Organic Farming: The Certification Process
Note Number: AG0437
Published: October 2004
Updated: October 2007
What is organic certification?
Organic certification is an audit and inspection process which allows agricultural and other enterprises to have their status as organic producers, processors, packers and exporters, verified by an independent organisation. Many individuals and companies involved in the food and fibre supply chain offer consumers 'organic' products and services. The organic nature of those products is an important characteristic from the consumers' point of view. Organic certification provides some credibility to claims that certified enterprises make about the organic status of their products or services and gives consumers some confidence in the authenticity of organic products.
Why become certified organic?
By becoming certified organic, producers and others gain credibility, assistance and some marketing advantage for themselves while contributing to the development and standing of the organic industry. They also support the efforts of organic agriculture organisations who are working together and with government, towards:
- providing practical marketing information and linkages for growers;
- developing and refining standards for organic production, processing and handling; and
- promoting organic agriculture, the certification schemes and organic produce to the public.
Organic certification is required if produce is to be exported from Australia under an organic label.
Who can certify organic enterprises?
Organic certification in Australia is regulated by the Organic and Bio-dynamic Program of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). AQIS accredits independent organisations to operate organic certification schemes.
A current list of accredited certifiers is maintained by AQIS and is available on the AQIS web site at http://www.daff.gov.au/aqis/about/contact/aco.
What are organic standards?
Organic certification organisations verify the organic status of enterprises with reference to documented, publicly available standards. This allows everyone to understand the meaning behind an enterprise's certification. Organic standards are sets of definitions, requirements, recommendations and restrictions regarding the practices and materials that can be used within certified organic production and processing systems. Organic standards also cover such aspects as the transport, storage and marketing of organic products.
Organic standards typically contain lists of materials that are permitted as farm and processing inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and food additives. All other materials should be considered as prohibited unless the relevant certification organisation approves their use. Organic standards generally emphasise the use of good management practices to minimise the need for inputs wherever possible. As well as considering the technicalities of agricultural production and processing, organic standards address such broader aspects as biodiversity, native vegetation retention, waterway management, animal husbandry ethics and waste management.
Organic certification organisations operating within Australia have to comply with a minimum standard which has been developed in co-operation with the organic industry. The 'National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce' sets out the basic requirements for certified organic production and processing in Australia. This standard is available from the AQIS web site listed above.
The certification process
Organic certification organisations may vary in the way they handle certification, but the following points are a general guide to the process.
First obtain a copy of the organic standards and fee structure from one or more of the certifying organisations. Some certifiers have this information available free of charge from their web site. It is important to read and understand the standards. They are the 'rules' that have to be complied with to achieve and maintain certification. If any aspects of the standards are unclear, clarification should be sought from the relevant organisation.
Contact & application
To decide which certification scheme to join, speak with other certified growers for advice or contact a number of the certifiers for more information to judge their suitability.
Obtain an application form from the preferred certification organisation. This and other relevant information is available freely from some certifiers' web sites. The completed application form, and fee if required, is returned to the organisation if the applicant agrees with the standards and agrees to comply with them.
A comprehensive questionnaire will be sent to the applicant, requesting information on the management of the enterprise to be certified. For primary production, this includes chemical use, cultivation practices, fertiliser inputs and other nutrient management strategies, pest control methods, crop types and rotations. The risk of chemical contamination from neighbouring properties and other sources is also of interest.
The questionnaire is to be completed and returned together with a map of the property clearly showing the location of areas to be certified. Some organisations require a statutory declaration to be signed, to add legal strength to the certification and licensing process.
The applicant is then contacted to arrange a visit by an experienced inspector. The inspector will usually:
help fill in any gaps in the questionnaire;
inspect the area or facility to be certified and note any problems such as major weeds and risks of contamination (e.g. spray drift on farms or fruit residue in packing lines);
examine the soil condition and management practices; and
collect samples of soil or products if required for chemical residue analysis.
The questionnaire, inspection report and soil or produce test results will then be considered by the certifying organisation which will either offer certification, or reject the application if there is good reason to do so.
Once accepted, the applicant will be offered a contract of certification. This states the obligations of the applicant and certifying organisation in the event that the contract is accepted. The contract may include conditions necessary for the maintenance of certification, information on the use of certification labels or logos and annual licence fees or levies if they apply.
Organic certification and the right to use the certifying organisation's labels or logos and to promote produce as certified, may be withdrawn if the contract is broken. This could occur for example if a product or practice prohibited under the organic production standards is used.
There are currently two levels of certification relevant to primary production, preceded by a 'lead-in' period:
'Pre-certification' commences once the initial contract is signed and applies for one year. This lead-in period allows applicants to demonstrate that they can manage their enterprise in compliance with the organic standards. During pre-certification, no claims can be made regarding the organic status of the enterprise or its products. This means that certification cannot be sought to cover a crop that is about to be harvested.
'Conversion to organic' is achieved when an enterprise successfully completes pre-certification and the associated audits and inspections. The length of the conversion period depends on the history of the enterprise and current management practices. It could last several years as it takes time to develop a good organic production system. Produce from enterprises in the conversion phase can carry a 'Conversion to organic' label and can be promoted as being in conversion to organic.
'Certified Organic' and ‘Certified Bio-dynamic’ are the top levels of certification and are achieved once all relevant requirements of the standards have been met for a minimum of three years. Produce can be labelled and promoted as being Certified Organic or Bio-dynamic.
Once certification is achieved, compliance with the standards must continue for the certified status to be maintained. Certified enterprises are reinspected annually to verify that the standards are being met.
Things to consider before applying for certification
Join a local organic grower group - they are there to support growers. Certification organisations and agriculture departments should be able to help growers contact these groups. Speak with people who are familiar with organic/sustainable agriculture and who use organic methods.
Read as much as possible on the subject.
Speak to someone who is familiar with organic certification. Get an idea of what is involved, including costs, in applying for certification and maintaining certified status. Find out about the application fee, farm inspection, soil tests and licence agreements. Ask to see the sort of questionnaires involved.
If a neglected property has been obtained especially for organic production because it has not had chemicals applied recently, remember that organic/sustainable agriculture is about best practice management not just chemical-free management. Organic certification organisations want to see good management practices in operation, and place some emphasis on the development and implementation of organic management plans for certified enterprises.
Develop a conversion plan for the property. This should document the phases that each area of the property will go through during conversion to organic management. Aspects such as the establishment of windbreaks, cover crops and crop rotations would be included.
Consider the scale of the potential organic enterprise. It may need more capital input, labour and bulk materials such as manures and mulch. Are the resources and experience available to convert the whole property at once? Organic techniques may be trialed on a small area first before being applied on a larger scale. However, with this approach, the organic area may have a high risk of contamination from adjacent crops or from spray vats used for other crops.
If a small trial area for organic management is to be established and certified, is there any guarantee that produce from the organic and conventional areas would not get mixed up? ‘Parallel production’ occurs when a grower produces a crop organically but is also producing the same type of crop using conventional methods. However, there are tight restrictions on 'parallel production' under organic standards. For example, check the certifiers' requirements regarding dedicated machinery, especially spray equipment, for use on certified land.
Specific concerns about a property that is to be certified should be addressed before the application is made and fees are paid. For example, if the area is surrounded by properties on which heavy chemical use occurs, the application may fail because of an unacceptably high risk of chemical contamination.
Neighbours should be informed of what is involved in the conversion to organic. Try to reach some agreement on what they will do as good neighbours to minimise or eliminate any effects that their use of chemicals may have on the organic system. Do the same for other groups such as water boards using herbicides on irrigation channels, councils treating roadsides and crown land with herbicides and agriculture departments who may apply chemicals for pest control (e.g. fruit fly and locusts).
All growers, regardless of the production methods they use, should investigate the distribution and marketing aspects of a new enterprise before they develop that enterprise. This is particularly important for organic growers because the organic market, while rapidly expanding, is still relatively small and easily oversupplied with certain products.
Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) Organic Program
For information on certification organisations, the 'National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce' and export requirements for organic produce.
- Tel: (02) 6272 3928
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Internet: http://www.daff.gov.au/aqis/export/organic-bio-dynamic
Organic Federation of Australia (OFA)
Australia’s peak organic industry organisation.
- P.O.Box 369
- Bellingen NSW 2454
- Tel: 1300 657435
- Internet: www.ofa.org.au
This Agnote was devevloped by David Madge, October 2004.
It was reviewed by David Madge, October 2007.
Published and Authorised by:
Department of Environment and Primary Industries
1 Spring Street
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