Far from being the by-product of a food fashion trend, the increase in organic food production is being driven by consumer demand.
In the 1980s, food producers gave consumers ‘less’ – no fat, low-cal, reduced salt. In the ’90s, they gave them ‘more’ – added calcium, extra fibre, super-crunchy. Now, in the 21st Century, food evolution is entering the ‘free’ age – hormone-free, additive-free, GM-free, even dolphin-free.
But rather than being the by-product of a food fashion trend, the increase in organic food production is being driven by consumer demand.
“Consumers are asking for fresh, tasty and healthy food like never before”, says Holly Vyner, spokesperson for the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA). “Our research indicates the demand for organic produce will increase by 25 to 30 percent this year, with no foreseeable end to this in the near future”.
The industry, according to the BFA, is responding well to the rapid increase in demand. “Drought has affected the farming sector across the board, but comments from wholesalers from all states indicate that turnover is still increasing and supply remains consistent. We’re also seeing larger producers take over more production, with the 12.3 million hectares of land certified organic in 2006, up from 12.1 million in 2004.”
The remaining gap between supply and demand for some specific sectors is steadily growing, which spells opportunity for Australian farmers. “Yes there are great opportunities, but farmers should definitely investigate the market to find out what is in demand before making a decision about their land”, advises Holly.
One farmer who chose to become ‘certified’ is septuagenarian Carmel Bainbridge. Her 12-acre farm is situated at the foot of the rolling Armadale hills just south of Perth, and supports a thriving citrus and avocado orchard and a large range of nutritious open-pollinated, non-hybrid varieties of vegetables and herbs.
“In the big scheme of things, Mimsbrook Farm is insignificant. But I produce enough organic food to feed 20 families comfortably for a year – that’s more than 80 people who don’t have to step into a supermarket for as long as I deliver their food every fortnight”, she says.
“With over 250 farms converting to Bio-Dynamic practices each year, it won’t be long before entire communities are eating pure food.”
Pure food is how Carmel describes food that is grown naturally and produced without chemicals. Instead of chemicals and pesticides, she uses a ‘500 preparation’ (cow manure that has been liquefied in cow horns while buried) and other natural farming techniques which are now being recognised by Agricultural Departments as being true sustainable farming practices.
“Even TAFE have courses in Bio-Dynamic horticulture now”, she laughs. “Ten years ago, that would have been considered hippie voodoo!”
Hippie voodoo in Australia, maybe, but ancient wisdom in other countries.
“Take Japan for example”, says Carmel. “Back in the ’70s, community farms were started by a small group of mothers concerned about the quality of the highly processed food being sold in the supermarkets. Now there are more than 600 producer-consumer groups that supply organic food to over 11 million people. It only takes around 65 small community farms to grow food for around 3,000 households”.
In Australia, the domestic market value was estimated at retail level AU$300m in 2004 but now has a conservative estimated value of AU$400m.
“These figures represent some 0.2 percent of the current Australian domestic market for food products”, says Holly. “And the growth is not just on the domestic front. Exports have also risen, with excellent opportunities in the beef and horticulture markets.”
Beef, milk and horticulture are particularly strong sectors leading the surge in organic production. Other sectors, such as sugar, are in the early stages of establishing infrastructure to ensure they can maintain supply over the long-term.
“Consistent supply and quality to the customer specification is the most significant challenge that some sectors face”, explains Holly. “These sectors recognise this may limit their longer term growth capacity, so are addressing the issues now in order to meet the growth in consumer demand over the next decade.”
While organic food may have once been considered a ‘hippie thing’, there are many reasons why the demand for organic is growing in the mainstream marketplace. Health and fitness are major factors driving the organic surge, along with environmental and animal welfare considerations.
Worldwide research conducted by the International Trade Commission found that consumers in the United States, Europe and Japan (the world’s biggest organic food markets) have a heightened awareness of food production since outbreaks of Mad Cow’s disease and other repeated food contamination scares. They are subsequently demanding safe foods and sustainable production, and resisting irradiated and genetically modified foods.
Robert Pekin, director of Food Connect (Brisbane) and a Community Supported Agriculture consultant, attributes the rise and rise of organic to a primal need within consumers to reconnect with the land.
“There is so much information around about the lower and lower nutritional levels in food, not to mention the higher levels of chemical residue, so more and more people are simply wanting to trust what they eat”, says Robert. “If people are unable to connect with the farmers that grow their food, they need some form of certification that they can trust instead.”
Robert suggests that farmers also need to “market themselves locally”, and strive to meet the demands of freshness and clean-ness.
“Research from around the world confirms that smaller diverse organic farmers have a lower chance of getting disease”, he says. “Conventional agriculture is where we are getting alarming outbreaks like Mad Cow Disease and Fruit Canker disease”.
The upshot of persistent disease outbreaks means, “our society is experiencing a revolution back to connection,” he says. “We had the industrial revolution, where people became disconnected – from the land, from the community and from each other. Then we had the technological revolution, where people learned to question things again. ‘Where does our food actually come from?’ they are asking. Community organic farms let people get back to the land, to nature, and to community values.”
A concept of direct producer-consumer association was described by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in the 1920s, and actively cultivated in post-WW II Europe in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Documented community farm initiatives originated in Japan and Chile in the early 1970s and spread to North America in the mid-eighties.
This style of farming has gradually grown over the last 20 years in America to include as many as 1,700 farms spread through every region – a number expected to quadruple over the next few years. With the U.S. already making up two-fifths of the world’s organic market, the enormous growth potential makes the organic sector one of the world’s fastest growing industries.
As organic industry representatives here in Australia, the BFA share a similar vision of growth here too.
On one hand they are committed to promote organic food and educate the public to ensure demand continues to grow. On the other they are embarking on an ambitious strategy to see 10 percent of all primary producers in Australia converting to certified organic.
If this vision is achieved by their 2020 deadline, the implication is that organic would own 10 percent of the retail food market in Australia.
“It is entirely achievable”, claims Holly. “Sure it’s a challenge, but given overall farm numbers are decreasing while organic farmers are increasing, and given that demand looks set to increase, this spells both challenge and opportunity.”
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