Organic farming: sifting through the evidence

Lettuces grown hydroponically seem to have the same flavour according to John.
Organic farming is not for the faint-hearted. Photo: Getty Images
Can organic farming deliver for New Zealand, asks Selva Selvarajah. 

Lately, I have noticed few articles on organic farming in New Zealand, including in the ODT, with interest.

Often, organic systems have been portrayed as a remedy for the heavy use of agricultural chemicals or intensive farming. Having presented a review paper at the 2018 New Zealand Soil Science Society conference in Napier, I believe organic farming deserves better.

In writing this article, as a consumer I have no attachment with organic farming since I am still using conventional agricultural produce and products because they are cheaper, readily accessible and appealing and with wider choices. I may be representing the majority of the Kiwi and global consumers, but for how long?

Global organic farming statistics are baffling. As of 2016, 57.8 million hectares involving 178 countries with 2.7 million organic producers. You will be surprised Australia leads in organic farming by land area with its extensive 27.2 million hectare grassland (47% of the world's organic farming area and larger than New Zealand's land area). China and Italy are the largest export earners at $3.6billion and $3.4billion respectively.

While a tiny player (0.5% of global organic farming with 3% of world export), New Zealand has been experiencing steady growth with the second-highest per capita export after Denmark.

Land area under organic certification of 11,960 hectares in 1997 increased by more than six times within two decades to 88,871 hectares in 2017 of which 72% is under livestock and 25% under horticulture. Last year, the total size of the organic sector in New Zealand was estimated at $600million of which 60% was from export.

Organic farming is not for the faint-hearted. Commercial farming/export demands rigorous certification (e.g. by AsureQuality and BioGrow) three to five years after entry followed by detailed and paid annual monitoring to maintain the status. Most agrichemicals, including synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and livestock drugs, cannot be used. Farm productivity may drop. Is the effort worth it?

The good news is organic produce and products fetch higher prices. For example, 1kg of conventional full-cream milk powder from Anchor costs $14.69, the same from a2 costs $18.90, while for organic Pamu (Landcorp) the cost is $49.90 (converted from the 800g price of $39.90). With increasing global demand for organic products and as one of the leading agricultural nations, can we afford to continue our ``backbench'' status in organic agriculture?

We are all too familiar with the slogan of ``value-added products''. To the contrary, organic systems add value at the gates by demand and pricing. While global organic farming is only 1.2% of world agriculture, in the past two decades, organic food and drink product sales have shot up from $23billion to $140billion. Land in organic agriculture increased by 15% (7.5 million hectares) in 2016 alone.

Are organic systems superior environmentally? My critical scientific assessment of the local and global data reveals comparative organic systems can reduce nitrate pollution by 26%-70%, greenhouse gas emissions by 332-652 CO2 equivalent kg/ha/year, energy use by 30%-50% and soil erosion by 24% with improving carbon sequestration (by 2% annually), soil quality and soil biological activity.

If I put the above information to practical use, it is clear large-scale organic farming conversion in nitrate-polluted catchments can improve water quality substantially, several-fold better than from the existing mitigation measures, with the added benefits of improved farm profit and soil quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and soil erosion.

Technically and crucially, such positive effects are not solely attributed to reduced farming intensity (e.g. reduced stocking rate) as is often perceived but to favourable biological processes.

Other than yield, there is compelling evidence on organic agriculture outperforming in biodiversity, soil quality, ecosystems services, profitability and reduced water pollution, pesticides effects, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. If so, why are we not picking this low-hanging fruit?

My immediate criticism goes to our scientists, academics and the central government bureaucrats for not being strategic, agile and open-minded. Having sifted through five decades of New Zealand-based scientific research on organic agriculture, I am disappointed with a handful of research. The overseas story is starkly different. Between 1976 and 2003 alone, there were 2740 research papers. European nations have been leading with France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark maintaining specific national programmes (funding on the basis of land area farmed from NZ17c to NZ78c per hectare).

Science alone may not be sufficient to underpin the strategic use of organic systems to tackle multiple issues faced by our country. Strategic use implies not fully replacing conventional systems to provide us with diversity and agility in production. Any large-scale move will require sustained industry (a good example is Open Country Dairy) and central/local government commitment and involvement. This move does not deserve the ``hard basket'' approach since time is running out on many environmental/global issues faced by us.

 - Dr Selva Selvarajah is the founder of Enviroknowledge Ltd.

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