The Soil and Health Association and the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association were formed in the 1940s, with the aims of supporting organic and biodynamic farming respectively.
The Biological Husbandry Unit was established at Lincoln University in 1977 by horticulturalist Bob Crowder to research and demonstrate organic farming methods, making Canterbury a key region in the developing organics industry.
A growing industry
Commercial organic farming developed from the early 1980s. Initially the industry was very small, with just a few small growers supplying produce to local markets. As demand increased, consumers wanted assurance that the produce met organic standards. The New Zealand Biological Producers and Consumers Council (BioGro) was formed in 1983 to support producers, and to certify produce to BioGro standards and international regulations. When New Zealand began exporting organic food in the early-1990s, the Organic Product Exporters of New Zealand (OPENZ) was set up to develop the market.
Organic growers received no government encouragement or incentives until the 1990s. Before this, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had done just one study, in the 1980s, which compared the economic performance of organic and conventional farms. It concluded that well-managed organic dairy farms were economic, but organic mixed farms (with both crops and livestock) were not.
In 1994 the ministry published a seminal paper, Towards sustainable agriculture: organic farming, which confirmed that organic farming was viable in New Zealand. It acknowledged that organic methods enhanced soils and nutrient recycling, and reduced reliance on chemicals. The paper concluded that the organic approach would benefit future farmers and society.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, government-funded research looked at organic orchard management, mixed farming, and crop and lamb production. However, when government science institutes were restructured in the mid-1990s, research into organics collapsed.
Two large corporations, Wattie’s Frozen Foods (now Heinz Wattie’s) and the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board (now Zespri International), led the expansion of organics in New Zealand. They diversified part of their conventional production into organics, supported their growers, and developed distribution systems. Wattie’s produced their first crop of BioGro-certified peas in 1990 and exported it to Japan. The New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board exported their first BioGro certified kiwifruit in 1991. Other companies followed, with most growth in organics being export-led.
The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was held in 2001, and opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture led to a sharp increase in sales of organic products in New Zealand’s domestic market – from about $32 million in 2000 to $259 million in 2006. By 2020 the sector was estimated to be earning a total of $723 million in domestic sales and exports.