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Speech on Organics by Ian Ewen-Street

Speech By Ian Ewen-Street MP
Green Party Agriculture spokesperson
General Debate,
Slot number nine

22 March 2000

Last week the United States Department of Agriculture made an announcement of considerable significance to New Zealand. It proposed a nation-wide standard for food and fibre marketed as 'organic'.

This proposal is designed to achieve two main objectives - first to establish a process which will guarantee what 'organic' means so that consumers know what they are buying and farmers know what is expected of them. Second, the proposal will establish clear and universally accepted benchmark standards which have to be adhered to by domestic producers and importers.

The ramifications for New Zealand are considerable, as the American standard may well become a de facto international minimum standard. Our own organics industry is burgeoning and our exported products attract high premiums from markets who already perceive us to be a 'clean and green' country. We have an organic standard which is already internationally recognized as one of the best in the world and we have many producers who are willing and able to reach that standard.

However, in recent weeks, there have been at least two new so-called 'organic standards' which have become available to farmers in New Zealand. At best, this development is confusing to consumers and producers who will no longer be able to establish with any certainty what 'organic' really means. At worst, the multiplicity of standards will result in certifying bodies competing with each other for clients by lowering their standards, and the concept of a product being truly organic will be lost.

We must remember that the demand for organic production is almost entirely consumer driven. People who are scared by incidents such as mad cow disease in the UK, the dioxin scare in Belgium, the toxic sludge in animal feed in France and the attempted introduction of genetically engineered food all around the world want a guarantee that their food is pure.

People who are scared by the use of antibiotics in animal feed, the use of hormones as growth promotants and the use of carcinogenic additives in their processed foods want a guarantee of food quality and safety for themselves and their families.

Other than growing it themselves, the only guarantee of purity of food product for consumers is to buy certified organic food. We must therefore have a consistent understanding of what organic means and a very high standard of certification. We must not allow producers to be seduced by the premiums of organics if they are not then prepared to adhere to established standards.

Again, we must remember that demand for organic food is driven by consumers, not by producers, and it is the consumer who wants - and is prepared to pay for - the absolute guarantee that their food is pure. The term 'organic' is generally understood to mean naturally produced, with no residual chemicals, no genetically engineered products, no artificial additives - it is understood to be virtually synonymous with sustainable agriculture.

New Zealand has a priceless opportunity - right here, right now - to establish itself as the high quality, high value, natural food centre of the world. Because we currently remain GE-free, we have the chance to create an agricultural goldmine by moving towards being an organic nation whose products are differentiated from those of our international competitors by being truly clean and green.

It is an area in which we should be showing clear international leadership. The very least we can do is to define what we mean by 'organic' and to establish benchmark standards for our consumers and producers.


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