The question has been asked – where is the organic industry of Atlantic Canada headed? – in particular by stakeholders pining for a formal plan. At Charlottetown’s ACORN (Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network) Conference in late November of 2018, it was put more directly.
A series of roundtables considered where growers wanted to see their industry in five years time (2023) and how they were going to get there. While there were a great many tables, surrounded by the talented denizens of a niche industry, one conversation on Wednesday afternoon, November 28, serves as a handy microcosm.
At the moment organic products account for just 2.6 per cent of mainstream retail sales in Canada, amounting to $4.4 billion annually. In order to grow this percentage, at least in the Atlantic region, the roundtable identified “organic literacy” as the most powerful mechanism. The issue, they agreed, is that the majority of consumers don’t understand what the organic certification stands for, or cannot distinguish it from meaningless labels like “natural.”
“Since it can be complicated to explain what organic means, maybe people just need to know three important points,” said Jordan MacPhee, an organic grower in Grand Tracadie, Prince Edward Island. “Knowing the difference between organic and synthetic sprays, how crop rotation works, that our compost isn’t loaded with antibiotics. We need to support label literacy so that customers understand ‘natural’ is a meaningless term.”
This point was driven home by Emilie McBride of New Brunswick, who volunteered with ACORN at a wellness expo in Moncton two years back, asking passersby about their understanding of organics.
“I was astounded,” she said. “People thought organic meant lower sugar content.”
In order to achieve this literacy among the majority of Atlantic Canadians, and to combat the greenwashing of “natural” products, the roundtable identified the need for more organic ambassadors (people who’ve been trained to adequately explain organics to consumers at events and the like), an organic elevator pitch, so growers themselves can simplify the importance of their work and accompanying certification, and neatly packaged materials made widely available for the consuming public, which, to some extent, have already been assembled by ACORN.
Another of the roundtable’s tools for industry expansion was to tap into the full range of consumer priorities. It was reasoned among the sitting stakeholders that people buying their products were doing so for very specific reasons, like their opposition to the use of chemical pesticides. The industry should therefore showcase the other benefits of organic certification.
Among these is health and safety, an underappreciated aspect of the organic method. Because the organic certification comes with thorough record keeping and traceability, issues with organic products can be tracked back to the exact farm from which they emanated, unlike none organic issues which instead trigger mass recalls. As well the use of strictly organic additives to crop and soil alike means that residues on organic products are much sparser and safer. The water used on organic farms is also held to a higher standard.
The environmental benefits of organics range beyond the simple banning of chemical pesticides as well, which may unveil still more customer priorities. Among these are benefits to biodiversity brought about by hedgerows, a lack of monocultures, and the promotion of soil ecology with gentler tilling methods. This last converts the soil into a carbon sink which, over time, combats climate change.
“Organics, leading the way in fighting climate change,” it was suggested.
In these ways the roundtable wanted consumers to feel as though they had a stake in the organic movement by 2023, purchasing organics with as much virtue as they might avoid single-use plastics.
Neither Here Nor There
A final lever for organic expansion identified at the roundtable was the presence of their products in unusual places, away from the choir of organic markets. School and hospital cafeterias were suggested as organic showcases, replacing the burgers, fries and pizzas which define such outlets, places where “good food” should be of the highest priority.
“If students aged 9 or 10 start eating organics now, and get to 14 and 15 by 2023, that’s quite a jump in their buying power,” said Danny Bruce of Bruce Family Farm, Nova Scotia.
He also suggested that organics, and the people who grow them, need to plant themselves at events where people have money to spend, and not just farmer’s markets. He suggested boat shows, even the casino, where people can put the higher price of organics into perspective.
“One of the hurdles we face is that people don’t think they have money to spend on good food,” he said. “They have money for a boat, vacation, two cars and they have their kids in every sport there is, and they’ve got designer jeans some of them.”
The group suggested that the price of organics could be more easily justified with education in unexpected places, and that strategies for financially conscious consumers, such as doing “half organic” grocery runs, could be thus publicized.
The Bigger Picture
This was but one table of many, in one session of many, amid a conference of forward-thinkers. Its sessions were organized into “schools” to service experienced and novice growers alike, led by noteworthy presenters like Joel Salatin, Sarah Flack, Gillian Flies and Brent Preston. Because the conference was hosted on Prince Edward Island, which is expensive to visit and houses a smaller portion of the industry, attendance was down 15 per cent from last year. Regardless, all three Maritime provinces were represented equally among the delegates, and accounted for 66 per cent of all who attended, with the remaining third hailing from Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and the United States.
“I’m really excited about the work that we are doing to create a strategic plan for the Atlantic organic sector,” said ACORN’s executive director Janice Melanson, an effort the aforementioned roundtables contributed to. “We will have some big news to announce in the new year about what ACORN will be working on over the next 18 months to address these issues.”
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.