What on Earth is ‘certified sustainable’?

If you’ve been following my Bread Politics blog, you’ll know I wholeheartedly support organics – the principles, the products, and the practice. I’ve felt this way for a long time, but I can also see that despite organics having been around for decades the uptake in the wider farming community is negligible. Only 2% of land farmed in New Zealand is under organic management and even in a country like Germany – the birthplace of organics no less – where sizable incentives and government and EU subsidies exist for the support and expansion of organic farming, only 8% of farms are organic. The reasons for the minimal uptake of organic farming practices are manifold, but my feeling is that a lot of it has to do with an ideological divide that people on the conventional side of the argument have trouble getting across.  Organic farming has long been seen as ‘hippie’, ‘elitist’ and ‘marginal’ –  ‘unable to deliver enough food for the ever-growing human population’. The agrichemical industry certainly making sure that this narrative prevails and gets airtime. Longitudinal studies comparing organic farming to conventional farming over decades have however proven that this is not true and for anyone, wanting to delve a little deeper, I recommend reading the following article by the Rodale Institute (https://rodaleinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Truth-About-Organic-Rodale-Institute.pdf).

But being right and giving people more information doesn’t always help people change their minds. And with the climate crisis looming ever more ominously is it time to look for a middle ground that still benefits the planet and the consumer but is more achievable for farmers?

Bread & Butter Bakery and my previous business Paris Berlin Organic Bakery have both always hung their hat on using only certified organic flour and bread ingredients like seeds, nuts, natural sea salt and fruit. It’s been the cornerstone of our philosophy and I have spent a great deal of time and energy explaining the benefits of our approach to customers, both wholesale and retail. My sister is a biodynamic organic farmer in Germany, and I have long believed from an environmental and scientific point of view that organics is THE right way to grow food and fibre.

So, what’s happened to make me question my beliefs? 

Well, it started with flour, as so many things in my life do. Unfortunately, very little organic flour is grown and milled in New Zealand and no New Zealand-grown organic white wheat flour is available AT ALL. Since white wheat is by far the majority of the flour we use – despite my best efforts to make people eat more dark breads like rye – we have to import all of it. In the past, we were using an organic brand from Queensland called Kialla, but four years ago a severe drought wiped out their entire harvest and we were forced to change flour brands. After a short period of trying out different flours that we all didn’t like for different reasons, we settled on another Australian brand Wholegrain Milling from NSW. These guys are actually the oldest organic mill in Australia and have been milling only organic flour for 40 years. 

We have been happy with the quality and supply of this brand, but in June we were told that a 15% price increase was imminent, due to the pronounced drought. In October, barely 4 months later, we were told to expect another 25% price increase and even with this increased cost, we were warned there might not be enough flour to supply us through to the next season. The reason?  Many of their farmers hadn’t planted any wheat at all – apparently in Australia, the organic wheat growers only grow a crop if and when there is enough rain and this year there has been none and those that had put wheat in the ground had seen a very poor yield of their crops. 

Organic wheat growing in Australia only happens when there is enough rain for famers to plant a crop and in the last decade the years of no crops have become more frequent due to the increasing droughts caused by the effects of climate change.
A trend that is set to worsen over the coming years.

Wholegrain Milling has been in the organic business for a long time, witness to the changing climate and its effects on food production. They are also subject to the vagaries of farming, and in their 40-year history, they’ve seen only a handful of farmers convert to organic methods of growing wheat. The reason? The hurdles to enter the organic farming world are high for conventional farmers. The risk of lower yields, while they are learning the ropes of organic farming, combined with the stand-down period for in-transition products (products grown by organic methods, but on soils that have not yet been fully cleared of agricultural chemicals are unable to be sold as ‘certified organic’ and thus don’t fetch the higher margins of certified organic products) and the fragility of the Australian climate and soils have made organic farming too risky in the eyes of many farmers. 

Unable to see a way out, Wholegrain Milling began working with agronomists and the Australian Government Standards certification agency to develop a standard that will provide high-quality food grown within the limitations of a changing climate. 

The ASP Certified Standard is based on the principles of regenerative farming – I’ve talked a little about this in a previous post that looked at urban agriculture. Regenerative farming is based on understanding, valuing and preserving the relationship between soil and plant health. In striving to build better soil health and nutrition, healthier plants that are less susceptible to disease and insect attack are produced. Plants grown this way have reduced reliance on pest control and deliver a nutritionally superior product  – healthy soil, healthy plants and a healthy community. 

You can read about their standards and regulations in detail at these sites: 

The Australian government-certified standard: http://aspcertified.com.au/about/

The organic mill that developed the standard: https://www.wholegrain.com.au

To be completely transparent and honest about this: the ‘Certified Sustainable’ standard does allow for the use of some herbicides and pesticides. However if a farmer has a supposed pest or weed invasion on her farm, she is not allowed to just dowse the whole farm in RoundUp. A person from the certification agency has to come out, assess the extend of the infestation and ‘prescribe’ the chemical to be used – kind of like a vet that prescribes antibiotics, which happens in organic farming under certain conditions as well. The time and extend of use of the chemical has to be documented. No food crops are allowed to come into direct contact with chemicals and absolutely no artificial fertiliser like urea is allowed under the standard. Only natural brown and green fertilisers that enhance soil fertility are permitted. 

The food grown under the ASP Certified Standard is tested to make sure there’s no detectable pesticide residue. This gives a product that’s ‘clean’ like organic food but provides a yield similar to conventional farming. For farmers, this means a much lower level of risk when moving to more sustainable practices, and also a guarantee of a high-quality product for which consumers are happy to pay a premium. For bakers like me, it also ensures stability of quality and supply. And for the environment and the soils this has got to be so much better than the current practices.

By shifting the conversation from an organic ‘no chemicals whatsoever approach’ to a ‘focus on soil health’ Wholegrain Milling have opened up a pathway for conventional farmers to change their unsustainable methods and ways of thinking without having to join the ‘opposing team’ of organics straight away. In the three years since developing the new regenerative standard, there’s been a large increase in the numbers of young farmers keen to sign up to this new way of farming. Forty new farms have joined the movement – quite a contrast to the last 40 years when Wholegrain Milling never had more than 30 organic farmers supplying the mill. With the higher yields and better nutritional profile (mineral, vitamin and protein content) of the ‘certified sustainable’ grains and the benefits of regenerative farming on the environment I’m starting to think this might be the way of the future. Wouldn’t it be better, if half of conventional farmers subscribed to ‘certified sustainable’ and improve their farming practices by 90% (in terms of chemical use) than if only a handful of farmers are doing it 100% right and use no chemicals, but 98% of farmers continue to poison our soils and food with nasty agri-chemicals? 

I feel that at least as a stepping stone to helping reduce industrial agriculture and increase the quality of food produced this needs to be considered. And who knows, what if half the farmers on the ‘certified sustainable’ standard realize after a few years of farming with minimal use of chemicals that they can now do completely without? It might actually help convert more farms to organic methods in the long run.

Grain growing has largely disappeared from New Zealand agriculture, but could it be a way to balance out the unsustainable dominance of dairy? With Australian wheat becoming more and more marginal, will New Zealand grains be making a comeback?

As climate change exerts pressure on the planet and we face increasing uncertainty over water availability we must find a way to provide good food that doesn’t cost the earth, literally and figuratively. The price of wheat affects the price of bread, and the price of bread affects everyone, especially those with less to spend. Could the move to a certified standard be the way of the future in New Zealand too? Would a similar standard here encourage farmers to strike out down the path of regenerative farming with organics the final goal? I’ve been talking to lots of people about this over the last few weeks, and I’d like to know what you think too. Leave a comment below, and share this post your family and friends. This might be a way forward for Aotearoa and in my next post I’ll share some of the things that have come up along with my ideas for a cleaner, greener, healthier way to grow food here in New Zealand. 

May the new decade open our minds and hearts for new ways of thinking, farming, making food, and shaping a better future for all of us.

Happy New Year!

5 thoughts

  1. Really well written and explained Isabel. I totally agree with this “Wouldn’t it be better, if half of conventional farmers subscribed to ‘certified sustainable’ and improve their farming practices by 90% (in terms of chemical use) than if only a handful of farmers are doing it 100% right and use no chemicals, but 98% of farmers continue to poison our soils and food with nasty agri-chemicals? ”

    Thank you!


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