As 2019 came to a close I wrote about a new “Certified Sustainable” programme in Australia. I’d been spurred into action by flour, or lack of it – at Bread and Butter Bakery we’ve always used organic ingredients, as I believe these are the healthiest for both humans and the planet. But recent events in Australia, where all our white flour is grown and milled, have forced us to find a new supply – the ravages of drought and fires, along with a warming climate have made it difficult to impossible for the few organic wheat farmers to grow a crop this year. In Australia wheat is a winter crop and organic farmers, who are often also cattle ranchers, can only plant and grow if there has been enough rain throughout the summer and autumn. In 2019 this was not the case for many of the New South Wales farmers that grow the organic wheat we use.
You can read more about the details in my last post but in a nutshell, we are going to change the white wheat flour we use in the bakery. We hope this is only a temporary measure that may not be necessary for future seasons when the conditions might be right for growing wheat. Note: we are not changing any of our other certified organic flours, seeds, nuts, or dried fruit! These ingredients will continue to come from certified organic farms. New Zealand itself grows very little wheat, and most of it is used for poultry and stock feed. We’ve been importing the bulk of our wheat (and flour) from our friends across the ditch since the 1930s, so anything that has an impact on their wheat-growing ability has an impact on us too.
Our new flour isn’t organic but it is Australian Sustainable Products (ASP) Certified Sustainable. This means it’s been grown using a comprehensive regenerative farming system that improves both soil health and the quality of food. It also reduces and repairs the damage to the environment that industrial farming has caused, improving water retention and sequestering carbon to help reduce global warming. Not organic, but definitely good for the environment and consumers too. In fact the ASP certified flour has actually slightly better nutritional values in terms of mineral and vitamin content than the certified organic flour from the same mill. Making the decision wasn’t easy but a change was required, and I think this new certification has great potential, both in Australia and on this side of the Tasman. It’s certainly created lots of interesting discussion among consumers, organic suppliers and people like me who use organic ingredients in the food we make.
In this post, I’m sharing some of that discussion and I hope it’ll help you make up your own mind. As you can imagine there’s quite a spectrum of opinion. There are people who have very strong feelings in one direction or the other, but rather than focussing on the polarised outer edges of the argument, many believe that we should be concentrating on the factual outcomes. They see a move to more sustainable farming methods as a move in the right direction and believe it offers a stepping stone for farmers wanting to do the right thing but unable to go “all the way” to organics straight away. This is my view too, so until I can get my hands on a reliable supply of organic white flour I feel confident that our bread will still be delicious and nutritious – good for you and the planet.
It is important to understand that Certified Sustainable allows only very limited use of artificial pesticides, and then only as required. Absolutely no synthetic fertiliser is allowed, only brown and green fertiliser (from natural sources like companion crops, fermented manure, and compost). Any chemical input of pesticides has to be ‘prescribed’ by someone from the certification agency, and its use recorded in the crop history. It’s also positive that the consumable products must be free of any residue – this is formally tested and the results added to the crop record. Our new flour is traceable all the way from the paddock to the plate, so we can see everything that’s gone into it from seed to mill. This flour is processed by the same mill that processes organic flour, therefore no chemicals are used in the milling process. Because the Certified Sustainable programme is based on regenerative farming, as with organics, it ensures farmers are continuously building soil health, thus re-building soil carbon and therefore contributing to reduction of green-house gases, while at the same time increasing the nutritional value of the food produced. This is vastly different from conventional farming, where volume and profit margin of the crop take priority over its quality and the use of chemicals is pervasive with huge negative impacts on the environment and thus contributing massively to climate change.
Most of the people I’ve talked to agree that organic certification is a very important standard and is worthy of protection. Around the world, it’s recognised as a symbol of safe, clean and ethically produced food. Growers are able to charge a premium, and consumers are generally happy to pay if they have the means. On the other hand, there’s also some agreement that the very high standards needed to meet organic certification are just too far for many farmers, particularly those with the most industrial, chemical-heavy systems, to make a change to. As these are the places where we stand to make the biggest environmental impact, the availability of a “stepping stone” has benefits for both farmers and the environment. For these farms, any move towards sustainable, regenerative farming methods immediately reduces use (and expense) of fossil fuels and chemicals, preserves water and improves the quality of produce – a win for everyone.
One of the biggest questions that come up is whether the development of a “Certified Sustainable” standard lowers the bar and may prevent growers from ‘going all the way’ to organic farming. I don’t see it this way. I think when we prioritise the environment, then any progress towards a more sustainable way of farming is to be celebrated. Yes, organic is the gold standard, but encouraging and supporting farmers to work in a more sustainable way can only be a good thing for the environment.
Along with thinking about the environment we also need to consider economics. Organic producers have invested heavily and there’s some concern that the value of both their business and their products could fall if a new standard were to be introduced. Perhaps a kind of dilution of the principles and practice that they follow? While there may possibly be a small effect on organic growers, I think this would be minimal.
In the current economic, political and meteorologic climate there’s a need and a desire to move to a more sustainable way of life and as leaders in this, I suggest the organic community embrace the new standard. Why is it in their interests? It offers a clear path toward organic farming, and rather than concentrating on the differences between Certified Sustainable and organics, let’s focus on how much the two standards align and instead focus on the difference between Certified Sustainable and conventional farming, as this is where the biggest gains can be made for both the environment and the community.
Making a change like this is huge for us, and it’s not surprising that people are nervous and that opinions differ. No matter who I talk to there’s agreement that organic principles are very important and need to be protected wherever possible, but that we also need to be flexible and adaptive. We urgently need to reduce our environmental impact and also increase the quality of food we produce – and we have to do all that while keeping sustainable farming in good economic health.
What do you think? Is Certified Sustainable a way forward for protecting the environment and offering a stepping stone towards organic farming? Would it work in New Zealand? And will you continue to support businesses like mine who’ve had a to make a tough decision, but have only done so after much soul-searching and investigation?
No matter what, we have to find more sustainable ways to feed the world and in the midst of climate change, this seems like a good start. Let’s hope it spreads from Australia to Aotearoa – perhaps dairy farmers will see the light (and the potential) and the Canterbury Plains will once again be fields of golden wheat blowing in the warm Nor’ West breeze!