Is organic farming contributing to land clearing?

Imagine visiting a farm that was everything a healthy farm should be. It didn’t spray dangerous chemicals to kill weeds or pests, it grew a range of vegetable crops to avoid monoculture and it was certified organic to boot.

But what if – just 12 months ago – that same land was home to an amazing, old forest teeming with animal biodiversity?

Global Forest Watch found 18 million hectares were flattened in 2014, mostly to make way for rubber, beef, soy and palm oil farming.

You would think looking for an organic logo helps you avoid products that come at the expense of native forests. After all organic is about sustainable agriculture and biodiversity.

It’s not.

All around the world land is being cleared and immediately accredited as certified organic.

How can this be?

Organic rules vary from certifier to certifier and country to country.

There are hundreds of organic standards around the world and believe it or not, some of the major ones don’t prohibit tree clearing – perhaps because it would affect their bottom line.

What about the overarching organic body?

The benchmark for the organic industry globally is IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) seen here. Its concern is not with native forests in general, but with forests that have been identified as High Conservation Value areas.

A High Conservation Value area contains significant flora, endemic or endangered animals and significant large landscape-level habitat housing viable populations.

Companies can identify these areas by looking at land use records and talking to authorities or local conservation groups and communities.

IFOAM prohibits clearing these areas and if the land was cleared in the five years prior to the farmer applying for certification, it won’t be accepted as organic.

Some organic groups don’t agree

IFOAM says many organic certifying bodies around the world don’t follow suit and there’s not a lot they can do about it.

A spokesperson from the organisation says they can’t exclude organic certifiers from the IFOAM ‘family of standards’ solely because they don’t prohibit land clearing, and if they did “we would not recognise most of the organic products that are currently on the market.”

The USDA Organic and the European Union organic logos are commonly seen on imported products in Australia. They don’t prohibit land clearing, despite one of the European Unions’ principles for organic production being “contributes to a high level of biological diversity”.

There is no mention of land clearing in their standards and this means that the many private certifying bodies operating throughout Europe and America don’t either.

Which logos ban land clearing

The two main Australian certifying groups, NASAA and Australian Certified Organic, prohibit clearing to establish organic agriculture.

These logos offer protection to Australian bushland and forests but not forests overseas.

This is because they also put their logos on products that are imported or made with imported ingredients. Ingredients which are certified by someone else, such as the USDA or EU, and they will be accepted regardless whether they agree with every aspect of their standard – such as their position on land clearing.

The Soil Association is another common logo we see in Australia.

It prohibits clearing High Conservation Value Areas and if there’s doubt or no evidence that the land isn’t of high conservation, the Soil Association won’t certify it. Again, if the ingredients don’t come from the UK, there’s no guarantee.

Who certifies the areas being cleared?

The fastest decline of forests is in Asia, Central and South America, Madagascar and West Africa.

There are a lot of organic certifying bodies operating in these areas.

Only a handful of them prohibit clearing High Conservation Value areas. Farmers and companies would also use certifiers who operate somewhere else such as Australia, China, Japan and the EU to accredit their operations.

What to look for

If the product is entirely Australian (and we still have a lot of bush that needs protecting), look for an Australian Certified Organic or the NASAA logo.

If the product wears these logos but is made from imported ingredients, they could have come from an organic farm that demolished a rainforest.

Outside their ‘family of standards’ program, IFOAM also accredits certifying bodies that abide by their standards, including the prohibition on clearing High Conservation Value areas. IFOAM is pulling together a list of those accredited groups, which will be useful in future.

Organic aside

Better assurances that the product hasn’t come at the expense of native forests are the two main forestry certifications: the Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance.

FSC RA logos

The Forestry Stewardship Council certifies products that come from forests (i.e tissues, rubber gloves, shiitake mushrooms, palm oil and bamboo clothes) and prohibits land clearing for farming or plantations.

The Rainforest Alliance also doesn’t certify farms that are on land that was cleared after 2005.

The World Wildlife Fund has a good explanation about sustainable palm oil.

That organic certification isn’t consistent across the globe and falls painfully short when it comes to some critically important environmental issues is a blight against its integrity.

Sustainable Shopper still advocates that some form of certification is better than none and the best case scenario is finding organic and a forestry certification logo on the one product, particularly if it has imported rubber, beef, soy or palm oil.

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