Where does your food come from? The lowdown on organics

Jai Breitnauer has the lowdown on everything organics in this special report  

Staff at the Commonsense Organics Mt Eden store 

These days it seems like everyone is buying organic. Be it at the farmers market or the supermarket, the word organic crops up frequently on packaging and blackboards, and has become a byword for quality and good health. But beyond the slightly increased price-tag, what does buying organic actually mean for the consumer?

“It means that you are buying into a system that is part of the solution for a healthier planet,” says Marion Wood from Commonsense Organics. “Organic farming improves the quality of the soil, makes it more carbon absorbent and actually increases the planets resilience to climate change.”

Along with her husband Jim she launched their organic-yet-mainstream supermarket brand in 1991. “We were a bit before our time to be honest,” admits Marion. “But I wanted people to see buying organic as not just for men with beards and sandals.”

Marion’s interest in organic living is rooted in her upbringing. “My mum was the first organic person I knew,” she admits. “She smelt a rat with pesticides back in the 1950s, she knew there was a problem.” When Marion and Jim bought a piece of land in 1975 they sought financial help from Marion’s parents, and her mum insisted it be farmed organically. “Jim comes from a traditional farming background, he thought the idea was mad – and so did everyone else.”

By the early 80s Marion and Jim were involved in organic cooperatives in Wellington, and in 1991 they launched Commonsense Organics in Wellington as a stylish alternative to mainstream supermarkets.

Marion Wood from Commonsense Organics

“Business was slow at first, but it boomed around 1996. Our conservative friends started referring to us as business people instead of nutters. I knew then we’d cracked it.”

These days Commonsense Organics has six stores in Wellington and Auckland, and a very strict set of buying criteria. There is more choice in the organic sector, which means there is no compromise on the organic credentials of their organic products.

“Mostly we rely on third party accreditation,” says Marion. “But in the case of some small producers who can’t afford this, we ask them to sign an affidavit adhering to organic standards. There’s no room for error.”

Three’s a crowd?

There’s a certain sense of security that comes with buying from a store like Commonsense Organics; but if you’re buying from a supermarket, or an unfamiliar supplier, then third party accreditation is the only way to be sure you are making an organic choice.

“Anyone can say they’re organic,” says Mike Smith from Assure Quality, who provides accreditation in this area. “But to be certified organic you have to meet a clear set of criteria that guarantees your product meets an organic standard.”

The criteria and what’s involved in meeting it depends largely on the product. “Take farming, for instance,” says Mike. “There’s an immediate focus on soil health. It takes two to three years from the point the land was last sprayed to break down contaminants – so immediately there is a time commitment, we call it a conversion period.” Once a farm has met the soil standards they have to use only certified fertilizers, no pesticides and seeds that are uncoated, untreated and non-GMO. “If the seeds aren’t certified, then special dispensation needs to be obtained for each batch used.”

Common Property as it was in the 1970s

If it’s animals being farmed, then everything from where they come from to what vet treatments they’ve received affects their organic status, and on dairy farms even the chemicals used to clean machinery are monitored. Everything has to be clearly labeled and stored correctly – even rodent control has to meet organic standards.

It’s quite a commitment, and can set a producer back thousands of dollars, but for many businesses looking to service the growing demand in the organic sector, it’s worth it.

“I’d like to see more Government assistance for producers wanting to switch to organic methods,” says Marion, who acknowledges many growers don’t have organic certification because of the time and money involved. “At the moment organic farms are subsidising the practices of mainstream industrial farms. The investment would pay dividends; at the moment the tax payer picks up the cost of cleaning rivers – imagine where that money could be spent.”

Marion is also concerned about the ongoing cost to the planet. “If you want to put it in financial terms, then it’s our children who will be paying for the damage we’re doing now. We need to face up to the realities of the cost of real food.”

Nicola Boniface from Moreish Meats (centre) with their lamb farmers, Paul and Deb Henson 

The human cost

Nicola Boniface, owner of Moreish Meats, agrees there needs to be a social change around the cost of food.

“We’ve had it drummed into us that food needs to be cheap, and needs to be huge,” says Nicola. “The current system is volume based; mass production leads to mass consumption, and the result is the obesity epidemic and other health problems like diabetes.”

Nicola believes we need to accept that good food costs more, and that we don’t have to eat as much.

“When you buy a product that’s free range and organic, you’re paying for quality. The animals are happy, they’ve been well cared for, and the result is tastier, tender meat that’s full of nutrients.”

Happy, healthy animals, Nicola says, lead to happy, healthy humans. “Animal welfare is our highest priority, and the knock on effect to human welfare is invaluable.”

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