The big business of organic food

Over the past two decades, Canada’s organic food industry has grown from a niche market to big business.

By Lesley Porter

The most recent data from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (2008) counted close to 4,000 organic producers across the country, producing everything from grains to vegetables to livestock. That same year, organic retail sales were approximately $2 billion, and nearly half of all organic foods were purchased through mainstream supermarkets—meaning big-box retailers such as SuperStore and Sobey’s are hopping on the organic bandwagon.

The organic industry and its supporters tout its cleanliness—that the lack of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) result in a healthier, more nutritious product. However, Dietitians of Canada—the professional agency representing 6,000 registered dietitians across the country—have stated that there is a lack of scientific evidence proving the nutrient value of organic food over its conventional counterpart, or that there are any health benefits at all.

While it’s a complicated debate, U of S experts are examining a number of areas between farm and fork, particularly the production, policy and promotion of organic products.

Growing organics


The challenge and curiosity of organic farming is what drove Steve Shirtliffe to study organic field crops, which make up more than half of Canada’s organic farms.

“Organic is a real challenge,” said Shirtliffe, a researcher and agronomist in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “It’s hard to do.”

The pragmatic difference between organic and conventional crops is what you add—or don’t add—to them.

“You can’t spray them with synthetic pesticides or fertilize them with synthetic fertilizers. That’s the main thing,” Shirtliffe said. This method must be maintained for three years—a significant period of time that deters many farmers from fully adopting organic growing.

It’s such a deterrent that it begs the question of why farmers pursue organic at all. Initially, Shirtliffe explained, farmers pursued organic farming largely for ideological reasons.

“They were opposed to herbicides and pesticides and were looking for a better way,” he said. Within the past 10-15 years, however, more farmers have started practicing organic methods for economic reasons.

“That’s one of their big motivators: they think they can make more money farming organically,” he explained. “Some of them are, some of them aren’t. It depends on the person and their management ability.”

Shirtliffe’s research looks at ways to manage crops organically, particularly how to increase overall organic yields which average between 60 to 70 per cent of their non-organic counterpart, he explained. “That’s almost universally accepted now.”

A lack of nutrients in the soil—such as phosphorus and nitrogen—is a major production-related challenge for organic farmers, he continued. For example, nitrogen is important for plant growth because it makes proteins, but without synthetic fertilizer those levels tend to be significantly lower, hence the lower yields. Interim methods such as nitrogen fixation—a process where bacteria in the plants symbiotically take nitrogen out of the atmosphere—are effective to an extent, until harvest time when the majority of the nitrogen is taken off along with the crop. To re-add nitrogen to the soil for the next season, organic farmers must grow a cover crop of organic manure for a year.

“You don’t have that intensity of being able to crop every year, to get a crop that you can export,” he explained. “There are some years where you’ll have to have a soil- building crop, whereas in conventional farming you can just buy fertilizer.”

Despite the obstacles associated with production, “there’s a consumer demand for organic food out there,” said Shirtliffe, adding that similar challenges exist in conventional farming systems.

In the meantime, he enjoys the challenges of organic farming and passing that knowledge on to producers.

“Organic farmers tend to be so grateful of information that you provide. The hunger for research and information is really high and people are really appreciative.”

Getting political


For Lisa Clark, the food system is a very personal, subjective space.

“It’s about people’s perceptions about what the proper role of corporations should be in society, especially in the food system,” said Clark, a research associate in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, “and what is the socially acceptable relationship between government and industry that society is comfortable with.”

Her book, The Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America, examines the politics behind food systems and the beliefs of the people consuming it.

What makes organics and GMOs very political, she continued, is that their formal interpretation is often very different from what people think it is. This includes definitions of what constitutes an organic production process, which vary from country to country.

The application of a social conscience to the consumption of food is another element of the politicized food debate.

“People want to find a type of food that doesn’t require all of these industrializing processes and the harms that go with them,” said Clark. “It’s not so much ‘I don’t want to eat conventional food,’ it’s more ‘I don’t want to participate and support conventional agricultural practices which have been associated with climate change, displacement of rural communities and rural labour, water pollution, animal cruelty’—the list goes on.”

Whether that’s possible, and if that food is economically accessible to everyone, is another question entirely.

“Food’s a little weird,” said Clark, adding that certain demographics of people will simply not sacrifice food quality. “In their mind, it’s better for their child’s development and health and they don’t want to take that chance that something in the conventional food will harm their child.” The truthfulness of such a claim is not the point, she explained, “because that’s what people believe and that translates into purchasing power.”

To market, to market


The marketing of organic food can also play on people’s values and personal beliefs.

“There’s a huge marketing element to it, for a lot of different reasons,” explained Marjorie Delbaere, a marketing professor in the Edwards School of Business. “Organic is going more mainstream because they recognize that this was something that people valued.”

For starters, Delbaere continued, the certification element is clearly identifiable to consumers and functions like a brand in that it facilitates decision-making in an ambiguous market.

“If you get to know a brand and depend on it, you don’t even have to think about your decision anymore,” she said, adding that marketers are well aware of this. “That’s what products are supposed to do: to help you solve the problems of your life and persuade you that this is the best way to do it.”

And as with any product, a significant amount of research is dedicated to determining the ideal consumer—their needs and resources kept front-of-mind, said Delbaere. In the case of organics, they are typically geared toward those who value a certain lifestyle— such as prioritizing their health and concern about environmental toxins and pollutants. Demographics and gender also play a role, Delbaere continued, as women tend to be the primary decision-makers when it comes to buying groceries and household goods. Ultimately, the financial ability to pay a premium for groceries is a top consideration.

However, those who can’t afford it or simply choose not to buy organic may feel the pangs of an unintended consequence.

“I think it can cause an amount of guilt in some people because we don’t have the expertise or the time to read the research, and even if we did, it’s not always clearly in favour of one versus the other,” she said. “I don’t think that was ever the intention of the organic movement, but it is what has happened.”

Getting real

Shirtliffe maintains a reasonable outlook on the future of organic production.

“Yes, organic could probably feed the world if there were major modifications to behaviour—like more people becoming vegetarian,” he said, “but that’s probably not going to happen, because people like meat.”

Instead, his happy-medium system includes pesticide-use only when necessary. That way, “you don’t have a regime, you’re not asking farmers to decide what pesticides to put on the year before so they can get the best package deal on them.”

And while there is uncertainty about organic foods and their health claims, Delbaere believes consumers will speak with their pocketbooks.

“People don’t like ambiguity—we like to have certainty,” she said. “So you can decide, ‘well, there’s a chance that organic is different, and it might be better, it’s probably not worse.’”

Clark turns her attention to affiliated issues, such as misleading labels on food packages. In recent years, food companies have upped their marketing ante by using words such as “natural” or “clean” to describe their products—anything from cookies to Cheetos to hot dogs. “There’s no regulatory backing for any of those terms in Canada,” said Clark, adding that their alignment with the organic movement only misleads and manipulates consumers.

Her course of action? Speak up about it.

“If you are political about food and concerned about it, more than anything, I think we should be talking to our government to make sure our food labels are more stringent and tell us what is actually in our food,” she said. “People want more information. And if you don’t give people proper, accurate, evidence-based information, they will find it elsewhere and it will not be correct and people will start to make up their own world views about these things without accurate information.”