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The organic industry has a poor reputation with state and national governments, with mainstream producers and parts of the supply chain, and with many influential external stakeholders.

It is a strategic weakness to alienate key stakeholders—instead, the industry needs to build alliances with other peak bodies and key stakeholders to achieve its strategic priorities.

That does not mean compromising foundational values. Rather, it requires a focus on clarifying priorities and the willingness to compromise on other issues for the sake of achieving the highest priorities.

Some organic growers, processors and traders are weary of leadership divisions and are seeking a more united approach.


External perceptions

While reviewing documentation for this project, we came across the following abstract which aptly summarises the state of Australia’s organic industry.

  The Australian organic food industry has reached a political impasse. Despite being one of the fastest growing sectors of the food economy, the organic industry in Australia remains largely self‐governed. There is no specific legislation for domestic organic food standardisation and labelling at the state or federal level as there is in the USA and the EU. The situation has engendered deep division within the sector. While there is recognition among most organic industry actors about a need for regulatory reform and greater engagement with government, there is disagreement over the appropriate nature and extent of government intervention. Some sectoral actors seek government regulation to facilitate the maturation and expansion of the organic industry and to protect consumers and producers from labelling fraud. Others fear that government regulation may undermine the values and traditions of the Australian organic agriculture movement.[1]

Even though this summation is a decade old, it seems that little has changed in respect of organic industry leadership and governance in the intervening period—personal and corporate histories and ambitions have often prevailed over the interests of the broader organic industry.

The divisions have resulted in the organic industry having a poor reputation with state and national governments, with many mainstream producers and the supply chain, and with influential external stakeholders. Indeed, one such peak body informed us that they

  …did not see the industry as part of its core business or strategy. There are a number of perceived issues with the ‘industry’. Firstly is one of definition, regulation and control of membership and code of behaviour. The second is that in promoting their production methods they have been critical of conventional farming systems. We’ve always held the view that there is room in the market place of different production systems, but there should be no disparaging of other systems as part of promotion.

This forthright view was consistent with the views expressed by many external stakeholders that the organic industry is riven with rivalries, difficult to deal with and unlikely to coalesce. Notwithstanding this, and perhaps surprisingly, there still exists significant goodwill among external stakeholders to wish the industry well in “getting its act together”.

It is clear to us that the industry needs to act strategically and with single purpose, choose its battles clearly, and develop alliances across supply chains and with like-minded organisations and government agencies to pursue its priorities.

Industry perceptions

The overwhelming message from our regional industry consultations was also that grassroots organic growers, processors and traders are weary of the leadership divisions and the absence of vision which so characterise their industry. There is a desire for a new peak body that can overcome these problems and effectively represent the interests of the broader industry—although there is also a pervasive cynicism that it can happen. Associated with this, there is a perceived need for generational change in the industry leadership and a more positive focus on the future.

Our consultations revealed that, while organic operators want the peak body to be of the right structure and purpose, there was also a sense of urgency and frustration—they want industry leaders to “just get on with it and make it happen”. Options for forming a new representative body are developed in Part 3.

It is not well understood that the industry’s regulatory arrangements act to reinforce the status quo. Worse, the regulatory arrangements are confused and confusing, are tightly controlled by a small group of industry regulators, and do not promote domestic market integrity for organic products—in fact, current regulatory arrangements may well be contributing to poor market integrity.

The impending review of arrangements under the Export Control Act provides an opportunity for the industry to partner with the Australian Government to develop better and simpler regulations that act in the interests of organic operators—regulations that could underpin domestic market integrity, reduce red tape, and support a more prosperous and future-oriented organic industry. These issues are discussed in Part 4.

During our consultations, we encountered many genuine and committed operators keen to share their experiences, aspirations and exasperations. Despite their weariness with industry politicking and the absence of industry support, organic operators are mostly optimistic about their businesses and their industry, and they see this project as a positive step. These operators agreed that a new peak body could create value for the industry, but they mostly articulated a view that funding for the peak body should primarily be redirected from fees already paid to the certifiers.

We agree that the future for Australia’s organic industry could be more prosperous, leveraging off a growing consumer preference for premium products. But the organic industry’s leadership needs to eschew divisiveness and act in the interests of the broader industry. It is imperative that it gets three things right:

  • value creation—the structure and objectives of the peak body must create value for the industry, by focussing on the industry’s future and the interests of organic growers, processors and traders
  • effective regulation—the industry’s self-regulation arrangements must be reformed in the best interests of organic growers, processors and traders, and to promote domestic market integrity and market access abroad
  • building trust—to “bring the whole industry along”, the organisational processes must embed strongly democratic mechanisms, including representation from all sectors of the industry and a strong emphasis on good governance—including a commitment to transparent processes

Relations with governments and external stakeholders

Most external stakeholders we spoke with perceived the organic industry to be fractious, divided, difficult to deal with, and of marginal relevance. There would seem to be deep-rooted and systemic reasons for this.[2]

  • Despite organic agriculture having been practised formally for half a century in Australia, it remains a fringe agricultural activity. Although it has the largest agricultural land area under organic certification in the world, it remains the case that a small proportion of all commodities produced in Australia are produced under organic certification systems.
  • The development of the Australian organic sector has occurred largely without state involvement. In global terms, Australian agriculture has one of the lowest regimens of industry support. This is true of the organic sector, perhaps even more acutely. Export access has driven what little government engagement that has occurred.
  • The perception of Australian agriculture as producing ‘clean and green’ food clashes with the view of organic produce as environmentally friendly and safe, such as occurs in the European Union. This tension tends to undermine acknowledgment of organic farming as a ‘farming system’ in Australian agriculture, lest this imply a direct or oblique criticism of conventional farming.
  • Industry disunity hinders governmental activity in building organic farming into a sizeable export competitive industry sector.
    • There is a clear lack of leadership. Government representatives are confused as to who represents an authoritative view and receive conflicting messages from different individuals. Key industry players refuse to accept industry-wide platforms.
    • Certifiers have functioned as de facto industry spokes groups, but rivalries and divisions over operational and policy issues undermine their capacity to be effective advocates.
  • The establishment of the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) in 1998 was initially envisaged as assuming the role of industry leadership. It was an attempt to integrate producer, processors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers into a single structure. However, it has lacked capacity and key industry players have contested its mandate. There are few people in the organic industry who consider that the OFA could still emerge as an effective peak body for the whole organic industry.
  • Mainstream farm industry organisations are not engaged in organic agriculture. They do not have organic sections, nor have they established organic farm policies. For example, in the debate over the release of genetically modified crops in Australia, the position of the National Farmers Federation has been equivocal—that producers should be able to choose between organic, conventional and genetically modified.
  • The only formal venue in which the industry and government engage with one another is the Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council. OISCC has a narrow remit to manage export standards and regulations and is not the fora for strategic industry policy development.

It is not the case that governments are totally disinterested in organic industry development. Both national and some state governments have been involved—to differing extents between jurisdictions and over time[3]—in efforts to catalyse an organic sector that is sustainable in the long term, market responsive and that makes the most of export opportunities.

The Australian Government is aware of the need for the industry to generate transformative capacity to promote organic farming growth, and has recently offered some seed funding to assist in this regard (Part 5). However, attempts to transcend the minimal relationships forged around export market access have been problematic.

The issue of creating a domestic organic standard is a good example of the consequences of a lack of industry capability and an absence of a relationship characterised by deliberative networking[4]. For some time, the Australian Government has resisted calls to regulate the domestic trade of organic goods[5]. In preference to passing dedicated legislation, as occurs in the USA and European Union, or even incorporating organic standards within the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand system, which would make domestic standards mandatory and false claims punishable, the Australian Government has, instead, pushed a self-regulation model, referring industry to the generic provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act, and suggesting it seek legal redress in terms of guarding against false or misleading claims about the organic nature of food.

Most participants in our consultations revealed that the absence of domestic market integrity is viewed as the biggest failing of the industry leadership and governments. Achieving significant improvements in this area is not an impossible objective; but it’s not currently possible given the level of maturity in the industry’s advocacy capabilities—it would likely take years of investment in persistent and consistent policy development, relationship building, communication and advocacy to achieve such an objective. There is currently no industry forum to progress this kind of deliberative dialogue and networking with policy agencies.

Deliberative networking

Deliberative networking involves a type of relationship that provides particularly fertile ground for policy and governance innovation.

State and interest group representatives must be able to form a network in which an open-ended dialogue can evolve. Such an interactive process must involve discovering ends, recognizing other parties, marshalling evidence and giving reasons, exploring the implications of various value positions and developing joint responsibility in concrete situations.

If conducted successfully, such a process may enable network members to develop a shared understanding of the policy problem in question, reach agreement on new and innovative solutions to policy problems, develop trust among network members and learn about their interdependencies in pursuing their shared policy objectives.

[1] Stephen Hall (2015), Australia’s organic trilemma: public versus private organic food standardisation, refereed paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, Monash University, 24-26 September 2007.
[2] D. Halpin and C. Daugbjerg, Associative Deadlocks and Transformative Capacity: Engaging in Australian Organic Farm Industry Development, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 43, No. 2, June 2008, pp. 189—206.
[3] See, for example, the Victorian program summarised in Part 5.
[4] D. Halpin and C. Daugbjerg, Associative Deadlocks and Transformative Capacity: Engaging in Australian Organic Farm Industry Development, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 43, No. 2, June 2008, pp. 189—206.
[5] The Australian Government does have limited constitutional powers in respect of domestic markets, which can constrain its policy options. Domestic market regulation often has to be coordinated through the States.

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