Pseudo organics con?

2014-10-06 09:00

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Nechama Brodie

Cape Town - Buying organic food is, in theory, a simple exercise. You just have to read the label. On the back (or front, or side) of any organic item there should be a tiny logo, in much the same way as food is certified Kosher or Halaal.

Then there are other good-for-you green terms casually stuck on to our food - "natural", "sustainable", "free range", or "organically grown"...

So what are you buying?

While there's no ambiguity in the formal definition of certified organic (the exact phrasing and legal terms might vary slightly from country to country, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN provides a comparative overview here) there’s only one problem with these rules: in South Africa, they’re not law.

Typically an organic logo will give the name of the certifying agency, and a certification code that can be traced back and verified on request.  "Every label that is produced has to tell you who the certifier is," explains Paul Whittaker, who works with national advocacy body the South African Organic Sector Organisation (SAOSO).

This is what’s known as "certified organic",Whittaker says. "There's no either or."

Starting from the soil up, guidelines for every stage and process of agricultural and livestock production are clearly specified. Synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are not allowed; seed and feed must be organic, too - no GMO material is allowed in the production chain; plants have to be grown in the ground, not in containers (so no hydroponics); and there are further guidelines for animals, from the selection of appropriate species or breeds and breeding techniques, to grazing or feeding, with an emphasis on improved animal welfare.

WATCH: Most of SA eating GM foods

Intensive livestock farming techniques (like batteries or feedlots) are prohibited. Animals may also not be given routine medications like antibiotics, growth stimulators or suppressors, or hormones; there are additional regulations for the use of necessary veterinary medicinal products.

Even the establishment and management of beehives are covered (there are, at present, just four certified organic hives in South Africa) – as is any processing of organic food, which has do be done on a separate production line, with dedicated or specially cleaned equipment to ensure there’s no cross-contamination of chemicals from conventionally farmed foods.

While the organic sector (specifically SAOSO and its predecessors) has been lobbying various government departments since before the turn of the millennium, South Africa has yet to adopt its own formal organic standards.

This means that local organic producers are forced to go through onerous and expensive international certification processes, which effectively excludes many small-scale operations and has inhibited certification to the extent that the amount of land under certified organic cultivation in South Africa has actually declined over the past five years.

In the absence of any regulations to enforce, it has also turned “green” into a grey area.

Currently, the only recourse retailers and consumers have against spurious organic claims is to either stop buying (or selling) a product, or to register a formal complaint with an agency like the Advertising Standards Authority. There are no punitive consequences; and, increasingly, there is a lot of money at stake.

Big green food

By 2015 the global organic food and beverage market is expected to be worth around $104.5bn - nearly double its value in 2010. This, according to a report by Markets and Markets, can be attributed to factors such as growing consumer awareness, an increase in organic farming methods, and the “implementation of government regulations” around organic certification and labelling. It’s also, importantly, been driven by the “development of private labels and increasing interest of large retailers […] to sell organic products”.

A decade ago South Africa saw dramatic growth in the (combined domestic and export) value of organic food – going from a market worth R5m in 2003 to R155m in 2005. This rapid shift was attributed almost exclusively to the entry of large retailers, like Woolworths and Pick 'n Pay, into the supply of organic products.

While the retail sector has continued to grow, however, local organic production appears to have stagnated.

The emphasis on retail, rather than farming, reveals a critical bias in organic’s positioning. If we set aside debates about the ethical, environmental and nutritional values of organic food, organic food is still “consumed almost exclusively by high income consumers, as it is usually more expensive than its conventional counterpart,” says food science and technology consultant Nigel Sunley. “It is very much a niche market, and I believe it will remain a niche market for the foreseeable future.”

At the same time, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has noted that the organic farming sector itself was, historically, equally elitist - only adopting the membership of black farmers as late as 2006. In a working paper on national organic production policy, the Department further described the organic sector as a “culture of silos and protected intellectual territories developed amongst the different euro-centric organic farming tendencies”.

“The sector has a history that’s been plagued with a lot of activism,” Whittaker says, a sentiment echoed by a number of organic producers – although usually expressed “off the record”. There seems to be a general aversion to becoming further embroiled in the internal politics and policy debates that have, as much as the absence of government regulation, hamstrung constructive engagement between organic producers not just in South Africa but between farmers across SADC regions.

Perhaps the most significant effect of these organic silos has been the almost wholesale exclusion – by government, industry bodies and retailers – of the small-scale subsistence producers who not only make up the majority of South Africa’s farmers but who also, by default, are already farming organically.  

Uganda, which, after India, is the second largest country in the world in terms of organic producers, now has over 230 000ha of certified organic farmland, with 189 000 certified organic producers. Tanzania has over 186 000ha of organic agricultural land, with more than 148 000 certified producers. In contrast, in South Africa less than 45 000ha (0.05% of our total agricultural land) are certified as being farmed organically – this number has dropped since 2009, when over 59 000ha were certified – and the number of certified organic producers is a rather jaw-dropping 201.  

Blurred lines

“The industry now is no better off than it was in 1992,” says Sue Jackson of Wensleydale Farms who, together with a few like-minded organic growers, was instrumental in setting up South Africa’s first organic agricultural association in the early 90s.

For the last 25 years Jackson has been responsible for co-ordinating the distribution of certified organic fresh produce not only from Wensleydale but also from other certified small to large producers. She now works for the new owner of Wensleydale, Magapa Ngako-Phaweni, who she says is “a business person with a love of organic and of farming – she’s really switched on”.

For Jackson, the ongoing failure of the South African ministry of agriculture to ratify local organic legal standards – after an exhaustive, decade-long process of drafting and redrafting, and submission of the regulations to the World Trade Organisation for approval and that were accepted by that body in 2010 – is inexplicable (the “hitch” in passing the regulations seems to be a conflict with the existing Agricultural Product Standards Act of 1990, which needs to be separately amended).

“In Germany someone was jailed for selling… sweetcorn, I think. For selling non-organic sweetcorn and [passing it off as certified],” she says, “but here anything goes.”

In response - to what, in all likelihood is more the fault of political apathy (or preoccupation with other issues like land and food security) rather than any rumoured Big Food or GMO conspiracy - SOASO has had to resort to new tactics in order to get any formal recognition of South African organic practices in place.

Two years ago the draft organic regulations – the same one that couldn’t be ratified by government – were turned into a set of voluntary organic standards, and submitted through the South African Bureau of Standards. A working version of the draft (which is still “being prepared for public input) can be read here, and it’s hoped that the standards will be passed sometime in the near future.    

But, even if the standards are implemented, the “voluntary” approach – or Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS), which would include labels like Fairtrade, etc – may come with its own challenges, beyond the lack of any real punitive enforcement.

According to a report jointly published by IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) and FiBL (the Swiss, German and Austrian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture), on emerging trends in organic agriculture, [certified] organic is, increasingly, coming into competition with VSS. So, for example, a customer may be satisfied enough with buying Fairtrade coffee, even if it’s not certified organic.

It’s a faultline that - not just in South Africa - is being exploited by marketers and retailers who, faced with increased demand and limited supply of certified organic produce, still want to pander to the buying behaviours of a high-income, easy spending market that is likely more focused on trends than real sustainability.

A consumer survey commissioned by the South African National Agricultural Marketing Council found that about a third of “middle and upper income consumers [purchased] organic and free range products”, and that a large proportion of these buyers were still willing to buy from what could, perhaps, be described as “organic spectrum” (including non-certified labels) products even when there was a 10% or as much as a 20% premium.

The same survey confirmed that not only was there a lack of price sensitivity among such buyers (discounted foods seemed to offer little incentive), but also that issues of safety and traceability were seen as less important than perceived personal indicators like health, and taste.

The “organic premium”, perhaps more than anything else, is seen as the primary incentive for retailers - but, although some sector organisations are dismissive of the notion that organic somehow costs more to farm (high organic prices, they say, are solely due to retail mark-ups), it’s a surcharge that also might ensure the survival of local organic operations.

“I guess I go along with the premium,” says Susi Engelbrecht of Sandveld Organics in Lambert’s Bay, on the Cape West Coast. “First and foremost organic farming is a lot more labour intensive because of weed control,” she says - a financial factor that has been exacerbated by the recent changes to the minimum wages of farmworkers.

“It is correct, though,” she adds, “to look at organic in a broader sense. In most cases it has a social aspect, not only an environmental one. It’s no good saving the bees if you’re abusing your workers. So it all comes down to balance. But when you try to look out for everyone and everything, give everyone space in the environment, you end up investing in things that don’t really appear on a bank statement. Basically, consumers are paying for the warm feeling in their stomach.”    

For Engelbrecht, a bigger challenge is that the lack of regulation of the certified organic space effectively penalises her for investing in following certification procedures – while other, non-certified, suppliers get to trade off the broader goodwill (and low levels of consumer awareness). “I would appreciate it if the term ‘organic’ could be protected properly. Not that any of us farmers could afford lawsuits or legal action against people who abuse it, but at least we could talk to people and say: look, this is not on.”  

Spoiled for choice?

“The reality is, we couldn’t feed the whole of South Africa with organic food,” says Woolworths’ Head of Sustainability Justin Smith, explaining that “environmentally friendly and organic principles” still need to take commerciality into account.

This is the thinking behind the retail brand’s concept of “Farming for the Future”, which is, Smith says, an “audited process built on standards [Woolworths] has set for [themselves]”, and which try reduce things like input chemicals, and take into account biodiversity management. “But if there is a bug problem, a farmer is allowed to treat it. And then he has to rectify any negative potential impact.”

The combination of Farming For the Future and Organic,” says Smith, “is to give customers choice.”     

But it’s an approach that, according to Paul, doesn’t go far enough. “You have to give credit to the big retailers for bringing organic farming to their space,” he says, but he believes that the current model is “not sustainable unless there is parallel investment in small farmers, and in growing the supply chain.”

One of the ways SAOSO is looking to address this issue is through the introduction of what are known as Participatory Guarantee Systems – sort of organic “co-operatives” that cater for small-scale, uncertified but vouched-for (by the other PGS members), production, and enable the sale of this produce at local markets – with a specific aim of building a trust relationship between the producer and the consumer rather than relying on the retailer as the trust and distribution intermediary. An example of this is the well-established Bryanston Organic Market.

The farmers’ market model, however, should also be approached with caution – as shopping malls and large fresh produce retailers introduce pseudo-local markets, or recreate market-like retail environments that trade off the feel-good fresh-produce vibes of genuine community exchanges without actually contributing to the community’s bottom line (well, aside from actual expanding bottoms perhaps).

Neighbourhood markets are also unlikely to meet our growing demand for “all the food, all the time”. Instant ingredient gratification has become so ingrained in our buying habits that we now expect almost all fruits and vegetables to be available year-round, instead of only when they’re in season.     

PGS labelling is also not something we’re likely to see on any major retail store shelves any time soon. Alan Rosenberg suggests this may be because it’s not yet been marketed effectively, but also because it’s an approach that could threaten retailers. “They, as the dog, want to wag the tail. They don’t want the tail to say: actually we might be able to wag you. And the farmer is going to have to realise that he is the dog, and the retailer is the tail.”

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