As the grassroots movement goes mainstream, eco-friendly local suppliers are giving way to international food chains and factory farms – and raising questions about safety and standards.
The recent discovery that some organic pear juice on store shelves in Canada contained arsenic is a telling sign of how the industry has changed in recent years in response to explosive consumer demand for organic food.
Loblaw Cos. Ltd. conducted a nationwide product recall in March and had to contact suppliers and producers in Turkey, New Jersey and North Carolina – which are all part of the production chain for the juice – to determine the source of the problem.
Global supply chains and reliance on industrial factories were once unthinkable for an industry that began as an environmentally conscious alternative to the traditional food market.
But what was once a grassroots initiative dominated by small producers and customers concerned over factory farms and the use of pesticides has evolved into a global food system that includes retail giants and major corporations.
And as the industry continues to move mainstream, its operations have started to have more in common with the traditional food business.
Retail sales of organic products in Canada are rising about 20 per cent every year, according to industry members who say growth is fuelled by increasing interest from health-conscious consumers.
More than $412-million worth of certified-organic food was sold in Canadian supermarkets in 2006, a rise of nearly 30 per cent from the previous year, according to a report published by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada.
But the rapid change has raised questions about whether organic food that’s grown on an industrial-sized farm and shipped halfway around the world before hitting the shelves of big box grocery stores is a positive step.
For a food product to be called organic, producers must adhere to an extensive list of requirements, including no use of synthetic fertilizers or growth hormones in animals, and a focus on recycling or reusing materials whenever possible. Large-scale industrial farms can adhere to organic standards, just like their small counterparts.
But agricultural experts in Canada fear that some companies may be putting profit before dedication to the environmental principles of the organic food system.
“There are truly organic-principled larger corporations, and then there are those that are just cashing in on people’s belief that they are supporting the environment by purchasing this,” said Janine Gibson, chair of the Organic Food Council of Manitoba.
Critics say the entry of retail giants such as Wal-Mart, Loblaw and even Shoppers Drug Mart into the organic food market has resulted in new pressures to import food from around the world, undermining the traditional focus on local and environ-
mentally friendly production.
“There’s too high a percentage of the organic food that’s being eaten that is imported,” Ms. Gibson said. “We need to encourage people to buy local organic.”
One problem with increasing reliance on imported organics is that it takes fuel and other resources to get it here, a fact that is “absolutely contradictory to the idea of organics,” according to Andreas Boecker, assistant professor in the department of food, agricultural and resource economics at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College.
“[It] consumes so much energy to fly something, with the entire idea of organics reducing the use of non-renewable resources. That is contradictory to the idea,” he said.
Dr. Boecker also noted that an increasing number of companies are selling packaged and processed organic foods, such as chips and cookies, which represents another departure from the industry’s original emphasis on simple foods in their natural form.
“Community-supported agriculture was an inherent part of the original marketing ideal,” he said. “That of course is increasingly diluted with the big stores taking over or going into organic marketing.”
The globalization of the organics industry has also made it much more difficult to ensure that organic food is produced following the strict, high standards that farmers are expected to follow in Canada, said Laura Telford, executive director of Canadian Organic Growers.
“We know that organic standards around the world are similar and that we count on them,” she said. But it’s difficult to know whether foreign countries are properly enforcing those standards, she said.
Growing concern in the past year with imports of food, toys and other products from China has caused the organization to “question whether the safety programs of other countries are the same as ours,” Ms. Telford said.
One organic company that has experienced major expansion in recent years sees the mainstream growth as progress.
While there may be growing pains, the most important thing is improving widespread access to naturally produced food, said Gunta Vitins, director of public relations for SunOpta Inc., one of the country’s largest distributors of organic and natural food.
“The whole greening of agriculture is a positive step,” she said. “We’re going further afield to get what the consumer wants.”
The company has bought more than two dozen of its competitors in the past decade and has 65 facilities across North America, including a 100,000-square-foot grocery distribution centre in Richmond, B.C.
Andrew Hammermeister, manager of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, agrees that expansion represents a good move for the industry.
“While this may not have been the original intent or vision of the founders of organic, I think it is still progress, in lieu of a strong local production and delivery system,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Canada’s national standard for organic products, which comes into effect in December, will require all organic food to be certified by a body approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The move is aimed at assuring consumers of the legitimacy of the products they’re buying.
But it still doesn’t deal with the growing problems surrounding imports, international regulations and the belief by some that the industry is compromising its roots.
But some say that’s just a fact of life they’ll have to accept as the industry tries to compete and consumers continue to demand availability of products at low prices that can’t be grown here.
“As soon as you want to reach a broader spectrum of the consumers, you have to cater to their preference and needs,” Dr. Boecker said. “It happens especially at times when growth is so extremely fast. If growth was not as quick or as big as it is now, there would be more time for the consumers to adjust their habits and to change their habits, but that’s usually not the way it works.”
By the numbers
A growing number of Canadians are turning to organic food and fuelling major growth in the industry. Canadian supermarkets sold about $412-million worth of certified organic food in 2006 – a significant number for an industry that has gone from niche to mainstream in recent years.
ORGANIC FOOD SOLD IN CANADIAN SUPERMARKETS
|Packaged, prepared foods:||15%|
|Fruit, vegetables (canned and fresh):||41%|
|Meat, fish, poultry:||1%|
TRISH McALASTER /THE GLOBE AND MAIL
SOURCE: ORGANIC AGRICULTURE CENTRE OF CANADA