Organic farming and animal welfare

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years or so you will no doubt be aware of the huge increase in popularity and availability of organic food. In a nutshell, organic food is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and with a focus on environmentally sustainable practices.

There is much debate about the health benefits of organic food and whether or not organic farming methods could possibly feed the world. There is also confusion about whether organic farming is necessarily better in terms of animal welfare standards. To help set the record straight on the latter we chatted to Owen Gwilliam, Convenor of Standards at Australian Organic (formerly Biological Farmers of Australia), a not-for-profit organisation that represents organic farmers, operators, producers, processors and traders.  Australian Organic (AO) also educates the public about the benefits of organic farming. Here’s what Owen had to say:

Debbie: How often are farms certified by AO visited for auditing purposes?

Owen: There is an annual audit cycle, with 5% of operations receiving additional unannounced or unscheduled audits each year. These additional audits can be random, or targeted based on risk, compliance history, or in very rare cases tip-offs.

Debbie: How do the animal welfare standards on certified organic farms differ to those on conventional farms?

Owen: Greatly! On certified organic farms animals are allowed as much as possible to carry out their natural behaviours, form natural social groups, are not caged, are allowed generous pasture access, and if housed at night time for protection from predators and the elements, are allowed ample indoor space. 

Debbie: Are all animals on AO certified farms free range i.e. do they have access to pasture?

Owen: Yes, during daylight hours animals are required to be provided with full access to pasture. 

Debbie: What are the other main differences between certified organic and conventional farms?

Owen: That is a big question (or rather it requires a big answer!) – the Australian Certified Organic Standard is a very broad document.  First and foremost is avoidance of conventional pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as antibiotics and other synthetic vet treatments. Synthetic soluble fertilisers such as superphosphate are also banned. But it’s not just about what is NOT allowed – most important is the requirement for active management practices being such to prevent or at least minimise the pest, weed, disease and animal health problems that conventional farming is plagued with. Also covered are areas such as animal welfare, environmental management, prevention of contamination, and the list goes on. 

Debbie: Has there ever been a case where an AO certified farm lost it’s organic certification due to a breach of the animal welfare standards and if so, could you please describe the circumstances.

Owen: The vast majority of organic producers are highly dedicated to their practices, however sometimes compliance issues occur – and such issues must be rectified for certification to be maintained. I cannot discuss specific cases, but if an operator cannot manage livestock welfare issues in compliance with the standard  their certification is withdrawn.

Debbie: We’ve talked about the living standards of animals on certified organic farms. What about when they meet their end? Does the transportation and slaughter of organic animals differ to those raised conventionally and if so, how?

Owen: Yes, organic certification is a whole of supply chain process, so there are requirements for the trucking stage, and final processing. For example: electric cattle prods are not allowed; operators handling animals must be appropriately trained; and handling equipment must be designed and constructed in a manner which prevents injury or stress. 

Debbie: Why is organic produce more expensive than conventional produce?

Owen: It isn’t always, but tends to be. This can be for a number of reasons. It sometimes reflects higher production costs encountered by farmers who are employing labour, rather than boom sprays. Supply and demand can also come into play – where the market demand is high (and supply limited) – higher prices can result. 

Debbie: There are at present seven different organic certifying bodies in Australia. Do they each have different standards or are their standards pretty much the same?

Owen: The seven government accredited certifying bodies are all required to certify in compliance with the baseline National Standard. The Australian Certified Organic Standard (ACOS) complies with the National Standard, and also incorporates other market specific requirements to make exporting for AO certified operations simpler. 

Debbie: How can consumers be assured that products labeled organic are truly farmed according to the organic standards?

Owen: If you want to eat organic – the first thing you must do is look for the certification logo. The AO bud logo is backed up by a rigorous auditing and review process, as well as random audits and market sampling. Highly trained auditors and certification staff deliver a thorough and impartial assessment of every operation each year, so you can be sure that a product displaying “the bud”is genuinely organic.


A huge thanks to Owen for taking the time to chat with us. While organic food may cost a bit more, an assurance of higher animal welfare standards and cleaner food is something I’m willing to pay more for. How about you?



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