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our thoughts on the proposed organic legislation

The New Zealand organic community has campaigned for many years for legislation to protect the organic sector. And now it is finally here. Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor unveiled the Organic Products Bill in late February. The bill’s official goals, according to the government, are to:

  • increase consumer confidence in purchasing organic products

  • increase certainty for businesses making claims that their products are organic

  • facilitate international trade in organic products.

In practice, the Organic Products Bill would control who can use the term ‘organic’ on products sold in New Zealand. The bill also establishes a framework for certification protocols, national organic standards and associated government powers. Unlike most of our trading partner countries, New Zealand has never had such legislation before; instead, organic certification processes have been developed by certifiers responding to market requirements. The bill easily passed its first reading in Parliament, with support from across the political spectrum. The next step is a crucial one for the organic community: The bill is open for public submissions through May 28th. Following the submission process, MPs will propose and vote on further refinements to the bill. The legislation is a complicated beast – and one that will shape the destiny of organic producers in this country for a long time to come. It is critical that members of the organic sector inform themselves and participate in the process. But not everyone has time to read the 100+ pages of legislation and accompanying documents that the government has released for discussion. So here is a summary of where things are at: why this is happening, what is happening, what the key issues are, and where to from here. Why is this happening? It’s unusual for an industry to approach the government and beg to be regulated. But in this case, that’s what happened. The organic sector has asked the New Zealand government for this type of legislation for many years. The previous government, under the National Party, refused to prioritise the project. With a change to the Labour-led coalition government, movement to develop this bill began officially in 2018. There are two major reasons that the organic community has asked for this legislation: 1. Risks to the market and consumers in New Zealand. Without regulation, consumers in New Zealand have had no assurance that organic-labelled products are actually organic. This opens the doorway for fraud and consumer confusion. Meanwhile, around the world, in most of the countries that we trade with, there are laws governing how the term ‘organic’ can be used. That means consumers get a legal guarantee that when they buy something labelled ‘organic’, it comes from a farm with proper organic accreditation and 100% organic practices. A note about organic fraud: Deliberate misrepresentation of organic status has been rare so far in New Zealand, but when it does happen, it’s hard for anyone to stop it. On a few occasions, OWNZ has become aware of wineries using the term ‘organic’ without certification. This is a violation of the New Zealand Winegrowers code of practice on environmental claims, which stipulates that only certified organic producers should use the term ‘organic’. OWNZ has sometimes notified wineries that they are in breach of the code of practice. Some wineries have voluntarily changed their behaviour or decided to become certified organic after becoming aware of the rules. However, on the rare occasions that a winery does knowingly misuse the term ‘organic’, the government does not get involved in compliance. 2. Threats to global trade. Our lack of organic regulation also puts New Zealand at a disadvantage in international trade. Because we don’t have our own organic standards enshrined in law, it has become more difficult for New Zealand to negotiate organic trade agreements with other countries. What’s happening? Passing a bill through Parliament is only one part of the process of setting up New Zealand’s new legal regime for organics. There are three interlocking processes that will be happening to get the new law up and running: the bill, the regulations and the standards. 1. The bill itself. The Organic Products Bill provides the overarching framework. It sets up various government powers and opens the way for the creation of regulations and an organic standard. The bill must be passed by a majority of MPs. We are currently partway through that process. Next, the Primary Production Select Committee (a small group of MPs) will consider public submissions on the bill, and will make recommendations to the rest of Parliament on how the bill should be improved. 2. The regulations. Much of the day to day detail in how the new organic regime operates in practice will be covered by regulations. The Organic Products Bill in particular leaves a huge amount of detail to be specified in regulations, rather than spelling out all the nuts and bolts in the bill itself. Regulations do not have to be passed by Parliament; they will be written by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and approved by Cabinet. Regulations are more flexible than legislation; they are easier for the government to change in the future. MPI will be consulting publicly on the regulations. However, they have cited the COVID-19 situation as a reason to delay that consultation. For now, in response to requests from the organic sector, MPI have released a draft document outlining the likely regulatory proposals, so that the organic community can get a better idea of how organic certification would operate in the new regime. This document is available on the MPI website. 3. The standards. MPI will also establish a unified organic standard for New Zealand. Any product labelled ‘organic’ will have to meet that standard. The standard-setting process has not yet begun, so we do not know yet if the New Zealand organic standard will be the same as standards currently in use. What’s being proposed? Some of the key proposals in the bill include: Control of the term ‘organic’. Products sold using the term ‘organic’ in New Zealand would be required to meet the New Zealand organic standard. Most products would need to be certified organic by a properly accredited certifier. However, the bill leaves an exemption for very small producers; for example, someone selling small amounts of organic fruit from a roadside stall would not need certification. The government would have various enforcement powers in order to investigate and eliminate false organic claims. The bill does not propose to regulate use of the word ‘biodynamic’ or any other related terms. A new system of certification. The most surprising and perhaps controversial aspect of the government’s proposals is a new framework for certification. Under the new regime, the current organic certifying bodies could still conduct organic audits. The certifiers would themselves be registered with the government for this purpose. However, the current certifiers would not actually issue organic certification licences. Instead, government ministries such as MPI would issue organic certificates. After a successful audit by an approved certifier, an organic producer would need to supply their paperwork to the appropriate government ministry (such as MPI) in order to obtain organic certification. There would be a fee payable to the government for this; however there is not a confirmed indication yet of what that fee might be. A new logo. The bill allows for the development of a national organic logo for New Zealand. However, the logo would not be compulsory to use. What are the issues? New Zealand’s organic organisations have been analysing the bill and accompanying regulatory proposals. Some key issues of concern emerging in the organic community are: The bill does not define the term ‘organic’. MPI officials have indicated that they would prefer to define ‘organic’ in the regulations and standards, rather than the bill, as the definition may change over time. Multiple organic organisations have raised concerns around the lack of a definition, or any articulation of organic principles, in the bill itself. That gap could open the doorway for a future New Zealand government to change the definition of organic to include things that the organic community might object to, such as hydroponics (the subject of recent controversy in the US) or other technologies. If the definition of ‘organic’ is not enshrined in law, it could be changed without public consultation by the government. How will the organic community be involved? Currently, the Organic Products Bill does not specify whether the organic community will have any ongoing voice in the setting of regulations and standards. Some organic organisations are calling for there to be an official government-mandated technical working group that includes representatives of the organic industry, to make sure the government stays grounded in reality as it sets up and maintains our regulations and standards. What’s it going to cost? One aspect that’s causing a fair bit of nervousness, particularly for smaller and domestic-focused organic producers, is the extent of new costs that organic producers and traders could face. The Organic Products Bill sets up broad powers for “cost recovery” – i.e. the government would have the power to force the organic sector as a whole to cover the costs of the bureaucracy administering the new regime. The costs passed on to the organic sector could include major costs that MPI will face, such as the cost of maintaining the organic standards and the cost of negotiating organic trade agreements with other countries. However, the details of cost recovery will be determined in regulations. On a recent Zoom conference call organised by Organics Aoteaora New Zealand for MPI officials to converse with representatives of the New Zealand organic sector, an MPI official indicated that MPI has not yet done any economic modelling around how the new legislation would work. That means it’s very difficult to guess what the actual fees for organic producers will be. We simply do not know yet whether there could be a significant change in what wineries currently pay for organic certification and export paperwork. How to have your say Submissions on the Organic Products Bill are open through 28th May. OWNZ will be making a submission on the bill, and we encourage members to make their own submissions as well.  Submissions can be made via the Parliament website MPI will also conduct a consultation process on the regulations, separate to the consultation on the bill. As the regulations are only in draft form, MPI is not open to feedback from the public at this time. OWNZ will keep members advised on the consultation process for the regulations when it does happen.

article from Organic Matters magazine by rebecca reider

photo credit: burn cottage


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