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Assuring Environmental Outcomes on Organic Farms - Incorporating EMS into the national organic certification program

Andre Leu1 and Liz Clay 2,3

1Chair, Organic Federation of Australia, PO Box 369 Bellingen NSW 2454,
Chair West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority,
Chair, Organic Federation of Australia, Environment Committee


Organic farming systems are intentionally designed to enhance, restore, and conserve natural resources. Organic systems are not polluting but regenerative; they concentrate strongly on soil health that focuses on optimising biological functions of the soil to benefit plant production and system resilience and contribute positively to the health of our waterways.

Organic farmers were amongst the first to develop a system of third party auditing and certification, based on a codified production standard and farm management plans.

The Organic Federation of Australia received funding from DAFF for the ‘Pathways to EMS’ program which was completed in June 30th 2006. This project identified the gaps in the current national organic standard and the organic management plans (OMP) used by certified organic farmers with best practice in EMS.

The next step is to develop an EMS that fits into farmers’ Organic Management Plans and ensuring that the identified gaps are rectified in the proposed Australian Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. Seamlessly incorporating EMS planning and processes into the current Organic Management Planning processes will ensure 100% adoption of EMS within the certified organic sector. Very importantly this will reduce the compliance burden and will also enable effective monitoring and reporting procedures by utilising the existing organic auditing system.

The training workshops will allow organic farmers to speak with each other and those organic farmers currently working under an EMS system will be able to exchange knowledge from the grass roots up leading the way in promoting EMS. The project will build on existing work, adding value and enhancing the already robust organic standards and certification process.


Australian organic farmers have a long history and a lot of experience in developing farming systems that are commercially productive and environmentally sound. Very little research has been done into the environmental benefits of Australian organic farming systems, however several international peer reviewed comparison studies have found that organic agricultural systems are the most environmentally sustainable and have the least off farm impact of our current agricultural systems. (Drinkwater 1998, Welsh 1999, Reganold et al 2001, Mader et al 2002, Pimentel 2005)

Definition of Organic Farming

For the purposes of this paper the definition of organic farming is the one used by the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. This is the standard used as the basis of certifying organic farmers and processors in Australia. It is closely aligned with the standards used to certify organic production systems in Europe, North America and Japan.

The definition in the standard states: organic: means the application of practices that emphasize the:

  • use of renewable resources; and
  • conservation of energy, soil and water; and
  • recognition of livestock welfare needs; and
  • environmental maintenance and enhancement, while producing optimum quantities of produce without the use of artificial fertiliser or synthetic chemicals. (National Standard 2005)

Organic systems recognise that the health of the soil is directly connected to the health of the food we eat and, ultimately the health of the people who consume it and the environment we live in. “Healthy soil is the prerequisite for healthy plants, animals and products. With organic farming, the care of a living soil and consequently the maintenance or improvement of soil structure, fertility and nutrient cycling is fundamental to all measures adopted.’ (National Standard 2005)

These farming systems severely limit the use water soluble fertilisers and do not use synthetic pesticides. They improve the soil fertility using composts, mineral fertilisers, cover crops and organic materials. Cultural and ecological management systems are used as the primary control of pests, weeds and disease, with a limited use of biocides of mineral, plant and biological origin as the tools of last resort.

Environmental Benefits of Organic Farming

Studies show, due to not using soluble fertilizers and pesticides, building high soil humus content and soil conservation techniques, that there is minimal soil and nutrient run-off as well as higher biodiversity on organic farms. (Reganold et al 1987, Zimmer 2001, Reganold et al 2001, Drinkwater 1998, Welsh 1999).

A 21-year study by Swiss researchers (Mader et al 2002), published in Science shows that organic farming is more energy-efficient than conventional farming. The study found that organic fields have healthier soil and a greater diversity and number of organisms, including earthworms, beneficial fungi, beetles and wild plants.

A long-term study conducted by the Washington State University published in the science journal Nature showed that the total environmental impact of conventional farming systems was 6.2 times higher than organic systems (Reganold et al 2001). The researchers concluded: ‘Our data indicate that the organic system ranked first in environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated system second and the conventional system last.’ (Reganold et al 2001)


Conserving biodiversity is a requirement of certified organic agriculture. All certified Australian organic farms must have at least 5% of the farm dedicated to biodiversity. (National Standard 2003)

Research conducted in Europe and the United States shows that organic systems have the highest biodiversity in the fields of the farming system. (Reganold et al 2001, Mader et al 2002, Pimentel 2005)

The largest review of 76 studies from around the world comparing organic to conventional agriculture published in the Journal Biological Conservation found that organic farming increases biodiversity at every level of the food chain from soil biota such as bacteria to higher animals such as mammals. (Hole et al 2004)

‘ It identifies a wide range of taxa, including birds and mammals, invertebrates and arable flora, that benefit from organic management through increases in abundance and/or species richness. It also highlights three broad management practices (prohibition/reduced use of chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilisers; sympathetic management of non-cropped habitats; and preservation of mixed farming) that are largely intrinsic (but not exclusive) to organic farming, and that are particularly beneficial for farmland wildlife.’ (Hole et al 2004).

An earlier report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated: ‘Organic agriculture has demonstrated its ability to not only produce commodities but also to "produce" biodiversity at all levels’ (FAO 2003).

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation recommended more organic farming as a way of increasing on farm biodiversity and stated: ‘Organic agriculture should be considered simply as the most appropriate starting point ... Its widespread expansion would be a cost-efficient policy option for biodiversity’ (FAO 2003).

Erosion and Soil Loss

Soil loss and erosion from farming systems is a major concern around the world. (Bemani J.M. et al 2005, MA Report 2005) Comparison studies have shown that organic systems have less soil loss due to the better soil health. (Reganold et al 1987, Reganold et al 2001, Mader et al 2002, Pimentel 2005)

‘We compare the long-term effects (since 1948) of organic and conventional farming on selected properties of the same soil. The organically-farmed soil had significantly higher organic matter content, thicker topsoil depth, higher polysaccharide content, lower modulus of rupture and less soil erosion than the conventionally-farmed soil. This study indicates that, in the long term, the organic farming system was more effective than the conventional farming system in reducing soil erosion and, therefore, in maintaining soil productivity.’ (Reganold et al 1987)

Greenhouse Gas Abatement

Two published studies (Mader et al 2002, Pimentel 2005), in peer reviewed scientific journals, of long-term comparison trials (21 and 22 years) of conventional and organic systems have found that the organic systems, use less fossil fuels and therefore emit significantly lower levels (around 30%) of greenhouse gases

The long term apple comparison trial conducted by Reganold et al in Washington USA showed that the organic system was more efficient in it energy use.‘ When compared with the conventional and integrated systems, the organic system produced sweeter and less tart apples, higher profitability and greater energy efficiency.’ (Reganold et al 2001)

A significant tenet of organic agriculture is to build up soil fertility by increasing the levels of organic carbon compounds in the soil. This is primarily achieved by using photosynthesis to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and using management techniques that covert these plants into soil organic matter. ‘Sufficient organic material should be regenerated and/or returned to the soil to improve, or at least maintain, humus levels. Conservation and recycling of nutrients is a major feature of any organic farming system.’ (National Standard 2005)

Many of the current conventional agriculture techniques have caused a massive decline in soil organic matter, due to oxidizing organic carbon by incorrect tillage, the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers and from topsoil loss through wind and water erosion (Handrek 1990, Zimmer 2001, Tilman 2001, MA Report 2005).

According to Dr Christine Jones, one of Australia’s leading experts on carbon sequestration,

‘… a 1% increase in organic carbon in the top 20 cm of soil with a bulk density of 1.2 g/cm3 represents a 24 t/ha increase in soil OC which equates to 88 t/ha of CO2 sequestered” (Jones 2006).

Farming techniques, such as organic farming that deliberately concentrate on increasing soil organic carbon can make a significant difference to the reversing the current increasing levels of green house gases.

Data from the Rodale Institute’s long-running comparison of organic and conventional cropping systems confirms that organic methods are far more effective at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fixing it as beneficial organic matter in the soil.

According to the Rodale Institute, “U.S. agriculture as currently practiced emits a total of 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. Converting all U.S. cropland to organic would not only wipe out agriculture's massive emission problem. By eliminating energy-costly chemical fertilizers, it would actually give us a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds” (Rodale 2003) On a worldwide scale, if there were hundreds of millions of hectares of organic farming it would equate to removing billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Organic Systems Use Water More Efficiently

Research shows that organic systems use water more efficiently due to better soil structure and higher levels of humus. (Lotter 2003, Pimentel 2005) ‘Soil water held in the crop root zone was measured and shown to be consistently higher by a statistically significant margin in the organic plots than the conventional plots, due to the higher organic matter content in the organic treated soils.’ (Lotter 2003)

The open structure allows rain water to quickly penetrate the soil, resulting in less water loss from run off. ‘The exceptional water capture capability of the organic treatments stood out during the torrential downpours during hurricane Floyd in September of 1999. The organic systems captured about twice as much water as the CNV [conventional] treatment during that two day event’ (Lotter 2003)

Humus stores 20 times it weight in water so that rain and irrigation water is not lost through leaching or evaporation (Handrek 1990, Stevenson 1998, Handrek and Black 2002). It is stored in the soil for later use by the plants. (Drinkwater 1998, Zimmer 2000, Mader et al 2002). One consistent piece of information coming from many studies is that organic agriculture performs better than conventional agriculture in adverse weather events, such as droughts (Drinkwater, L. E., Wagoner, P. & Sarrantonio, M. 1998, Welsh R. 1999, Lotter 2003, Pimentel 2005).

Aligning the Current Environment Benefits of Organic Farming with Environmental Management Systems

In an effort to align the current environment benefits of organic farming with Environmental Management Systems (EMS), The Organic Federation of Australia was provided with support from the Australian Government to look at how EMS principles could be incorporated into the organic industry’s existing inspection, certification and accreditation programs.

The Pathways to EMS project undertook two major activities that identified industry pathways to environmental management systems; - a desk top study of current environmental processes and outcomes of organic certification, and an industry workshop that used the desk top study recommendations as background for the deliberations.

Desk Top Review

The desktop review of the Organic Program was a major objective of the Pathways project in determining an appropriate EMS approach for the organic sector. Its purpose was to identify the gaps between the organic certification system and EMS. It was conducted by a mix of experts in EMS and organic systems.

Background to Organic 3rd Party Certification System

The Organic Industry has long argued that their third party inspection, certification and accreditation program is robust, comprehensive and delivers on production and environmental outcomes. Certification is demanded in the organic marketplace to guarantee consumers the integrity of production systems - that methods and inputs used to create the product are not harmful to the environment nor are they harmful to human health.

The Australian Organic Program is based on international standards and criteria such as CODEX Alimentarius and ISO 65 and allows for organic products from Australia to meet importing country requirements through AQIS third party accreditation. Whilst the Organic Standards provide the parameters for the process of organic production by farmers, the system includes Administrative Arrangements (AAs), describing how the certification must be carried out by the certifier.

The approaches to EMS preferred by Government are those compatible with ISO 14001 and features a cycle of continuous improvement - Plan Do Check Review. Both systems, ISO 65 and ISO 14001, have many similarities but also some differences as revealed in the comparison.

The process identified strengths in the Organic Program from an environment perspective and also identifying where it could be improved. Key points are summarized below:

Learning 1.

Organic Farming has an important contribution to make to ecologically sustainable agriculture in Australia.

Key Findings

  • That there is a need to articulate the intrinsic environmental benefits of organic farming methods to the wider community backed up by case studies demonstrating services provide by ecologically integrated farming systems
  • That the wider agriculture community recognise the extent of international scrutiny of the Australian organic certification and accreditation program and the associated costs to farmers.
  • That the wider agriculture community and government understand the environmental, social and economic values placed on organic farming by international governments, communities and organizations.

Learning 2

Examination of the Standards relating to environment revealed some being “thinly worded” leaving their interpretation open. Without support for farmers that may guide effective actions, they may result in inconsistencies across the industry.

Key Finding:

  • That changes should be made to the National Standards for Organic and Biodynamic Produce to broaden environmental management requirements.

Learning 3

With organic’s strong focus on soil health that aims at optimising biological functions to benefit plant production and system resilience, less emphasis and guidance in the certification process is given to other arguably non production focussed environmental issues.

Key Finding:

  • That guidance documents be developed describing environmental best management practice to support farmers
  • That training is available to assist farmers’ adoption and planning for EBMP.

Learning 4

The comparison between the Organic System and the elements that make up the EMS Framework and ISO 14001 Standard revealed very few differences. The significant area of difference identified was the systematic risk management, monitoring and continuous improvement process featured in EMS. Compliance to Standards as required in the organic program was acknowledged as a strength and a difference between systems.

Key Finding:

• That the organic certification process adopt a systematic risk management and continuous improvement process into the environmental management planning component of the Organic Management Plan

Learning 5

Review of the National Organic Program included the Administrative Arrangements (AAs) and are the basis upon which third party accreditation is achieved. The committee revealed a number of issues within the AAs that could contribute to inconsistencies in certification across the industry. These concern Inspector/auditor qualification and training requirements, document and recording systems and the omission of requirements for planning.

Key Finding:

  • That an industry approved inspector training program, that include inspecting environmental management, be developed
  • That industry approved Organic Management Plan guideline be described in the AAs
  • That record keeping and documentation systems necessary for certification are described in the AAs.

Farmers Workshop

The desktop study of current environmental processes and outcomes of organic certification programs Project by the Expert EMS/Organic Panel informed a workshop attended by representatives of the organic industry.

The Expert EMS/Organic Panel presented a set of draft documents for the workshop outlining

  • Gaps in the current certification program and processes
  • Changes to the National Standards for Organic and Biodynamic Produce
  • Development of guiding documents to assist farmers’ organic and environmental planning.
  • The need to describe and promote the benefits of organic agriculture’s farming methods and certification system.

The workshop participants agreed that the industry should adopt a more consistent and systematic approach to address broader environmental issues. Changes to the National Organic and Biodynamic Standards have been recommended to embrace wider environmental issues and planning elements found in Environmental Management Systems approaches – identifying on farm environmental assets, assessing their condition, planning to address problems and monitoring, have been recommended to be included into the existing national organic certification and accreditation programs.

It was also made very clear that organic and biodynamic farming’s management systems are intentionally designed to enhance, restore and conserve natural processes in agricultural production systems. For these reasons the intrinsic environmental benefits of organic agriculture should be understood by the greater agricultural community, the research community and government in the pursuit of sustainable agriculture in Australia.

The workshop also discussed EMS resources available to farmers and potential partnership arrangements with regional natural resource management bodies. A product that outlines industry pathway to EMS was developed to communicate to farmers and greater organic community the outcomes of this project.

Farmers Reference Group

One of the main outcomes of the workshop was the formation of a farmers reference group to develop an EMS that could be seamlessly incorporated into the current Organic Management Plans of certified organic growers. The group developed a basic document that was trialled on certified organic farmers in South Australia for their feed back. The response has been that it needs to be built into the current certification systems so that EMS compliance does not add extra time and bookwork to the farming system.

Conclusion – Next Steps

The next step is to get funding to develop an EMS that fits into farmers’ Organic Management Plans and ensuring that the identified gaps are rectified in the proposed Australian Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. Seamlessly incorporating EMS planning and processes into the current Organic Management Planning processes will ensure 100% adoption of EMS within the certified organic sector. Very importantly this will reduce the compliance burden and will also enable effective monitoring and reporting procedures by utilising the existing organic auditing system.

Funding is needed to conduct training workshops that will allow organic farmers to speak with each other and those organic farmers currently working under an EMS system so that they will be able to exchange knowledge from the grass roots up leading the way in promoting EMS. The proposed project will build on existing work, adding value and enhancing the already robust organic standards and certification process.


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