agricultural or veterinary chemical product can be legally supplied, sold, or used in Australia it must be registered by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority," says a spokesperson.

APVMA ensures that no pesticides or chemicals are able to be distributed in Australia without first being assessed for safety and performance, as well as ensuring chemical residues present at the time of harvest are suitable for human consumption.

"Surveys of fresh foods by State Departments of Agriculture/Primary Industries and by major supermarket chains indicate that the vast majority of foods do not contain residues."

Tough pest management decisions

With organic production not fully understood, and the use of pesticides a controversial matter, farmers are faced with difficult choices with sustainable pest management.

Bugs for Bugs manager Dan Papacek suggests something of a middle ground is the solution to the organic pesticide debate.

"Our goal is to help farmers achieve best practice pest management with minimum pesticides.  We are not anti-pesticide but believe they are presently overused, misused and abused," he stresses.

The Bugs for Bugs insectary, located in Queensland’s North Burnett Region, aims to arm farmers with the tools and knowledge necessary to adopt an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach to farming.

Papacek believes IPM implementation leads to "sustainable production [and] reduced pesticides in food."

Economically speaking, Papacek estimates that pesticide use and biological control methods are comparatively similar, yet achieving sustainability overshadows any cost.

"I don't choose to promote what we do as a way to save cost but more on the issue of sustainability."

Papacek frequently supplies organic farms with his biological control agents, although doesn’t necessarily believe that organic farming is as effective as IPM.

Photo: Mango Farm

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