A Budding Industry

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-By Jaime McKee

You may have seen it around: a small, stylised, ‘bud’ design displayed on that bag of onions you picked up at Coles, Woolworths, or your neighbourhood farmers’ market. It’s a cute and eye-catching logo to be sure, but what does it actually mean? As it turns out, that bud logo stands for quite a lot: it stands for a uniquely Australian standard that, at the same time, corresponds to broader international guidelines; it stands for food safety and environmental management systems; it stands for a healthy, viable, and sustainable food system; it stands for consumer awareness.

It stands for organic.

The bud logo is an indicator of organic integrity for Australian produce, and the identifying mark of Australian Certified Organic (ACO). ACO is the country’s largest auditing, certifying, and licensing body for organic and biodynamic produce, and its certification allows producers to display the distinctive bud logo on their product. A wholly-owned subsidiary of Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA), ACO has over 1500 operators within its certification system. It offers certification services to operators from all sectors of the organic industry, ensuring compliance with national production standards and acting as a monitoring body for best practice in the industry.

ACO’s expert team offers the most extensive organic certification service in Australia. Together with the promotional and marketing services provided by the BFA, the organisation works to ensure organic integrity all the way through the supply chain, covering producers, processors, wholesalers, packers, retailers and restaurants.

ACO has a vision of a thriving and prosperous organic industry which both supports the interests of farmers and meets consumer needs. While Biological Farmers of Australia came about in the 1980s, ACO was launched in 2001 in recognition of the need for a separate certifying body. As Dr Andrew Monk, Director, BFA, put it in a recent interview, “It was a critical time in the industry, where we were getting more mainstream and thinking consumers needed to know what that bud means.” The answer was to spell it out clearly by establishing ACO as a separate body to handle compliance and monitoring in the organic marketplace.

So just what does it mean to be ‘organic’? Organic systems “work in harmony with nature, keeping harmful chemicals out of our land, water and air, creating a healthy environment rich in wildlife, woodlands and nutrients.” At their root, organic production methods focus on soil health, as the soil forms the basis of healthy food and fibre production. Grown without chemical inputs, without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides, and without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), organic produce is the result of a system which takes a holistic approach to production, wherein the entire system is linked – “soil, plants, animals, food, people, environment, and health.”

While such systems have been in place in a number of countries for several decades now (and arguably, were the norm everywhere in generations past), here in Australia the organic sector is just beginning to take off. Dr Monk describes the impetus for a national certification scheme as originating with farmers, who recognised that some consumers were bristling at the amount of chemicals in their food, and more broadly, at the industrialisation of their food supply. “Fundamentally,” says Dr Monk, “the movements of the organic industry come from the reaction to that [process of industrialisation and commercialisation].” Biological Farmers of Australia was therefore formed, as a cooperative initially, by a number of farming families, with the aim of “bringing farmers together who have a common interest in producing – using natural farming methods – healthy, nutritious and safe foods for consumers.”

Dr Monk emphasises what he sees as the unsustainable nature of the dominant industrial food system: “If you push conventional farming methods to their limits, they eventually fall over. If you don’t look after the soil… soil is really what it’s all about.” He acknowledges that it can be a bit of a challenge to make that link known to consumers, but is clear that alternative, organic systems of production are viable. “What organic ultimately is trying to say is, ‘get soil healthy at the farming level, and the environment will be looked after and healthy food will be produced, and you won’t have to be reliant on synthetic pesticides and fertilisers.'”

Indeed, Australia is ripe for such a shift. At present, we have the largest area of organic farmland in the world at 12 million hectares. This is not to say, however, that we devote a significant area to organic produce per se; the vast majority of this land comprises rangelands for organic cattle production. But the healthy soil is there, the knowledge of organic production techniques is there. And with the backing of BFA and ACO, the industry is certainly poised to grow.

To this end, ACO conducts several thousand audits of its members each year. The organisation investigates random samples from the marketplace and cross-checks that the products are produced in line with ACO standards. The group houses twelve people in its head office who are dedicated to enforcement, and another two dozen or so auditors in the field.

The auditing process could take place any day, any time of the day or night, and is conducted annually at a minimum. In addition to testing for synthetic residues, ACO looks for a comprehensive management plan for managing one’s farm in an organic manner. ACO’s organic standard is a detailed technical document spanning 125 pages, and is available for download from the BFA website. Its requirements, though strict, are clear and attainable, and the group aims to make it as painless as possible for producers to make the shift. It offers, for example, an “In Transition to Organic” status for producers who have begun to produce to the ACO protocol, and an “Organic Growers of Australia” scheme for small farmers which aims to make organic certification accessible to small producers, with program costs “lower than the cost of a car registration.” The two groups also aim to connect with the broader public, offering user-friendly web resources and a consumer-friendly guide to understanding the ACO Standards.

The BFA itself is made up of a diverse range of members, from farmers all the way through to individual consumers. Now a public not-for-profit organisation, BFA is owned by around 1500 members. Dr Monk jokes that it is “the largest organic democracy in the southern hemisphere,” and the group does follow a democratic model of governance, conducting polls and working with advisory groups in what Dr Monk calls a “really interesting structure.”

Dr Monk is proud of the process: “I think the organic industry is a paragon of industry self-regulation. It’s a fantastic model where there’s no government meddling… there are no subsidies or gimmicks in the system. The industry ensures that it is fairly funded, with strong feedback from consumers, and the market drives [the activity within it].” He recognises that there are higher costs typically associated with organic production, but counters that the value of what is created by the industry is “arguably priceless.” The trust that groups like BFA and ACO have been able to build up between consumers and the organic industry is so strong, he says, that “I don’t know what kind of value you’d put on that.”

The greatest challenge facing BFA and ACO now, Dr Monk believes, is balancing the sustainable growth of the industry itself with ensuring that the value of organic goods is appreciated all the way through the chain to the retail level, such that it remains economically viable for farmers to continue to produce organically. The simple fact is that it does cost more to produce, say, carrots without pesticide use, and the retail sector must be willing to engage in stocking and selling those carrots and paying the premiums that they necessitate. Educating the retail sector and the public as to the true value of organic goods plays a key role in this arena, as does maintaining the strict monitoring process such that organic goods continue to live up to their claims.

While many reports do estimate growth for the global organic industry overall, a number of countries are actually poised to see a bit of a slowdown as consumers look to keep a tighter grip on what they may consider “discretionary spending”. In Australia, however, the industry is really only just taking off. Dr Monk is hopeful that the sector will boom locally, and doesn’t expect the growth to taper off anytime soon. Many supermarkets, he says, have only just begun to source organic products, and opportunities abound in the export market as well, buoyed by the strong global recognition of the bud logo and the high Australian standards it represents.

Indeed, though it lags the global organic sector in terms of sheer market penetration, Australia has been a world leader in certification since the 80s, when BFA was formed. “ACO is very much a world leader,” says Dr Monk, in the top thirty if not the top ten in terms of the 400 or so international organic accreditation groups.

“There’s a great dialogue that goes on that I think is extremely unique to the organic industry,” says Dr Monk. The industry is ultimately there for the consumers, and invites feedback and stakeholder engagement into the process at every level. It helps, of course, that there is great inherent value in the system ACO upholds: “Biological and organic farming systems are not just an opportunity for the future,” says Dr Monk, “but are critical if we are to turn around what is otherwise an unsustainable system… Hopefully, we can feed the world and do it sustainably.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:12 AM AEDT