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EAP Publication - 104


Organic Farming in Canada

Stuart B. Hill1,2 and Rod J. MacRae2,3
1Department of Entomology, 2Ecological Agriculture Projects
3Department of Renewable Resources
Macdonald College of McGill University
Ste-Anne de Bellevue, QC, Canada H9X 3V9


Hill, S.B. and MacRae, R.J. 199x. Organic farming in Canada. Agr. Ecosyst. Env., 39; 71-84. Although interest in organic farming in Canada has been growing, many obstacles to its development remain. Supply of produce is low and distribution systems are undeveloped. Consumer demand, however, appears to be strong, particularly in urban areas. The federal government and some provincial governments are beginning to examine how their policies and programs impede the transition to sustainable agriculture. Some programs dealing with transition, market development and certification have been developed to help facilitate the evolution of the organic sector. Also, some training programs in organic farming are now available, and research and development projects have started recently in several universities. A much more comprehensive package of institutional supports, however, will be required for these systems to develop in an orderly fashion and to realize their full potential.


The interest in and practice of the various forms of alternative agriculture in Canada are in a state of exponential growth. This is clear from many indicators ranging from the number of farms involved and the growing demand for organic produce, to the expanding interest among students, researchers, politicians and civil servants. Driving forces include the increasing awareness among Canadians of the connections between food and health, between our lifestyle and the degradation of the environment, and of the sad state of the farm economy. Despite this awareness, many barriers remain, and much needs to be done if a smooth transition to a truly sustainable food system is to be achieved in an efficient and just manner.

In this paper, we define sustainable agriculture and place organic farming within a sustainability spectrum, provide a brief historical overview of the negative impacts of conventional agricultural practices, and describe the development of organic farming in Canada. We also describe the present and predicted state of the Canadian organic market place, indicate needed institutional supports (including research and development), and finally identify the key barriers to be overcome for widespread adoption of organic and other more sustainable farming systems.

Organic farming within the sustainability spectrum

Most definitions include both objective and subjective elements. The latter, which may be inserted subconsciously, include biases, judgments and personal agendas that have their roots in psychological distress. Thus, the objectivity of any definition can be limited by the author's knowledge, awareness, vision and level of empowerment.

We believe that this explains the widespread incompleteness and ambiguity that characterize most definitions of alternative farming systems. An approach that we have found useful is to define such farming systems according to their proximity, along a spectrum, to a set of preferred goals.

These should include optimal nourishment, optimal individual and social development, and sustainability. In the following definition we have used the term ecologically sustainable agriculture to encompass farming systems that emphasize the above goals.

Organic farming comprises a range of approaches within the broader sustainable agriculture spectrum. In its most developed form, ecologically sustainable agriculture (including organic farming) is both a philosophy and a system of farming. It is based on a set of values that reflects an awareness of both ecological and social realities, and on a level of empowerment that is sufficient to generate responsible action. Efforts to ensure short-term viability are tested against long-term environmental sustainability, and attention to the uniqueness of every operation is considered in relation to ecological and humanistic imperatives, with an awareness of both local and global implications. It emphasizes benign designs and management procedures that work with natural processes and cycles to conserve all resources (including beneficial soil organisms and natural pest controls), and minimize waste and environmental damage, prevent problems, and promote agroecosystem resilience, self-regulation, evolution, and sustained production for the nourishment and optimal development of all (including rural communities both here and abroad). Special attention is paid to the relationships between soil conditions, food quality and livestock health; and livestock is cared for in the most humane way possible. In addition, organic farmers tend to avoid the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. Instead, they rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, and mineral-bearing rocks to maintain soil fertility and productivity. Insects, weeds and other pests are managed by means of natural, cultural and biological controls. The potential of this approach, however, goes far beyond its present expression, which has largely been limited to the substitution of environmentally benign products and practices. As this new vision of what is ecologically responsible becomes established, significant development can be expected in the science and art of agroecosystem design and management.

In previous analyses, we have shown how the evolutionary process of farm-scale transition to sustainable practices involves three overlapping stages: efficiency, substitution and redesign (ESR). Of the three, redesign, the most important, has received the least attention (Hill, 1985; MacRae et al., 1990b). In the efficiency stage, conventional systems are altered to reduce both consumption of resources and environmental impact, e.g., by banding fertilizers, monitoring pests, and optimal siting and timing of operations. In the substitution phase, finite and environmentally disruptive products are replaced by those that are more environmentally benign, e.g., synthetic nitrogen fertilizers by organic nutrient sources, non-specific pesticides by biocontrol, herbicides by appropriate systems of cultivation. Because neither the efficiency nor the substitution strategies confront the causes of problems, they condemn producers to repeated reliance on externally derived curative solutions and inputs.

In contrast, the redesign stage aims to avoid problems by site and time-specific design and management approaches. The farm is made more ecologically and economically diverse, resource self-reliant and self-regulating. The various approaches to sustainable agriculture, including organic farming, can be arranged along a spectrum using the ESR framework

(Fig. 1). According to our classification, not all approaches to organic farming fall within the redesign category. The challenge for organic farmers worldwide is to build on the positive elements of these approaches. This involves emphasizing at every opportunity both the prevention of problems and the meeting of real needs in sustainable ways, through the appropriate design and management of agroecosystems.

Negative Consequences of Conventional Agriculture

Canada has experienced numerous negative consequences similar to those of most industrialized countries that follow the conventional agricultural model (Hill, 1991; cf. Hodges & Schofield, 1983). Environmental problems, particularly soil and water degradation, have become a major concern since the early 1980s (Senate of Canada, 1984). Soil degradation alone has been conservatively estimated to cost over $2 billion per year (Science Council of Canada, 1986). These concerns have been magnified by Canada's limited supply of high quality agricultural land (less than 1% of the nation's total land area). Loss of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses was first discussed at length in the 1970s and, although rates of loss have declined in the 1980s, they are still significant. Most government attempts to moderate these losses have been unsuccessful, and those programs that have been beneficial have been eroded by the actions of successive governments.

Food and agriculture-related health concerns are being expressed by both farmers and consumers. More and more farmers are regarding pesticides as a threat to health (cf. Wigle et al., 1990); and those who have converted to organic systems have consistently identified personal and family health worries as a major factor in their transition (Hill, 1984; Kramer, 1984; Robinson, 1985, 1986). Numerous surveys of consumers during the past three years have confirmed high levels of concern regarding pesticides and other health-threatening contaminants in foods. Reports of these concerns in the media, in turn, have provoked major government and industry publicity campaigns to alleviate consumer concerns about food safety.

The Canadian farm economy has been suffering for a number of years. Canadian producers have been caught in the same cost-price squeeze that has affected other industrialized nations. Net farm income has been flat, and massive government subsidies have been required to prevent numerous farm failures. Ten thousand farms in the province of Saskatchewan alone were facing foreclosure in 1990 (York, 1990). Financial stresses of this kind are having broad negative effects on both the health of farmers and their families (Haverstock, 1987; Walker and Walker, 1988), and on the vibrancy of rural communities (Pugh, 1987).

A brief history of organic farming in Canada

The Canadian organic agriculture movement emerged in the 1950s, in part inspired by visits to Canada of foreign experts, such as Dr. Einfried Pfeiffer, and through the distribution of literature from Europe, the UK and the USA. The first formal organization, the Canadian Organic Soil Association (later renamed the Land Fellowship), was founded by Christopher Chapman, a film maker who produced two films of direct relevance to organic agriculture, "Understanding the Living Soil" and "A Sense of Humus." Several successful organic farms were established during this period and some important publications appeared. These trends were strengthened in the 1960s, especially as a result of Spencer Cheshire's lecture tours across Canada on behalf of the Land Fellowship. In the 1970s, organic farming organizations were established in six provinces. These held annual conferences, published newsletters and lobbied departments of agriculture. Commercial services and product supply enterprises were established, and the interest in organic gardening grew among urban populations. In 1974, Ecological Agriculture Projects was established at Macdonald University, and it quickly became a key centre for networking and information exchange in Canada. In 1979, the first "establishment" scientist, Dr. Clay Switzer (then Dean of Agriculture at the University of Guelph), toured Canada talking about sustainable agriculture.

The 80s saw the first comprehensive surveys of organic farmers in Canada. Several certification programs were established (there are now 25 private certification agencies involving all provinces except Newfoundland). Governments began funding literature reviews and providing modest research grants for studies on the economic and agronomic viability of organic and other sustainable farming systems. Courses in organic farming were introduced in several colleges and universities. Late in the decade, discussions began regarding regulatory support to control the use of the term organic in the marketplace, and the first major conference on "Research Needs in Sustainable Agriculture" was organized by a University Faculty of Agriculture with funding from the federal Department of Agriculture (Agriculture Canada, 1989). In 1990 the Science Council of Canada initiated a study of sustainable agriculture, and the federal Department of Agriculture issued a policy document identifying sustainability as one of the four pillars upon which it claimed its programs will be based (Agriculture Canada, 1989).

The market place

In a 1988 survey of Canadians, 87% of respondents expressed concern about chemical pesticides and the implications of their use on food safety, wildlife and soil (Anon., 1988). A recent survey by the Grocery Products Manufacturers of Canada (GPMC) identified a core group of 25% of consumers willing to go out of their way to make purchasing decisions based on environmental concerns. Eight out of ten respondents were open to paying more for environmentally safe goods (cited in Strauss, 1990). Surveys of consumer attitudes towards organic foods have been consistent with these findings. A 1988 study found that 25% of respondents living in Canada's eight main urban centres would be willing to buy primarily organic vegetables if they were no more than 25% more expensive than conventional produce; 53% of respondents making at least occasional purchases said that they would be willing to pay 25% more, and 15% would be willing to pay 50% more. Interest in organic foods other than vegetables was lower but still significant. Montreal and Vancouver respondents generally showed the greatest interest in purchasing organic food. A particularly interesting finding of this study was that the most common differentiating sociological characteristic of purchasers was their family status (young families with small children), not their income group (Baseline Market Research, 1988).

A more recent study for l'Union des Producteurs Agricoles in Quebec concluded that 32% of Quebeckers have purchased organic foods. In Montreal 21% of the respondents expressed a willingness to pay a premium of 10% or more for such products (Groupe Conseil Coopers & Lybrand, 1989). Other regional studies have found similar interest in purchasing organic foods. A private study carried out in Quebec by the firm Conseil, Organisation, Gestion en Marketing (CODEM) found that many consumers were willing to pay a premium of up to 30%. Another survey, done by the firm Société de Développement Agro-alimentaire de la Mauricie (SODAM), concluded that 15% of Quebec consumers would be buying organic foods regularly by 1992 (up from 4-5%, or $39 million worth, in 1987) (Thériault, 1988; Vachon, 1988). A study of organic greenhouse tomato production identified a price premium of 20% as the maximum allowable before consumption would start to fall. A price premium of 10% was deemed sufficient for maintaining necessary profitability of these enterprises (Biotope, 1989). A 1988 study of the demand for organic food in the national capital (Ottawa) region concluded that only 7% of respondents were purchasing such products at least occasionally, but that 70% would definitely or might possibly purchase organic foods in the future if they were readily available. The study also found that those who do buy organic foods regularly are willing to pay up to 26% more for them (Taillefer, 1989). Such results are generally consistent with those from other jurisdictions in the USA and Europe (MacRae and Hill, 1990).

Since the early 1980s, many optimistic statements have been made regarding growth in the supply of organic products. One analyst, in a report to the Saskatchewan government, predicted a 665% increase in the organic food market share from 1980 to 1990 (Garven, 1982). However, this level of growth was not realized. More recently, the Union des Producteurs Agricoles projected that over 40% of producers in Quebec will be producing organically within 15 years (Hill, 1989). In 1988 the sale of organic fruits and vegetables at the farm gate in Quebec was estimated at $1.85 million (Hébert, 1989). This was less than 2% of the total market at that time. A 1989 study of the Montreal organic food market found that organic merchants were on average expecting sales (and therefore also supply) to increase by 34% during the next year (Hanisch, 1989). Historically, most of the organic food sold in Quebec has been imported (Thériault, 1988).

Nationally, sales of organic products are estimated to be growing at the more modest rate of 25% per year (Canadian Organic Growers, 1990). If this growth is maintained, organic food sales will reach 2% of Canada's total retail sales by 1998, or over $1 billion. This would translate into a 1400% increase in dollar sales in 10 years (Christianson, 1988). Growth is strongest in vegetables and fruit, and weakest in dairy (Canadian Organic Growers, 1990). Most of the main supermarket chains are considering, or have already established, organic sections in one of more of their outlets, and some mail-order organic retailers have become established. Most organic food, however, continues to be sold through health-food stores or direct markets. All Canadian certification agencies report increased participation in their programs. Between 2,000 (Canadian Organic Growers, 1990) and 4,000 (Hill, 1989) certified and transitional growers are operating in Canada at the present time. About 600 wholesale and retail companies are selling organic products. Imports of organic products still exceed exports. Grains top the list of Canada's organic exports (Canadian Organic Growers, 1990).

Institutional supports

In the past three years, the federal government and all provincial governments have responded to the demand for supports for the development of organic agriculture (Table 1). Supports have included regulation of the use of the term organic (three provinces and the federal government are developing regulations), increased levels of research and development, and the provision of special extension services, and of financial supports for the transition process (two provinces). For many governments, including the federal one, the interest in organic production is driven not primarily by environmental or food quality considerations, but by consumer demand on the one hand and on the other by the perception that Canada has an international production and marketing advantage (because of a belief that the Canadian environment is "cleaner") that cannot be exploited in the absence of standards and regulations consistent with those being developed elsewhere.

Research on agronomic and economic aspects of organic agriculture is being undertaken within most Canadian faculties of agriculture, and at several provincial and federal research facilities. Few of these studies, however, are employing an agroecological paradigm. Consequently their value may ultimately prove to be limited by their overemphasis on direct, linear relationships, short time-frames and their failure to factor in the natural environment (MacRae et al., 1989). Most of the economic studies suffer from the methodological problems that have also plagued agronomic studies of organic systems (cf. Lampkin, 1985; Wagstaff, 1987; Madden and Dobbs, 1990). Only one comprehensive study of farm conversion has been conducted (Patriquin et al., 1986). Although funding agencies have been employing the language of sustainability for several years, few genuine organic research studies have been supported.

A genuine university-level teaching program in ecological agriculture is available only at McGill University's Macdonald College. Training programs for farmers and extension agents are now offered in most provinces, but Quebec has the most comprehensive programs, including some that are offered by private sector organizations. The Québec department of agriculture has also contracted with Ecological Agriculture Projects of Macdonald College to provide, through "Service d'information Agro-Bio," technical information on organic farming to the province's network of agricultural extension agents.

Unfortunately, the use of the term organic continues to generate adverse reactions on the part of some institutional employees. This limits their ability to properly assess the viability of such systems and to propose supportive institutional policy. Some of these issues were addressed at a recent Quebec conference (Conseil d'economie et gestion en agriculture du Quebec, 1990).

Barriers to transition and recommendations for their removal

Much still needs to be done. There remain numerous infrastructural obstacles within the dominant distribution system that are effectively blocking the efficient marketing of organic products (Table 2). Many federal and provincial regulations act as restraints (Canadian Organic Growers, 1990; MacRae et al., 1991; Table 3). Consumer understanding of organic food and farming remains low (Baseline Market Research, 1988; Canadian Organic Growers, 1990). There is evidence that credit agencies are reluctant to finance organic farmers, largely because of their small size vis-a-vis the size of credit agencies' regular clients, and because of the agencies' poor understanding of how organic systems work (Henning et al., 1990, 1991; MacRae et al., 1990a).

A full package of institutional supports that build on recent developments is required to ensure the healthy evolution of the Canadian organic sector. This should include funding for training programs for farmers, and for the retraining of extension agents and scientists; removal of barriers that prevent organic farmers from participating fully in government programs; administrative and financial supports for farmer-researcher participatory, long-term research; promotion and protection of certified organic standards by government regulations; consumer access to full information on resource and environment implications for all salable products (to permit fully informed choice in the market place); the provision of support to existing resource centres, and the establishment of new ones in each region; and support for the development of appropriate courses and degree programs in universities and colleges, including the establishment of chairs of organic, ecological or sustainable farming.

Concluding remarks

The further evolution of organic farming in Canada will be as dependent on events and attitudes outside of agriculture as within the profession. General environmental concerns, disillusionment with establishment views, and a growing understanding of ecological and psychosocial realities are driving the growing interest in alternative approaches in both agriculture and health (Hill, 1991). There is also a growing awareness of the connections between these fields, and of the power of individuals and minority groups within society to bring about significant change. Perhaps the greatest danger that we presently face in Canada is the loss of the very resources that are required for the support and development of an organic agriculture: an extensive crop and livestock gene pool, the complex of organisms needed to carry out the maintenance functions of agroecosystems, and the farmers and researchers who have the competence to work with such systems. The further that these resources are allowed to erode, the more difficult it will be to achieve our goals of optimal nourishment, optimal individual and social development and environmental and economic sustainability.


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