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Jim Sutton Organics Speech

Strictly embargoed till delivery

Speech to the Soil and Health Association Conference UNITEC, Auckland 9am, 19 May 2000

President Brendan Hoare, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

You have selected an ambitious theme - making the whole country organic by 2020.

To be honest, I'd suggest starting a little smaller, given that the organics industry in New Zealand is as small as it is.

You have had great successes, despite your size. Organic produce generally sells for higher prices than conventionally grown produce.

There is growing demand, from consumers concerned that food production seems less natural and, by extension, less healthy than it used to be.

Some farmers are doing nicely out of growing it for manufacturers catering for this demand, such as Heinz-Watties. Good on them.

There are whole supermarkets in Britain and the United States where everything sold is tagged "organic". The more you can sell into markets like that, the better - particularly with our dollar in the state it currently is.

The Government is doing what it can to help, where appropriate.

10 years ago, organics were something a bit odd, something strange the old anarchists down the road did to their patch of land. Like all good anarchists, government involvement in their activities was to be decried.

I'm told there's still a bit of anarchism out there in the organic field, but let's face it, this conference demonstrates that organics has moved past being a fringe activity.

Organics are a thriving commercial activity now and organic farmers need to function commercially.

That's where the Government comes in, and departments such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

During the past six months, a lot of work has been done to protect our exports of organic food products against the possibility of trade barriers and punitive tariffs.

Both the European Union and Japan have passed legislation that requires "official" government or government-backed certification that foods claiming to be organic have in fact been produced in accordance with the appropriate organic standards.

The European and Japanese initiatives are being taken to stop fraudulent claims of organic status. There is no suggestion at all that New Zealand is involved in any misuse of the term for its export produce.

We have no quarrel with importing countries wanting to be certain that the organic foods they are importing are in fact genuinely organic and not just something that has an "organic" label stuck on it. We want the same protection for our own consumers.

Our concern, and our constant vigilance, is directed to those who would use such legitimate concerns as a pretext to erect technical barriers to trade.

At the request of the Organic Products Exporters Group Inc, and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, MAF Food is in the process of establishing an Official Organic Assurance Programme for organic produce exported to the European Union.

The development of an official programme should simplify access for organic products exported to the European Union as it will avoid the need for New Zealand exporters to obtain import licenses from individual states within the European Union.

New Zealand?s organic produce exports to the European Union are currently accompanied by assurances issued by organisations approved by individual Member States within the European Union under a ?derogation? provided for in their regulations. That situation can continue till 2005.

However, after this time, New Zealand?s exports of organic produce to the European Union must be accompanied by an official assurance issued by the New Zealand government.

While 2005 is some way off, the benefits in terms of simplifying access arrangements and providing greater long term security over those arrangements have been recognised by OPEG in their request that MAF Food establish and implement an official programme as soon as possible.

Under the programme MAF Food as the ?competent authority? will be issuing official government to government assurances for consignments of organic product.

Certification of farms or operators for compliance to the relevant organic standard will continue to be done by Third Party Agencies, approved by MAF Food.

To date, the initial development of the official programme has focused on products of plant origin.

The programme will be further developed and refined over the coming months to include products of animal origin (including dairy products), before being submitted to the European Commission with a request for ?Third Country Listing?. This Third Country Listing process will involve a desktop review of the documentation setting out MAF Food?s official programme, following by an in-country assessment by EC organic experts.

MAF Food is hopeful that the Third Country Listing process will have been completed in time for the official programme to commence in March 2001. Once MAF Food?s official programme is approved by the EC, New Zealand?s organic produce will be able to enter all Member States without the requirement for individual ?derogations? to be issued, provided of course that the produce is accompanied by a MAF Food official organic assurance.

The MAF programme has been designed so that other market requirements can be readily accommodated, should other countries require organic produce to be accompanied by a Government assurance in the future.

A watching brief is being maintained by both MAF and MFAT on market access requirements for organic products in other countries. Japan is using the CODEX Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling, and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods as a basis for their own national standard. The Japan standard is currently focusing on plant products only. Negotiations are underway with the Japanese Government on ways of meeting the standard.

In the United States the United States Department of Agriculture is seeking comments on a draft national standard for organic production.

Further consultation on the details of the official programme will be carried out with OPEG and any other interested parties over the next three months, and a workshop is planned for later this month.

As well, I am organising a working party of officials from several Government departments to work with the organics industry to address issues relevant to the organic sector.

I have yet to hear back from some ministers about who from their departments will take part, though I can assure you my colleague Consumer Affairs Minister Phillida Bunkle, who will speak to you tomorrow, has already expressed her enthusiasm for it.

The working party is an inter-departmental group of officials, which will liaise with your industry, and report to ministers on suggested policy.

I know your representatives are keen to get the ball rolling.

The working party will need to deal with a range of issues.

I talked about fraudulent organic claims earlier, and I've been told by some of your representatives earlier this month that this is a problem they have already struck here.

The working party and the Government need to consider standards not only for export, but for domestically sold produce. There are concerns that some people are selling produce labelled "organic" ? perhaps because they've noticed food labelled that way sells for a higher price ? when they have no basis for describing it that way.

This deceives the consumer and risks undermining the integrity of New Zealand's organic industry.

That issue and I'm sure many others will be studied by the working group.

Parliament's primary production select committee is also studying the organic industry and I look forward to its report.

In closing, I am sure exports of organic foods will continue to rise to meet demand where it exists in international markets. However, I seriously doubt that it is technically feasible or sensible to try to convert all of New Zealand's production to organics.

Some consumers in some countries are prepared to pay a premium for organic products, but most consumers are not. It remains to be seen how long the market will sustain such premiums, but clearly, we would be crazy not to develop and exploit such opportunities as present themselves.

The new coalition government is committed to promoting sustainable land management, integrated pest management, with safe agrichemical use in conventional agriculture, biological controls, and organic production, through support for education, research, marketing and labelling initiatives.

The detail of how these policies will be implemented is continuously being worked through ? to be aided by the organic working group ? and the development of the New Zealand organic certification programme is a part of the whole process.

I wish you luck in increasing this country's export earnings.

ENDS

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