The OCAA is a non-profit, grass roots group dedicated to maintaining and enhancing ethical & quality standards in the Australian certified organic food industry.
Organic Consumers Association of Australia
The recently formed Organic Consumers Association of Australia (OCAA) is the first and only non-profit organisation in Australia that is dedicated to protecting and advancing the interests of consumers of organic food and other products.
OCAA will be active in the area of organic standards, certification and promoting organic food to consumers and encouraging more conversion to organic growing.
Organic Standards within Australia are generally high and well regarded both domestically and in our export markets, but unfortunately the regulation and application of organic Standards is not well understood and is not straightforward and inevitably there are economically derived pressures to reduce the standards requirements.
Australia currently has two major organic Standards that are relevant to regulation.
Certification according to the National Standard for Organic and Bio- Dynamic Produce (usually called simply The National Standard, see http://www.agriculture.gov.au/export/controlled-goods/organic-bio-dynamic/national-standard) is required by the Federal Government before exporting organic produce from Australia. For export purposes, the National Standard can only be applied by Certification Bodies (CBs) that are accredited by the Department of Agriculture. It has no legal status within Australia but has been used as a ‘default’ Standard for domestic purposes.
The AS6000 (see https://www.saiglobal.com/assurance/food-safety/Certified-Organic.htm) can be recognised by Australian courts, as a definition of organic, although certification to the AS6000 is not mandated, i.e. products can be sold as organic in Australia without any legal requirement to be certified. Australian Standards can be recognized by the courts and other regulators such as the ACCC, but it is the convention that certification to an AS (Australian Standard) can be delivered by a certification organisation without needing Government accreditation. Note that Standards Australia is recognised by the Federal Government as a standard setting authority. So, while certification to the AS6000 has some advantages for consumers, it is also a concern that multiple organic certification agencies could arise without much scrutiny. It would be better if the Australian Government were to refer to the AS6000 in legislation. In fact, it could be that this would be best done, under coordinated national agreement, by the State Governments acting in unison, perhaps via the COAG process whereby State and Federal Governments collaborate.
There are also two ‘private standards’, operated by the largest CBs, Australian Certified Organic and NASAA. These standards have no legal status for export or in the courts. They are only ways in which the CBs distinguish themselves from others and inform growers. They are also used by certification bodies to obtain accreditation for organics exports from overseas accreditation and regulatory bodies, so that the clients of these two certification bodies can gain market access for their products additional to the arrangements provided by equivalence to the National Standard via government to government processes. There is the potential for these Standards to impose higher requirements than the National Standard, and they have historically always met at least the minimum requirement of the National Standard. A recent decision of one CB to slightly amend the private standard to facilitate drought feeding is a concern because it lowers the requirement below the National Standard, and because the CB acted alone without engaging the accepted process of managing Standards issues via the Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council (OISCC).
Lack of support for the AS6000 by some CBs has seen the ongoing development of the standard fall behind the National Standard, which is continuously updated by The National Standards Committee and approved by OISCC. This is ironic because only a few years ago the same CBs used the AS6000 to justify of the use of methionine in organic egg and poultry production and to change the National Standard.
It would be better if there was only one Standard, which is generally the requirement of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and that standard should have teeth for domestic regulation. Neither the National Standard nor the AS6000 are currently fit for this purpose, but there are many reasons why ‘one standard’ makes much more sense.
Another issue of concern is that the expertise to develop and administer Standards exists within the industry more than in the bureaucracy and in the past OISCC and its predecessors have worked collaboratively with Government, recognising industry skills and knowledge and conceding the need for Government to control export regulation. Gradually over time some Government agents have tended assume that they control the entire process. OCAA believes that the interests of growers and consumers are best preserved and maintained by industry, and that Governments role should be limited to the necessary regulatory requirements. It should be noted that Standards Australia which owns the AS6000, apart from being Australia’s representative on the International Standards Organization and a government-recognised standards setting authority, has a strict governance protocols which oversee standard setting.
Commercial pressure to weaken the Organic Standard has seen the introduction of several synthetic inputs (methionine for chickens and yeast food for winemaking) although the National Standards Committee has recently recommended to OISCC that these inputs be removed. Current pressure from industry (and unfortunately at least one CB) is to permit some level of contamination of organic produce with GMO products and to permit hydroponics. These pressures will be strongly resisted by OCAA.
A New Start
OCAA was founded by Australian organics Industry pioneer Tim Marshall in 2019 and a collective of like-minded organic consumers who care about the organic industry.
Tim is a prolific author on organic farming with many books published including beautiful coffee table hard covers available through the ABC book stores, and he is a highly sought after trainer in organic growing, biological farming, sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and land management. His publications include
- Dung Down Under: Dung Beetles for Australia
- The New Organic Gardener
- Bug: the ultimate gardener's guide to organic pest control
- Weed: the ultimate gardener's guide to organic weed control
- Compost: the ultimate organic guide to recycling your garden
The Role of Certification
As mentioned above, the recent appearance of unaccredited CBs does raise some concerns about their capacity to apply the AS6000 including qualifications of inspectors/auditors, how the decision to grant certification is delivered and the separation of inspection and certification functions.
Qualifications and independence of inspection and qualifications of inspectors is generally a concern to OCAA, and we would prefer that the three functions of Standard setting, inspection/audit and certification were separated, and that inspectors were required to conform to a professional code of ethics independent of the CBs.
Lack of transparency of certification decision-making, even on the part of accredited CBs, is also concerning to OCAA and we believe that all the processes of certification including OISCC, the CBs and Government should be as open as possible. There should be standardised application and interpretation of the Standard, and in the regulation of permitted input products, to avoid conflict of interest.
As can be seen from the above discussion, the landscape of standard setting and certification is complex. It is the goal of OCAA to greatly increase knowledge of how the process works and transparency throughout the system, so that consumers and growers can become more involved and provide proper surveillance.
Organic Growing and Processing
In order to ensure continuing increase in availability of organic food, OCAA recognizes the need to offer support to organic growers including the right to protection from contamination with GMOs. If organic consumers want more product, it is legitimate to promote conversion, including government policy and institutional support for organic. To that end, we would like to see more education and assistance for growers to understand the Standards and certification requirements, which should be provided by an independent authority other than certification bodies. Government policy at all levels of government can have a significant influence upon the future growth of organic, by removing current impediments, and provision of information. There is a potential for proactive policies such as application of the same rate rebates on organic land that apply, at least in some states, to land dedicated to biodiversity. Note that the organic Standards require 5% percent set-aside for biodiversity preservation and the provision of ecosystem services. The recent report on the magnitude of biodiversity loss in Australia and the world is an impetus for payments for the environmental stewardship that organic producers provide.
OCAA will advocate for certification of organic produce and products as the ‘operating norm’ for organic trade, noting that certification is currently not mandated. Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), under appropriate governance arrangements, has a lot to offer for small growers and local supply, and as an easy steppingstone to conversion and, where appropriate, eventual ‘third party accredited’ certification. Organic PGS schemes should use the same Standard as third-party certification.
OCAA will keep a watching eye on operations of accredited and unaccredited CBs including application of the certification process and training and standardisation of qualifications of organic inspectors/auditors. When necessary it will identify and respond to marketplace fraud.
OCAA will encourage organic-friendly food and farm policy. For instance, we had recent legislative changes mooted for the import of seed into Australia. When first announced, it appeared to mandate chemical treatment for all imported vegetable seed from four major vegetable families. It is no longer appropriate that legislation requires chemical treatment without proper consideration of whether non-chemical treatments can deliver appropriate outcomes.
WHY CHOOSE ORGANIC?
As a consumer, though, does the higher quality food really justify spending a higher price? Absolutely yes! Even though organic farming standards can vary greatly around the globe, whenever you get your hands on some fresh certified organic produce, you can rest assured that the ingredients you are going to cook with for your family were grown naturally, without the use of artificial fertilisers and other chemicals or the introduction of Genetic Modification. Organic farming practices actually eliminate the risk of pesticide residues in your otherwise healthy salad, which is a major problem, especially since as far as certain vegetables are concerned, it’s nearly impossible to wash these dangerous chemicals off of them.
'Certified Organic' Demand is on the Rise - and with it the need for consumer representation.
The health and environmental benefits of organic farming are well documented, so it’s great that the Australian organics industry has become one of the nation’s top five growth industries, and rising considerably in strength over the past decade.
Mainstream supermarkets have embraced the ever-increasing demand for certified organic products, farmers’ markets are popping up all over the country, and home delivery services are available for those too busy to join the checkout queue. Furthermore, premium quality certified organic produce can be ordered over the internet, so access to healthy food has never been easier.
Certified Organic production prohibits the use of pesticides and pharmaceuticals (antibiotics), hormones, GMOs and artificial fertilizers ensuring the sustainability of the farming land over the long term, building healthier soil, having less impact on biodiversity, reducing negative impact on waterways, rivers and oceans, while eliminating the presence of synthetic chemicals and other unhealthy additives in our food.
But the Certification of Organic Farms grew out of a grass roots movement that was largely 'honour' based. As the organics industry has become professionalised and commercialised there has been pressures on this system behind the scenes which we as consumers need to be aware of and the OCAA has been set up to be a voice for organic consumers that represents consumers best interests and advocates for an ethical industry, truth in advertising, strict enforcement of organic standards, and also to educate a wider audience about the benefits of the organic certification system in ensuring these standards and ethics are met.