“Rural Australia is really hurting. And the cuts to services really hurt. Health services are cut, banks close, schools close, farmers suicide. Areas have 21% unemployment. We are bleeding people in the country… Yet organic farming is a sunrise and success story going against the trend,” said Andre Leu, a tropical fruit farmer from northern Queensland, chair of the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) and vice-president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
With the balance of power firmly in the lands of three country Independents, regional issues are back on the national agenda.
“The people of rural Australia have put some of us here. They expect a return for having done that. As far as I’m concerned, they will get a return,” said Queensland independent Bob Katter at Wednesday’s National Press Club address.
But will organic farming — traditionally seen a alternative movement and now gaining a more mainstream presence — benefit from the rural attention or suffer in favour of conventional farming practises?
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Australian organic farming expects to pass $1 billion in annual retail sales this year, according to the second ever industry report by Biological Farmers of Australia, released last week. To compare, export of Australian livestock is worth about A$1 billion. Seafood exports are worth $1.3 billion. Australia’s nut industry is expected to be worth $1 billion by 2016.
Leu and Katherine DeMatteo — the president of IFOAM — spoke on Wednesday afternoon to a small group of passionate farmers, retailers and other interested parties at the Royal Society of Victoria about the current state of the organic industry, both in Australia and internationally. Among the scientific data they reeled off was the fact that organic methods improve water holding capacity, meaning organic crops hold up better in drought conditions than conventional crops.
They argued that organic crops are higher yielding and therefore can benefit areas in dangerous need of food security, such as Africa. They maintained that pesticides found in conventional crops are a growing health concern, such as rising numbers of ADHD in children.
The organic industry is hoping for more governmental support, since currently it’s an industry created with “negligible support from government”, explains Leu, over a cuppa made up of organic Australian tea, milk and sugar, and accompanied with organic macadamia filled brownies.
He says he regularly gives presentations to ministers and government advisers on the many ecological and health benefits of organic farming, but “we can’t break through the walls of dogma within government departments.”