Long overdue organics policy under discussion

The department of agriculture is circulating a sixth-draft discussion paper on a much needed national organic farming policy. It draws attention to several problems in the sector that people involved in organics have known about for a decade.

These include the fragmentation of organics roleplayers and the fact that South Africa doesn’t have an official inspection and certification programme for organics. Alluding to reports of “unscrupulous elements”, putting false labels on conventionally produced products and selling them as “organic”, the paper’s authors concede “this state of affairs developed because of a lack of a policy framework and regulatory system for organically produced products”. 

Ian Robinson, spokesperson for the South African Organics Sector Association (SAOSA), said such a policy would lead to a “good regulatory environment, which will look after the sector going forward”. Currently, food safety regulations are developed by the agriculture department’s food safety and quality assurance division, and enforced by the Perishable Produce Export Control Board (PPECB).

The absence of organics standards and regulations means that the PPECB effectively turns a blind eye to organics exports, which many industry analysts say are therefore essentially illegal, and risk tarnishing the PPECB’s standing overseas.
The absence of a clear regulatory environment has over the years, also led to in-fighting in the sector.

“I’ve studied the issues that emerged in Australia, Brazil and many other countries prior to the creation of an official regulatory environment for those countries, and they all go through the same rigmarole of fighting and not trusting one another,” said Hans Klink, marketing agent for Agro-Organics in Somerset West, adding that the way the sector has created its own momentum in this country, totally unregulated, is worrying.

Woolworths and other retailers are generally applying EU regulations, he explained. But at the informal retail level, producers simply can’t afford to get EU-certified. The participatory guarantee system (PGS), for which there are guidelines on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements website (www.ifoam.org), will solve this, he added.

“It basically boils down to peer management, where a group of people keeps an eye on one another, getting around the certification cost problem. It’s definitely something that needs to be looked at from a policy point of view. At the moment, SAOSA is working hard to make sure that there’s balance in quality, that everyone is catered for and that it’s fairly done. There should be a place for PGS certification in mainstream retail,” he said.