Pesticide spray and cage eggs are dirty words among New Zealand greenies. Followers of sustainable living practices subscribe religiously to organic products - a New Zealand industry now worth about $350 million annually, according to the latest Organic Market Report. But what makes "natural" products worth the extra bucks?
What is "organic" food?
According to the Ministry for Primary Industries, organic agriculture and food production systems "avoid or exclude the use of most synthetic pest control compounds and fertilisers, antibiotics, growth promotants and food additives derived from non-organic sources".
Anything genetically modified or irradiated is also excluded.
How do shoppers know it's organic?
Like Australia, New Zealand has no official regulatory body overseeing the growth and production processes of organic products. Although food must adhere to Food Safety Standards, consumers are not necessarily guaranteed a true organic product unless it is certified.
Four certification organisations are responsible for overseeing standards in New Zealand. BioGro, one of the primary certifying organisations, says certified products undergo a rigorous testing process. About 700 Kiwi producers with more than 1000 operations are certified by the organisation.
"It's a third party independent verification," chief executive Dr Michelle Glogau says.
Producers who are certified through BioGro, which has similar standards to fellow certifying organisation AsureQuality, are audited on-site. Ingredients and products are double-checked to ensure they follow organic growing standards, says Glogau.
The growing systems and contamination risk from neighbouring properties, which may use chemical compounds like pesticides, are also scrutinised.
What about non-certified organic food?
Consumer NZ advises shoppers to be wary of non-certified products, particularly as products labelled organic often cost more than conventionally-produced ones. The watchdog says companies that argue third party certification is too expensive are making excuses.
Why is organic more expensive?
Price comparisons between products indicate organically produced food and beverages are often more expensive. For example, 500g of unsalted Mainland butter normally retails at $4.99, according to online prices for supermarket chain Countdown. An equivalent amount of certified organic Green Valley unsalted butter would cost $10.38, according to price listings on the Huckleberry Farms wholesale organic supermarket website.
Organic growing systems require more work than conventional procedures, says Glogau. "It's more labour intensive - you can't just whip up the Round-up to spray the weed."
Organic production is designed to minimise harm to the environment, she says, and it is also a healthy alternative to chemical-laced foods grown with pesticides.
"We often prefer to think of it as saying, 'Actually, conventional food is not reflecting the true cost in production and the impact on the environment'."
How popular is organic produce?
As demand from health-conscious shoppers increases, more farmers and growers are taking on organic systems, the Organic Market Report found. Figures from the report, which was commissioned by Organics Aotearoa New Zealand and carried out by Otago University and the Agribusiness Group, show total land area under organic certification increased by nearly 70 per cent in New Zealand between 2007 and 2012.
Overall growth in the organic sector was 25 per cent during the same period - from $275 million in 2009 to about $350 million in 2012. The organic wine and dairy sectors have also grown significantly.
Glogau says New Zealand's domestic market, which swelled nearly 30 per cent in the three years to 2012, is following international trends.
A report carried out by international market research company Ken Research found the increasing popularity of organic food was because of better consumer awareness around its environmental and health benefits - something Glogau says is also happening at home. 'It's about healthy soils and growing healthy crops - also ensuring your animals are well cared for ... and your workers are well paid."