Demand for food bearing labels such as ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ is soaring, but some farmers are questioning if the name is really worth the pain.
While some industry groups say labels help consumers make a choice, and getting the right credentials can offer a valuable point of difference for producers, others fear they present a barrier for those wanting to adopt some of the practices associated with them.
Consumers are driving the push, but when they are buying organic, natural, regenerative or conventionally farmed produce, do they really know what it means?
Staying out of the label box
Labels like “certified organic” require farmers to meet certain production standards, which can restrict the use of chemicals and govern the management of farms.
Graziers Peter and Nikki Thompson use mostly natural practices such as multi-species planting and decreased use of inputs on their 4,000-hectare property Echo Hills, 80 kilometers north-east of Roma in Queensland.
But they have not found a label that reflects their production style while still giving them flexibility.
“We’ve talked about the labeling of things and so often that forces you to box yourself into just organic or just conventional,” Mr Thompson says.
“We haven’t used any herbicide for three years but if we’ve got cattle coming in here that has come from tick [infested] country we will do the treatment up front.”
Being able to respond to problems with the most effective solution has led farmer Ian Beard to run his property at Wyreema in the Toowoomba region with what he calls “no rules”.
“By labeling your farm you put yourself into a box and really it is closing the toolbox,” he says.
“If I need them, I will use chemicals, plows, or choose to till. I need whatever tool that can make me sustainable and profitable.”
But are farmers like Mr Beard and the Thompsons missing out on a profit opportunity?
Labels can bring better price tags
Niki Ford, chief executive of Australian Organic Limited, the leading peak industry body representing producers, says without the farm and food labels the entire industry would not exist.
“It is a really important part of being an organic farmer because you’ve got your credentials,” she says.
“From a consumer perspective, it’s important to know when you’re buying something, especially if you’re paying a premium for it, if it has been audited, and if it has the rigor that sits around the claim.”
Farmers are noticing that a label can attract a premium price — and not only in organics — according to agronomist Ian Moss.
“I think farmers have adopted the regenerative term because it has come from the consumer side,” he says.
“Consumers are seeking out people doing the right thing by their farm, their animals, and their soil.
“I think there’ll be a certain percentage of consumers who are willing to pay more for the type of food that they want.”
Ms Ford says consumers want transparency and assurances that what they buy meets their expectations for how it is produced.
“Nearly one-third of Australian consumers are picking up [what they think are] organic products and they are not what they say they are, which is a big issue,” she says.
“That’s why food labeling couldn’t be more important.”
divisive for the industry
While it may offer clarification for consumers, some in the agricultural industry fear labels can be more divisive than inclusive and act as a barrier to new practices being adopted.
The Mulloon Institute is a not-for-profit research and education organization that advocates for sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices.
Its chief executive, Carolyn Hall, agreed that labels often create division.
“I think labeling can be incredibly divisive and it’s not necessarily of value to anyone,” she says.
“I think labeling has the potential to ostracise some people, particularly in small communities.”
Mr Moss agrees there could also be a stigma attached to either having or not having some labels, which some producers resent.
“I haven’t met a farmer yet who doesn’t want to leave their country in better condition than it is now, and I think everyone does the best they can,” he says.
“I think people miss great learning opportunities from other industries or other certifications because we turn off when we see something that is labeled.”
Fellow agronomist Jess Bailey sees a diverse range of farmers in her day-to-day life.
She says the feeling of being left out is a common theme for producers.
“If a farmer feels like they aren’t quite doing everything right to fit in to a certain label then they feel like they’re excluded,” she says.
But this is not an opinion shared by all.
Greg Youngberry is the national sales manager for his family-owned operation Inglewood Organic.
Selling certified organic chicken poultry products to the market, he says a label is integral to business transparency.
“It is important to have labeling but also certification associated with a product so that the claims are not without basis,” he says.
Rather than being a point of division among the industry, Mr Youngberry believes labeling simply provides a point of difference.
“There’s a lot of different processes within the organic system that are very different to conventional farming,” he says.
“I really think it is important that the consumer is aware that we follow very strict farming practices, which organic requires.”
‘Normal’ farming is changing
Instead of looking for a way to define their practices under a one-size-fits-all label, Ms Hall says farmers should instead think of themselves as stewards responding to the needs of their land.
“When we think about land stewardship, it’s all about looking after the land, it’s caring for the land, which is naturally what farmers do,” she says.
By taking that approach, Ian Moss says farmers can create a “new normal” by bringing organic or regenerative practices into the mainstream, without the need for a label.
“Normal is what we would see as standard practices or industry recommended practices … what the majority of people are doing,” he says.
Mr Moss says an increasing amount of money required for traditional or conventional agriculture because of rising input costs is seeing many farmers look to alternate farming paths.
“A lot of the newer farmers who are kind of taking this regenerative path, a more environmentally conscious path, are just trying to get away from having to spend so much money,” he says.
“They are not going to care about the label at all.”