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by Elizabeth White



IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, is the United Nations of the organic world. With several hundred member groups from over fifty countries, the organization provides guidance, sets standards and represents the organic movement on many international trade and agricultural commissions. Every two years, IFOAM holds a General Assembly in conjunction with a major international conference on organic agriculture. The most recent meeting was held last December at Lincoln University, just outside Christchurch, N.Z.;

When Anne Macey asked for someone to represent COG at the General Assembly, I happily volunteered. What a wonderful opportunity to fulfill a long-time ambition to visit New Zealand! So, in early December (early summer in N.Z.), our family flew to Aukland to join a one-week pre-conference organic tour. What followed was a fascinating and intense introduction to organic farming on the other side of the world.;

The first thing that impressed us was the apparent lack of government bureaucracy. N.Z. has few regulations affecting organic growers. Organic milk, labelled either Bio-Gro or Demeter (the two certification labels used in N.Z.) is available alongside conventional milk on the supermarket shelves everywhere, with no price premium. There are no government restrictions on the use of biologicals and no government regulation of organic certification. Our first tour stop was a private composting operation on the outskirts of Aukland. Beautiful "Black Gold" compost was produced from lawn and garden waste, tree clippings, etc. which local residents and landscapers would pay to dump, and then purchase bags or truck loads of the finished compost. It is a fine operation, but one which would never pass provincial environmental regulations in Canada. ;

We were eager to hear first-hand about N.Z.’s economic revolution. All agricultural subsidies were removed in 1984. Almost all sectors have been or will be privatized, most recently the agricultural research institutions. As a result, and because there are few commercial supporters, funding for organic research is declining. Apart from this rather serious problem, the organic community is managing very comfortably without subsidies, probably because it gained little benefit from them in the first place.;

The great thing about N.Z. is that you can grow just about anything, depending on where you are. Not so great for apple growers are the codling moth densities – the highest in the world. Codling moths can cause 90% crop damage in organic orchards. Dr. John Clearwater of Mt. Albert Research Station in Aukland has been working to control the moth with pheromones since 1982. Damage has been reduced to 0.5% at his test sites by attaching a pheromone-filled plastic tube dispenser to each tree. The scent released mimics the sex-pheromone used by females to attract males, making it very difficult for males to locate females. Once this key pest is under control, others appear to be self-regulating. Concerns surrounding the use of this technique include the probability of pest adaptation, and the effects of strong wind. The pheromones are used with granulosis virus as a back-up. The method seems to work; we searched one orchard for codling moths, checking fruit and pheromone traps, but were unable to find evidence of a single moth.;

Several organic orchards that we visited were part of mixed farms. Sheep were pastured in the orchards, usually after harvest, to provide fertilizer and to reduce the groundcover for overwintering pests. Herbs, particularly Umbelliferae, grew in the rows to attract beneficial insects. Many growers used foliar sprays and one organic crop consultant we met treated a dozen kiwi orchards with homeopathic biodynamic sprays. He claimed great success with this method, and the orchard we saw looked healthy. ;

Unlike the market for conventional kiwifruit, which has gone through a boom and bust cycle, organic kiwi is in increasing demand. Sales have risen from 12,000 trays in 1992 to 50,000 trays in ’93 and to 406,000 trays in ’94. Like everything else in New Zealand, the crop is grown primarily for export. It is sold through the marketing board, a controversial issue, which has a separate pool for organic products. Pack houses handle both conventional and organic produce, but cleaning and residue testing is required before organic crops are brought in. We were told that organic kiwi store so much better than conventional kiwi that controlled atmosphere storage is not required. Also, the botrytis which caused high losses in the conventional crop last season did not affect the organic crop.;

One cannot avoid sheep in New Zealand. It is hard to exaggerate the devastating effect of 60 million sheep on the landscape. Before the arrival of the European settlers 150 years ago, there were no mammals in New Zealand and the islands were largely forested. Now the old growth forest is almost entirely gone and the hills are covered in imported grass, gorse, broom, heather and of course the ubiquitous sheep. Everywhere erosion is terribly evident.;

Reforestation is a N.Z. priority, and the tree of choice is the fast-growing radiata pine; millions of acres are now under radiata pine monoculture (read: monotonous and dreary) – hardly a diverse ecosystem and a potential pest mega-banquet. Organic growers prefer to plant a mixture of indigenous trees, mostly as windbreaks. The lack of markets for these species does not encourage their cultivation. ;

There is debate whether environmentally sustainable hill farming with sheep is possible; the organic farms we visited restricted their sheep to lower pastures. Internal parasites, which are developing resistance to conventional wormers, are a major problem for conventional and organic farmers. The organic solution, which we saw demonstrated on several farms, is rotational grazing. Because of New Zealand’s temperate climate, livestock farming is synonymous with pasture management (housing and supplementary feeding are the exception rather than the rule). A typical pasture rotation would be milking cows followed by dry cows or beef cattle followed by sheep followed by a rest period. Generally farmers found one head of cattle to 2–6 head of sheep worked well. ;

In Hastings, on the east coast of North Island, we toured Watties, a large N.Z. processor recently taken over by Heinz. Watties has just introduced a line of canned organic vegetables, targeted for new markets in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. Their logo for these products is the ‘Green Tiger’ and they figure that organics fit well with the N.Z. marketing image ‘Clean, Green and Nuclear-free’. ;

To persuade their contract growers to switch to organic production, Watties is offering large incentives, as high as 280% for some crops, and is working closely with agricultural researchers. At the moment, organic production is a tiny percentage of Watties’ production, but Heinz Australia & N.Z. have 10% of the world market, so the opportunity for expansion is enormous. The entry of Watties into organic processing has given added legitimacy to the organic community, i.e. it is tolerated by government and mainstream agriculture to a greater degree than we see in Canada.;

Conventional farmers cannot compete with Australian grain producers, with the result that organic growers produce most of N.Z.’s small grain crop. We saw wheat, oats and rye incorporated into rotations with and without livestock. The grain was often milled and bagged on the farm and sold farmgate and to health food stores and bakeries.;

Apart from the well-established national market for organic dairy products, N.Z. growers have problems in selling organic food at home. We visited a number of small and medium-sized market gardens, admired their crops and heard about their marketing methods. CSA type pre-ordered ‘vegetable boxes’ have met with some success and health food stores in the larger centres carry local organic produce. On-farm packaging, often just putting vegetables in a labelled plastic bag, was found important in improving marketability and price. Supermarkets, with one exception, have not been supportive and generally placed huge premiums on any organic produce, regardless of the farmer’s selling price. ;

We visited the exception, St Martins New World supermarket in Christ-church, where about one quarter of the fresh produce section was organic, beautifully displayed and well labelled and promoted. (The meat and dairy sections of the store also offered a good choice of organic product, but it was mixed in with the other food and therefore harder to find.) The day we visited, oranges, lemons, kiwis, tangellos, avocados, cherries, strawberries and artichokes were on display alongside more mundane vegetables. With 20% of produce sales organic, the problem for this store was one of supply. Manager Brian Newberry thought that part of the difficulty was that the trans-nationals were always out looking for organic produce in bulk to ship overseas, leaving the smallest producers to supply the local markets. He relied on 50 or 60 individual organic farmers, which meant coordination could be problematic, to say the least.;

It will be interesting to see how the organic movement evolves in N.Z. as it deals with the pressures to export and the difficulties of supplying the small domestic market. Production is expanding rapidly. Conventional growers are looking to organic markets partly because of poor markets for conventionally-grown crops and because GATT non-trade tariffs are thought likely to restrict export of fruit (and other agricultural products) with insecticide residues. Maori farmers are interested in organic production because it fits with their cultural and spiritual traditions. The certification groups can no longer rely so heavily on volunteers and are reorganizing and expanding to service the new growers. ;

The tour ended and the IFOAM conference began with a magnificent opening ceremony at the Christchurch Town Hall at which we received a traditional Maori welcome and Mayor Vicki Buck announced with rash hyperbole that Christchurch, long known as The Garden City, would in future be known as The Organic Garden City. Our Kiwi friends assured us afterwards that they would hold her to this promise. ;

Lincoln University proved to be a perfect setting for the conference. Eight hundred delegates from sixty countries participated, making this the largest IFOAM conference ever. The university catering services rose to the occasion and, incredibly, managed to serve largely organic food. Maori input was welcomed whenever it was offered and the Maori Speaking Stick tradition was adopted for the General Assembly – only the person holding the stick had the authority to speak. ;

The IFOAM General Assembly is run like a mini-United Nations, except it works. Despite differences of opinion, culture and language (English is the official language; there is no budget for translation), decisions were made efficiently in an atmosphere of goodwill. IFOAM operates on the strength of its elected volunteer board and committees. The amount of work it undertakes is astonishing and IFOAM deserves our support. ;

My final thought is not a happy one. It was very clear from the conference that Canada is falling behind in terms of our organic production, our processing, our marketing and the necessary back-up regulation and research. Even by N.Z. standards, our governments have been unsupportive, and lack of cooperation within the organic movement does not help. With the possible exception of Québec, Canada compares unfavorably with Western Europe, Japan, the United States and New Zealand. There is absolutely no reason for this to be the case. ;


Elizabeth White, COG's past president, lives on a horse farm near Stirling, Ontario.



Copyright © 1995. Elizabeth White.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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