THERE is far more to organic food production than just doing away with pesticides and chemicals. Woven in are intricate values around sustainability, the environment, animal welfare, provenance, people and ethics.
Those values are becoming more important to the consumer and in a post-pandemic world, where people are even more discerning about the origins of their food, organic product will be well-placed to meet changing expectations.
This is the view of some of those who have pioneered organic beef production in Australia, including Anthony and Janet Brook, who run the 7800 square kilometre Cordillo Downs in the middle of the Sturt Stony Desert in north east South Australia.
"The story of where the beef has come from, what type of life it has had, and the people behind the product is what needs to be related more clearly to the end consumer," Mrs Brook said.
Australia's first 100 per cent organic meat exporter, OBE Organics, agrees.
Managing director Dalene Wray said it was sometimes hard for Australians to comprehend 'unhealthy' or 'unsafe' food products as we have the luxury of food grown in a safe and regulated environment where the necessary checks and balances are in place.
"The same can't be said for many places around the world, which is why demand for organic products in export markets often exceeds demand at home in Australia," she said.
Mrs Brook said talk that increasing demand for protein around the world may have given rise to coronaviruses could result in consumers becoming even more conscious of the origins of food. Organic beef has long been seen as safe food so all signs were pointing to a positive future for the sector.
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Ms Wray said the typical consumers of organic beef were mums and dads shopping for healthy and safe food for their families or people who have had health crisis of some sort and are making more informed decisions about what they buy and consume.
"Until we get to a point where people are not worried about what's in their food or what they are feeding their kids, and we cure lifestyle and other diseases, we see a positive future for organic food products," she said.
The right environment
Cordillo Downs is a mix of Stony Downs country, sandhills and localised floodout areas and Brook Pastoral typically run 4000 Hereford and Poll Hereford breeders but are currently down to 2500 head due to drought.
Progeny are turned off at two to three years, 400 to 600 kilograms.
In the late 1990s, the three-year conversion to organic certification began.
"Our biggest changes to become organic came with the documentation side of things - a property plan is needed which details all aspects of the operation and how compliance with the organic standards can be demonstrated," Mrs Brook said.
"In a practical sense, we didn't have to change much as we didn't use HGPs (hormone growth promotants) or any pesticides or herbicides. Our arid environment makes it relatively easy to become organic."
In the early days, the additional documentation was a bit of a burden and took some time to set, the Brooks said.
But with more recent changes within the industry, such as traceability and biosecurity tools, Cordillo was well placed with the plans and record keeping it had.
"There are also additional costs to become organic, mainly associated with certification," Mrs Brook said.
"Depending on the business model, organics could lower the flexibility of a business especially if that business relied on buying in stock - organic cattle tend to go at a premium and are more difficult to source," she said.
"We breed and fatten on all of the Brook Pastoral properties so stock can be moved around from property to property to take advantage of, or in response to, seasonal conditions.
"On the other hand organic properties aren't limited to selling stock as organic and can sell them conventionally if those prices are higher."
Looking closely at the location of the property would have to be a consideration before becoming organic as there are limits to what can be done with regards to pest plant and animal control, animal diseases, health and nutrition, she said.
Not all about a premium
Early in Cordillo's organic career, the price was attractive and the premiums were greater than what they are now simply due to the availability of organic product.
"There is more competition these days, which isn't necessarily a bad thing," Mrs Brook said.
"The organic price has always been tied to the conventional price so it's not a case of the sky is the limit. A close assessment of the business model would need to be looked at before launching down the organic path."
It isn't all around price and a premium though, from both a production and a consumer perspective.
"We believe it is better for the animal and the land that we don't use inorganic inputs," Mrs Brook said.
"Breeding our own replacement stock has allowed us to breed animals more suited to our location and it isn't just a production line. We need to operate within the boundaries of our location and pay attention to our environment."
OBE's Dalene Wray said there was ongoing strong demand for certified organic beef right around the globe.
In some markets, 30 per cent growth might be accurate but that may also be from a very low base, she said.
"While demand has remained strong during Covid, we have experienced challenges getting our product to customers in export markets as airfreight cargo options disappeared," Ms Wray said. "We did pivot to sending some orders by sea and the Government Freight Mechanism has enabled to get our product back into the air and to customers around the world, however most of product is now flying out of Sydney airport instead of Brisbane, as we can access more reliable and timely cargo options from there at the moment."
Retailers choose to range certified organic meat and other grocery products, in order to meet the needs of their consumers, she said.
"If consumers weren't adding organic products to their shopping baskets, we wouldn't see the range of organic offerings growing or pricing for those products becoming more competitive," Ms Wray said.
Pricing for organic livestock typically follows similar trends to the conventional market, she explained.
"Organic livestock buyers need to offer the same or better than conventional prices, to secure livestock. As we are in a herd rebuild phase, organic livestock prices are tracking in line with conventional pricing grid movements," she said.
While research reports and 'white papers' continue to spruik the potential for plant-based and fake meat, producers of both conventional and organic product are skeptical.
"During the COVID crisis, I visited a number of retail outlets in relatively low socio-economic parts of Brisbane and there was not one scrap of real meat on the shelves but the space allocated to plant based and fake meat was overflowing," Ms Wray said.
"I don't think you can get a much clearer signal than that.
"The Australian beef industry as a whole is well prepared to respond to the fake meat phenomena, particularly with the body of work which is being done under the auspices of the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework.
"From an organic consumer's point of view, the furthest thing from organic and natural is lab grown meat."
One of the newest players in the organic beef space is the Australian Livestock Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AAM Investment Group's Diversified Agriculture Fund.
The company recently acquired and leased a unique portfolio of organically certified property in Western Queensland that is built around Terrick Terrick at Blackall.
AAM Investment Group chief executive officer Tim Gallagher said that part of the country was
uniquely suited to organic production systems given its climatic conditions and natural lack of conventional cattle and sheep parasites.
"It is AAM's belief that organic certified properties create the greatest value and operational flexibility by enabling participation in organic, grassfed and conventional supplies chains, dependent upon the prevailing market conditions at the time," he said.
"This is also bolstered by a global trend towards consumers wanting product with known production parameters, including organic."
The ALC properties will turn off up to 20,000 head of cattle annually.
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The story Organic meat in prime spot to meet post-pandemic consumer demands first appeared on Farm Online.