With the right incentives, organic farming could be Australia’s way to a pesticide-free future | Carolyn Suggate

Wand are constantly being exposed to chemicals in our food, many of which are linked to health issues and have devastating effects on our environment. From endocrine disruptors to PFAS, plastics to pesticides, just how much of these do we wish to include in our everyday lives?

Globally, Australia is one of the heaviest users of pesticides in food production, as Guardian Australia’s recent investigation into pesticides shows. This is partly because of Australia’s unique conditions and farming methods. But it’s also because Australia has less rigorous standards on pesticides than much of Europe or the US.

Organic producers have proven for decades that they can provide sustainable yields of healthy, nutritious food without extensive use of some of the most toxic agricultural chemicals used in intensive farming. The Australian organic industry includes over 3,000 producers in Australia and covers more than 35.3 million hectares of farmland – 9.4% of Australia’s total farmable land mass.

The industry is worth in excess of $3.6bn and growing around 11% a year. Organic producers across Australia use best-practice land stewardship methods to produce food without harmful chemicals or residues and which incorporate healthy biological soil systems and build natural resilience against pests and diseases.

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The world is seeking transparency and integrity in food. In Europe and the US, governments are urgently investing in the transition to more sustainable farming practices, including measuring the impact of intensive farming practices on natural ecosystems, such as lakes and rivers. Australian farmers have an opportunity to transition to better land stewardship practices and to capture more profitable markets while reducing the impact these harmful chemicals can have on people and the land.

Organic producers run legitimate, profitable, large-scale agricultural businesses, with cropping and livestock producers managing in excess of 5,000-1 million hectares each. They do this without using harmful chemicals such as synthetic fertilizers. Rotational and regenerative farming methods reflect the way nature intended for food to be grown, not singular monocropping systems that require high levels of external and potentially harmful chemicals to do what nature cannot in artificial and intensive farming systems.

A measure of success should be affordable local, healthy, nutritious food that doesn’t cost the Earth (literally). Instead of trying to pursue a $100bn agriculture sector for the sake of it, Australia should develop a financial and environmentally sustainable agricultural strategy that feeds the country without costing people’s health or that of the land.

My grandfather, a pioneering farmer, used to say that it takes more skill and heart to farm space with the soil and climate than against it. Biological farming systems work hand-in-hand with the land without relying on chemicals that can permanently alter our ecosystem.

Let’s measure the success of farming based on profitability and longevity for each hectare of land, giving a “true cost” measure of what matters most. Current metrics of total yield do not provide a true measure of downstream externalities, like pollution of waterways or the contamination of food caused by intensive agriculture.

Instead, let’s increase the profitable markets for the premium-quality, nutrient-dense food the world is craving.

The organic industry is a leader in integrity in the food and farming sector. It has a transparent supply chain that has rigor in its testing regime to provide assurance of no chemical residue in the organic supply chain.

The federal government and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) must consider the impact of pesticides on the organic industry. What happens when organic producer’s land is contaminated from spray drift? This is an ongoing existential risk to organic production systems without the right protections in place.

It is imperative to have clear regulatory guidelines as to the safety, risks and the provision of these chemicals for use in all forms of agricultural systems. Will there be ongoing regular testing of these chemicals and the capacity to regularly test to the specified levels required for organic producers and other industries that are looking for food that is free of chemical waste?

What if producers were instead encouraged to grow more food with less artificial influence? Or to be paid better for cleaner food? Would that change our thinking from just “more is better”?

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