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Organic food enters the mainstream - will it bubble to the top?

By Russ Grayson - posted Wednesday, 12 February 2003

Sitting in her cafe in view of the grey-green ridge of the Nightcap Range, we were talking about the market for local food products, and unorthodox dietary demands. "There are a lot of food fascists out there," Robyn said, "but I make use of the herbs and vegetables I grow here myself, and for the rest I try to buy as much locally organically-grown food as possible."

Robyn operates a small outdoor eatery attached to her training centre in northern NSW where she promotes her use of local, organically-grown foods. Robyn is one of a growing band of food-conscious people pushing the idea of local food and regional cuisine.

Australia has yet to develop regional cuisines - geographically distinct food products and ways of preparing and cooking them - as gastronomically-driven countries like France and Italy have done. However, the process is underway, and is likely to be driven by a new focus on food in our society. This is derived from migrant communities, popular television cooking programmes, libraries of books about food and cooking, and health fears about the food we eat. These health fears focus on personal health - on obesity, and also on the implications of consuming food that may be contaminated by agricultural pesticide and herbicide residues.


Farmers point to the growing trend to minimise the use of agricultural chemicals. They claim that Australian farms use comparatively little and that there is an increasing tendency to apply pesticide and herbicide only when needed. But consumer suspicions persist, based partly on assumptions and fear but also on scientific findings such as those by NSW Agriculture. It discovered Sydney-fringe farmers overusing agricultural chemicals to an extent that could harm themselves, people who eat the food, and also the region's waterways.

Australia's burgeoning organic foods sector is one industry that has benefited from this new food awareness and the fear of conventionally-grown foods. Now climbing a distinct growth curve, 'organic' has penetrated mainstream Australian society. But barriers remain to organic's deeper penetration of the food market, and potential areas of disagreement with the country's food-aware.

The journey of organics from social fringe to suburban mainstream has taken a little over 30 years. Its genesis lay with the baby-boomer generation, who patronised the small wholefood and organic shops that first appeared in Australia's cities and a few regional centres such as Lismore during the 1960s and '70s. They were concerned about agricultural chemical residues in conventionally-grown foods, an issue dated from Rachael Carson's Silent Spring. Some took their preference for organics with them as they moved on in life, and some rediscovered it later - now organic food can be found in supermarkets as well as specialist stores.

The industry is worth $250-300 million at retail, according to Scott Kinnear, past-chair of Organic Federation Australia, and is integrated from growing to retail, with 40 per cent exported.

Kinnear says that 1700 - 2000 farmers produce on 7.5 million hectares and many are approved by organic-certification agencies. The industry has produced growth in Australian agriculture and urban small business: specialist shops, a growing number of supermarkets, organic home delivery services and a small number of food cooperatives.

Who buys organic food? The industry once said "People who can't afford it". That is, people who buy organic out of principle but do not enjoy high incomes. This was true, but they can't sustain the industry today.


As the sector has grown, unsubstantiated allegations of inflated prices have been made but there's no doubt that the higher cost of organic food is a barrier, particularly in lower-income suburbs, where organics are likely to lose out. This is confirmed by community workers. The industry points out that organics are more labour-intensive and time-consuming and there is an expense in managing the land responsibly - organic certification requires this.

Organic farming occupies the moral high ground, and this could be profitably exploited by marketers. Organic retailers tend to be more common in the inner-urban or more affluent locales, but the presence of organic home delivery services muddies any geographic identification of organic consumers.

What is apparent is that organics have penetrated suburban Australia as the costs and prices have fallen over time due to efficiencies - the price difference is often not great. This 'trickle-down' strategy may be the right one for the industry to take.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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