By Derek Broadmore
OPINION: The Organic Products Bill will almost certainly have slipped under the radar of most people.
It is a Government Bill that enjoys cross party support for its objectives and on its first reading in Parliament was passed almost unanimously (one vote against).
With the global market for organic products increasing at annual growth rates of anywhere between 9 and 15 percent for at least the last 15 years, and expected to reach around $221 billion this year, the organic sector has huge potential for our primary producers.
Add to this the proven contribution that organic farming can make to restoring soil and water health, eco-system regeneration and carbon sequestration, and the importance of supporting this sector with appropriate legislation is easy to understand.
The value of organic farming is increasingly recognised overseas. For example, the EU has just committed to a goal of having 25 percent of its productive land under organic management by 2030.
Those involved in organics in New Zealand mostly support the objects of the Bill.
First, regulation of the term "organic" to ensure that only products that are certified as being produced in accordance with a recognised organic standard, can be sold as organic. Second, the creation of a national standard against which organic products can be audited. Third, to assist our export sector to meet International requirements for trade in organic products.
Until now organic certification has been carried out by private certifiers against standards they have developed based on internationally accepted models. This has worked well for domestic producers and consumers.
For the export market the certifiers (primarily two, AsureQuality and BioGro) are accredited to certify products against a range of international organic standards and production rules depending on their destination. Official assurance for exports is provided by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
Our locally grown certification system has worked for us to date but there is little doubt that appropriate legislation has the potential to provide a sound base for ongoing expansion domestically.
For smaller producers and new entrants the current low-cost domestic certification provided by Organic Farm NZ (OFNZ) could disappear unless MPI change their stance on the participatory guarantee system by which OFNZ operates.
If this were to eventuate, it could lead to a contraction of supply to the domestic market and higher prices for consumers.
It is fair to say that the Bill, as drafted, has not been well received across the organic sector.
The structure proposed for the approval of organic producers was not amongst the options consulted on prior to the drafting of the Bill.
It is also markedly different from the systems used by most of our international trading partners and it introduces a whole new layer of bureaucracy and perhaps most importantly, cost.
What the sector had expected following consultation was essentially a codification of the existing system using independent third-party certifiers to audit producers against a new national standard regulated by MPI.
While the Bill does retain a preliminary role for the third party certifiers, MPI does the final evaluation and grants approval, in addition to being the overall regulator.
Judge and jury would be one way to describe it.
There is little in the way of the checks and balances we would normally expect in an audit driven process.
MPI is currently consulting the sector on the shape and form of regulations to put the Bill into effect. Organics Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ) is the umbrella organisation for the organic sector and actively engaged with MPI in that consultation process.
It is particularly concerned about the additional layer of cost that organic producers will now face.
Not only will they continue to have the audit cost that they pay their current certifier, but also the further cost of final evaluation and approval by MPI. Perhaps surprisingly, MPI has been unable to give any indication as to how much those additional costs will be.
On the positive side MPI have been very willing to spend time with OANZ and other sector representatives discussing the areas of disagreement and how they might be addressed.
OANZ is committed to taking the time to fully explore the options for this legislation in a genuinely co-operative way.
If we can do that successfully we can achieve legislation that will enable organic production to thrive here in New Zealand.
Derek Broadmore is a former lawyer and organic farmer and member of OANZ advisory board.