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01 June 2000

Organics: spraying in the wind

 

Consumer fears about genetically modified foods, both here and in important overseas markets, have put the spotlight on the apparent alternative - organics.

Many consumers clearly see organics as an important part of New Zealand's clean, green agricultural future.

Would that it was so simple.

For many years farmers and growers been under pressure to go ‘green', with a strong focus on responsible use of agrichemicals. As a result, most fruit and vegetable growers are Growsafe accredited.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has also been widely adopted. Many growers of crops as diverse as kiwifruit and cauliflower no longer spray to a 14- or 21-day schedule.

Instead, they monitor crops using pheromone traps or by carefully scouting for signs of invasion. They then spray just that part of the crop that's infested, using an agrichemical which is targeted specifically at the bug in question.

There are exceptions but, by and large, the agrichemicals used by today's growers are safer and kinder to the environment than those used by their parents or grandparents.

So much so, New Zealand food production systems are probably greener than they have ever been. And scientists at the Ministry of Health assure the public that agrichemical residues on crops are declining and pose no risk to consumers.

But science is one thing and public perception is another.

Years of scare stories about environmental and health risks have taken their toll. As have well-publicised examples of chemical users being cavalier and careless on the ground and in the sky.

Try as they might, it appears growers will not satisfy many affluent consumers with anything less than a 100 per cent organic future.

With the message coming through loud and clear, some consumers must be asking themselves why more farmers and growers are not going organic. After all, if that's what your customers want, you'd be a fool not to give it to them.

The reason is that organic conversion can be complex and costly. Before taking the plunge, producers have to ask themselves whether their investment will be repaid with interest.

For some crops in some markets, sweetcorn for Japan for instance, the arithmetic really stacks up.

But with some other crops and livestock, the reverse is true. The price margins in favour of organic food are too small to outweigh the higher costs and lower yields organic growers often get.

In some cases the technology for economic organic production doesn't even exist, so there's no basis for calculation.

For instance, many sheep farmers would like to give up dipping and drenching their flocks. But controlling flystrike and internal parasites without modern dips and drenches is easier said than done.

Another key question is, how long will the demand for organic food last?

Consumer preferences rarely remain static for long. Who, for example, would have predicted the recent swing back to indulgence foods in white tablecloth restaurants?

When the run of horror stories from Europe eventually dries up, will consumers come to recognise that organic doesn't necessarily mean best environmental practice? And that conventional doesn't necessarily mean bad?

Organic and conventional growers have their philosophical differences, but when comes down to gumboots in the paddock, they both rely on effective pest, disease and weed control to produce marketable and profitable crops.

Organic growers have derris, copper, neem, flameweeders and intensive cultivation in their weed and pest control armouries. Conventional growers may be more reliant on products like Captan, Dimilin or Roundup.

Each of these tools has a safety profile and each has an impact on the environment. How you weigh them is a matter of opinion.

One thing won't change, however: the preference of affluent consumers for safe, tasty foods grown in systems which are friendly to neighbours, animals and the environment.

Food producers ignore this reality at their peril.

Published in the New Zealand Herald, 3 July 2000

- Trevor Walton


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