Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture is defined as the sustainable cultivation of land for food production that nourishes soil life, nurtures animals in their natural environment and feeds them according to their physiology. It is a holistic philosophy that recognizes and emphasizes the social and ethical aspects of food production, not forsaking either for profit, where the farmer never battles against nature but rather incorporates the laws of nature into the production of food, be it ANIMAL, GRAIN, FRUIT or VEGETABLE.

Generally, organic production prohibits the use of synthetic PESTICIDES, FERTILIZERS, soil-less cultures, GENETICALLY MODIFIED substances, growth hormones, antibiotics, artificial preservatives and intensive livestock production. It mandates proper crop rotations, green manures, long-term soil fertility, proper care of water resources and due consideration of natural animal behaviours.

Developments

Organic farming first emerged in Canada in the 1950s. It saw its origins in European countries in the mid 1920s and was first advocated by such luminaries as Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner and later by his colleague Einfried Pfeiffer, who came to Canada to lecture about biodynamic agriculture. By the 1970s, organic organizations were established in six provinces, disseminating information, lobbying governments and meeting annually to promote organic agriculture. Certification programs were set up in the 1980s and government promotion of the sector expanded but funding was, and still is, limited.

Through the efforts of many provincial and Canadian organic associations concerned with the reckless use of the label "organic" on products that were not grown with any adherence to organic farming principles, the Organic Products Regulations were made law in June 2009. The Canadian Organic Standards became mandatory for anyone selling products labelled organic. Organic farms must be inspected annually by an accredited organic certification body and required records can trace every certified organic product back to the farm on which it was produced.

There are more than 3700 certified organic farms in Canada and while much progress and expansion has occurred into the 21st century, it is a spectrum of agriculture that can find itself in conflict with non organic agriculture; vested interest by corporate AGRIBUSINESS effectively influences government funding, policy and research to the detriment of organic farmers.

Organic Farms and Production

Organic farms are found in every province in Canada producing fruits, vegetables, hay, crops (wheat, oats, barley, flaxseed, lentils, etc.), animal and animal products, MAPLE PRODUCTS and herbs. More than half of all certified farms are found in Western Canada with Saskatchewan having more than any other province, with more than 1000. Quebec has around 950 farms, Ontario 675, British Columbia 470, Alberta 290, Manitoba 170, the Maritime Provinces 130, and Newfoundland and Labrador one. British Columbia, Quebec and Atlantic Canada largely produce fruits, vegetables and GREENHOUSE products, the prairie provinces and Ontario mainly grain crops and to a smaller extent, livestock and livestock products. Quebec, notably, is the largest producer of certified maple products.

Certified organic farms make up only 1.8% of all the farms in Canada and while generally smaller than non organic farms, they vary widely from a few acres to several thousand. Because organic agriculture does not permit synthetic fertilizers and sprays in its crop production, a greater emphasis is placed on crop rotation, time of seeding and green manures to control WEEDS, INSECTS and DISEASE, and to maximize production.

Crop rotation breaks up disease and insect cycles. While non organic farmers can take advantage of an early spring and simply spray weeds for control, organic farmers often delay seeding, allowing weeds to grow that can then be cultivated and killed prior to seeding the spring crop. Increasing seeding rates can provide competition for weed control and the extra leafy canopy shades weeds and stunts their growth. Green manure is a FORAGE CROP grown for part of the growing season and ploughed back into the soil so the nitrogen fixed by these crops is returned to the soil as a fertilizer for the next growing season.

Organic livestock husbandry also requires greater attention to animal health because, while antibiotics are not prohibited for herd health, treated animals may not be sold as certified organic. Synthetic insecticides are prohibited but pests and DISEASE can be controlled through proper herd selection and with organic products such as diatomaceous earth, which is made of the fossilized remains of diatoms of single-celled algae and is rich in silica. Pasture and pen stocking rates also significantly improve the viability of organic livestock production. To be successful in organic animal production, farmers choose animal breeds suited to the environment, taking into consideration the possibility of cold winters and hot summers across the prairies. Cross-bred herds are more successfully managed than pure-bred animals because the cross-bred animal is generally hardy, more resistant to disease and parasites, with greater vigour.

Pasture and pen stocking rates must be in numbers that can be supported by the size of the farm because artificial fertilizers that are very effective at increasing grass and hay production rates cannot be used. While conventional livestock producers have good access to off-farm feed production, organic producers do not, simply because of the small number of organic farms, so they should rely on their own farm to produce their feed. Organic agriculture does see manure as a resource, but also recognizes that too much can be a pollutant; when the farm only grows livestock on acres that it can naturally support, it can effectively use the manure that it produces. As farms grow in size and particularly if they are spread out over more than a few kilometres, the cost of moving the manure from pen to field is high.

Organic vegetable and fruit production relies on compost for soil fertility and sustainability and no chemicals are allowed on food products to control disease and pests. Natural predator insects are fostered in the organic garden and companion planting, inter-planting different fruits or vegetables, discourages problem insects. Mulch is seen as the corner stone to successful organic gardening; it controls weeds, conserves moisture, increases soil fertility and prevents soil compaction.

Organic Sales

It is generally accepted that yields on Canadian organic farms will be anywhere from 75% to 90% of non organic farms but more often than not, certified organic products will command a price premium; statistics show that consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products. Consumers expect that organic food is safer and healthier but as with any food product, it is not immune from post-production contamination. Organic sales have steadily increased by more than 100% for some foods but overall organic sales still constitute less than 2% of grocery sales in Canada.

Top selling organic foods include vegetables, with bagged leaf products leading demand, beverages, and fresh fruit, with bananas and apples accounting for almost 50% of all fruits sold. Quebec leads the country in organic MILK sales with Ontario and British Columbia supplying the rest; production has more than quadrupled between 2000/2001 (10.7 million litres) and 2005/2006 (40.8 million litres), and it has more than doubled since 2006. About 70 to 80% of organic products in Canada are imported, primarily from the United States. Canadian organic exports mostly consist of grains that are sold to the European Union.

Challenges

Organic farming in Canada faces several challenges. Both organic and non-organic farmers are concerned because farmland is being bought by corporate interests or leasing companies who then hire someone to farm the land, displacing farmers from the land.

While Canada has established the Organic Products Regulations law, it only applies to certified organic products traded across provincial and international borders. Because the majority of the provinces have not ratified the national regulations (except for British Columbia, Manitoba and Québec), products can be labelled and sold as organic within the provinces, even if they are not certified organic.

Among the concerns facing organic farming is the competition between organic food products and those labelled as "natural," a vague and unregulated market that confuses consumers; anyone can sell "natural" products, whether or not those products were grown under the tenets of organic agriculture and because "natural" producers are not burdened with the same standards of farming that organic farmers are, they can sell their products much more cheaply.

Organic livestock products face real challenges; there is virtually no accessible market for organic livestock products, particularly in Western Canada. Most of the organic cattle markets accessible to Canadian producers are in the United States and the bureaucracy of cross border sales makes those markets a risky venture for most organic livestock producers.

As the popularity of organic food products has grown, there have been and will be more competing interests wanting to play a role in establishing and interpreting standards. Some critics suggest that agribusiness selling synthetic inputs to non-organic farmers have influenced tougher standards to discourage entry into organic agriculture, thus protecting their interests. Other critics assert that retailers of organic products want to lower standards so that more products can be labelled and sold as "organic." Demand for inexpensive food is inconsistent with the tenets of organic farming, which encourages smaller farm size, non-intensive production practices and an adequate return on investment. Those who support organic farming insist that consumers must be prepared to pay a premium for organic products for organic farms to survive.

Demand for organic foods should grow as consumers become more and more health conscious and governments in Canada are continually pressured to fund escalating health-care needs. Organic farming, which seeks to understand the limits of living organisms, is also an important resource for the future of a healthy planet.