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Organic Food and Farming in Canada

Assembled by EAP Staff, March 1997

Canada's organic food and farming sector is not as advanced as the USA and several European nations. Following a spurt of interest in the late 1980s, government research and support of this sector has fallen off. The industry has continued to expand, but at modest rates. Few recent studies have documented the current state of the Canadian industry. The number of certified growers is thought to be in the 1500-2000 range. For every 1 certified grower, there may be 10 who are near organic or non-certified organic producers. The Canadian organic food market is estimated at about 1% of the total retail food market.

We have assembled or summarized in this section some of the most interesting Canadian reports of the past decade.


General summaries and surveys of organic food and farming

An Overview of the Definition, Certification, Verification and Control of Organic and Natural Foods in Canada and With Our Main Trading Partners

EAP report on Organic Farming in Canada. 1992.

Summary of "Economics of organic farming in Canada".

Organic Farmers in Québec: Results of a survey

Significant References:

A needs assessment study of the non - chemical crop production industry

A descriptive analysis of Saskatchewan organic producers.

Summary of "La mise en marché des produits biologiques au Québec"


Canadian markets

Summary of "The market for organic foods : A Canada wide survey 1990"

The consumer's perspective on organic food

Summary of "Canadian natural and organic food report"

Summary of "A study of potential market niches for Canadian organic producers".


Micro - economic studies

Burgoyne, D research on the economics of organic milk production

The economics of conversion to organic agriculture : A rotational plan

Summary of "Sustainable agriculture and regional rural processing centres".

Summary of "Viability of organic farm practice : Second year annual report"


Macro - economic issues

Sustainability and food self-reliance in Canada

Exerpted from: Toronto Food Policy Council. 1994. Health, Wealth and the Environment: the impact of the CUSTA, NAFTA and GATT on Canadian food security. Toronto Food Policy Council, Toronto. Pp. 20-24.

"Although the Science Council of Canada raised the issue of food self-reliance as part of a sustainable agricultural system as an important policy question in the late 70s (Science Council of Canada, 1979), little policy work has been done. In this section, we briefly examine the ecological and economic foundations for self-reliance and review what limited evidence exists of the success of this approach.

"Self-reliance in socio-economic systems has its analogue in natural systems. As a general rule of natural process, energy (and subsequent action) are captured or expended as close to the point of origin as possible." (Meeker-Lowry, 1988:167). The relationship between socio-economic self-reliance and ecological principles is further elaborated on in Table 2. Redesign strategies, therefore, are based on the creation of self-reliance and the trading of surpluses once domestic needs have been met.

Regarding the conceptual economic foundations of self-reliance, Daly and Cobb (1989) have argued that in classical comparative advantage theory, the greater the degree of self-sufficiency of trading units, the greater control each unit has over the terms of trade and the greater the likelihood of benefits accruing to all units. This holds provided that there is a degree of confidence and mutual concern among the members of a community or political system that permits some degree of specialization so that a wide range of goods and services can be provided (but not at the cost of community needs and community control as happens under our current system). They argue forcefully that this mutual concern can not realistic exist beyond national borders, and is, in fact, more likely to exist at a regional (or sub-national) level. "Hence, basic self-sufficiency in agricultural production should normally be a goal of national policy" (Daly and Cobb, 1989:269). Given this foundation, what could self-reliance look like in Canada?

Table 2

A comparison of the relationships between ecological

principles, socio-economic self-reliance, and conventional trade

(adapted from Meeker-Lowry, 1988; Daly and Cobb, 1989; Kneen, 1989)


(from Table 1)



Conventional trade
1. Survival Better opportunity to control access to basic resources and needs Relies more on wants for success than on needs
2. Cyclical relations Resources consumed closer to source; better opportunity to maximize cycling Linear relations dominate; few opportunities for recycling
3. Limits Rooted in place and an understanding of local limits Assumes all "places" and their limits are identical
4. Complexity, resilience, functional diversity Requires a diverse range of goods and services to meet local needs Creates high degree of homogeneity which is antithetical to these concepts
5. Thresholds Indicators easier to identify because information flows internally Easier to miss indicators because linearity reduces feedback opportunities
6. Self-maintenance Less dependence on external sources for basic needs System functions on boom and bust cycles: dependence on external sources


Presently, Canada has two major self-reliance problems on a national scale: overproduction of, and excessive economic and export dependence on, Prairie cereals, and excessive reliance on imports of horticultural crops to meet domestic demand. Both the ecological degradation associated with Prairie cereal culture, and the dependence of Prairie farmers on world grain prices, are well documented (16). When the grain trade is removed from calculations, Canada is a net importer of agricultural products. Until just after World War II, Canada was self-sufficient in basic fruits (plums, peaches, apricots, strawberries, pears), but by 1980, 28-57% of these five fruits were imported (Warnock, 1984). By 1987, Canada was only 71% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables (17), and 45% in all fruits and berries (Statistics Canada, 1988). These national figures, however, hide regional differences. For example, Saskatchewan is estimated to be supplying only 10 -15% of its vegetable requirements (Canadian Organic Producers' Marketing Cooperative, 1984; Waterer, 1993). Ontario in 1990 had a $1.9 billion international deficit in agricultural trade, over one quarter of this in horticultural products (OMAF, 1991). Some of the deficit in horticultural products is due to the seasonality of the Canadian growing season, but a significant percentage of the crops that comprise this deficit could be produced and stored here if it were a priority of domestic agricultural policy (Warnock, 1984; Kneen, 1992).

There have been 5 significant studies addressing the potential for self-reliance in Canada (Warkentin, 1976; Warkentin and Gertler, 1977; Warnock, 1982; Harnapp, 1988; Van Bers, 1991). Warkentin (1976) concluded, following a largely qualitative inquiry, that Canada would need to make substantial changes to land use to ensure a sustainable agriculture scenario, but would always require significant imports of fruits and vegetables. This study did not address, in any detailed fashion, associated changes to the Canadian diet and food demand. The Warkentin and Gertler (1977) drew similar conclusions, particularly regarding the need for land reallocations. A particularly significant element, in their view, was the need for a decline in dairying in Eastern Canada (and hence, a decline in demand for dairy products). Warnock (1982), in his study of self-reliance in British Columbia, concluded that maintaining the level of self-sufficiency at 47% would require a 40-60% increase in production to the year 2000. This would still leave the province far short of its desired (at that time) ultimate objective of 65% self-sufficiency. In particular, the land base for horticultural production was not being sustained. Harnapp (1988) drew some conclusions about self-reliance in Ontario. Ontario would need over 9 million acres of land in food (as opposed to non-food crop production to be self-sufficient at present consumption levels (at that time under 9 million acres were in crop land, and some of that in non-food crops). He concluded that a major decline in red meat consumption would, however, dramatically decrease land needs. He also determined that meeting food needs in the winter would be assisted by the use of greenhouses, indoor gardening, canning, freezing and drying.

The most comprehensive Canadian work, to date, has been carried out by Van Bers (1991). She examined, in a dynamic fashion, changes in Canadian demographics to the year 2031, desirable health promoting changes in the Canadian diet, and sustainable food production systems. Her assessment revealed self-reliance potentials both nationally and regionally (Table 3). Overall, Canada could be exporting grains, pulses, oilseeds and potatoes. Due to changing dietary patterns, the domestic needs for animal products could be met, but some importation of fodder crops would be required (18). Deficits would still exist for vegetables, fruits, and apples (19).

Table 3

Land supply/demand ratios for Canada and the 5 regions in 2031

for the production of food and animal feed

(Van Bers, 1991; Van Bers and Robinson, 1993)

BC Prairies Ontario Quebec Atlantic Canada
Grains 0.87 86.17 3.39 1.75 0.97 17.03
Oilseeds 0.42 21.39 1.30 0.02 0.02 4.29
Pulses ~ 6.67 0.66 0.03 0.01 1.42
Vegetables 0.24 0.79 0.75 0.57 0.45 0.63
Potatoes 0.21 2.75 0.64 0.97 8.56 1.73

(not apples)

0.23 0.01 0.16 0.07 0.49 0.15
Apples 0.92 0.01 0.50 0.53 0.84 0.50
Forage/hay 0.69 0.87 4.15 5.24 3.33 1.17
Fodder 0.16 0.87 0.23 0.16 0.05 0.32
NB. A ratio of 1 means total self-sufficiency in land to produce the particular food for the population. Forage/hay and Fodder estimates provide some indication of our ability to be self-reliant in animal products.

Some European studies are also informative for the Canadian situation. In the 1970s, Norway set out to redesign its food and agriculture system around both self-reliance and the optimal Norwegian diet (20). They attempted to increase domestic food self-reliance from 39% of total calories to 52% by 1990 (Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture, 1975). They used such policy tools as: production and consumer subsidies; market promotion; consumer education; food labelling; and penalties for unhealthy food (Ringen, 1977). By 1988, they had reached 50% self-reliance, whole grain consumption had increased, as had quality of local production of both grains and potatoes. Greater improvements were limited by the absence of new organizational structures to properly implement these goals and by a lack of human and financial resources (Milio, 1988). Finland has been more successful than Norway. The country has been self-sufficient in all basic foodstuffs, except fruits and vegetables, for many years. Current research and policy efforts focus on the horticultural sector, with a particular emphasis on storage, and agricultural inputs (Kettunen, 1986).

These studies, though limited in number and sometimes in concept, suggest that a similar, if not higher degree of self-reliance is attainable in Canada. The financial opportunities and hardships, however, remain unknown. As discussed above, conventional economic analyses are unsuited to this kind of macroeconomic assessment. Microeconomic studies of farms practising sustainable agriculture are largely favourable, suggesting that most farmers will do as well, if not better, financially as compared to finances under conventional systems (National Academy of Sciences, 1989; Lampkin, 1990; MacRae, 1991; Gimby et al., 1992; Sholubi and Stonehouse, 1994). The financial implications on a regional level, especially the integration of sustainable production systems with local buying and selling, have been poorly examined (Lasley et al., 1993). Lockeretz (1989) attempted to draw some regional conclusions from microeconomic farm studies. His data tentatively suggest that a region might suffer financial difficulties in the early stages of large scale transition of farms to sustainable agriculture, but that the long-term financial benefits would be greater than the status quo. Those few studies attempting to assess the macroeconomic implications of widespread adoption of sustainable agriculture have been methodologically controversial, even within the neoclassical paradigm (Youngberg and Buttel, 1984; Lockeretz, 1989; Madden and Dobbs, 1990). They do suggest significant decline in exports (Langley et al., 1983), but have also predicted higher net farm incomes and lower government subsidy payments (Oelhaf, 1978; Langley et al., 1983; Vogtmann, 1984; Havlicek and Edwards, 1989). Average food price increases have been estimated at from 1% (Oelhaf, 1978) to 99% (Langley et al., 1983). Clearly, there are interesting potentials that must be more fully explored."


Canadian Organic Producers Marketing Cooperative. 1984. Testimony to the Royal commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada. Saskatoon, SK.

Daly, H.E. and Cobb, J.B. 1989. For the Common Good. Beacon Press, Boston.

Gimby, M. et al., 1992. Viability of organic farming. Saskatchewan Research Council, Saskatoon, SK.

Harnapp, V. 1988. Ontario: food self-sufficiency or food dependency? Presentation to the International Conference on Sustainable Agriculture, Columbus, OH. Sept.

Havlicek, J. and Edwards, C.A. 1989. The potential for lower input sustainable agriculture for increasing farm profits. Depts. of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Ohio State U., Columbus.

Kettunen, L. 1986. Self-sufficiency of agriculture in Finland in 1970-83. J. Agric. Sci. Finland 58(4):143-150.

Kneen, B. 1989. From Land to Mouth: understanding the food system. NC Press, Toronto.

Kneen, B. 1992. Feeding the family, trading the leftovers. The Ram's Horn 91:1-4.

Lampkin, N. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, Ipswich, UK.

Langley, J., Olson, K. and Heady, E.O. 1983. The macro implications of a complete transformation of U.S. agriculture to organic farming practices. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 10:323-333.

Lasley, P. Holmberg, E. and Bultena, G. 1993. Is sustainable agriculture an elixir for rural communities? American J. Alternative Agriculture 8:133-139.

Lockeretz, W. 1989. Comparative local economic benefits of conventional and alternative cropping systems. American J. Alternative Agriculture 4:75-83.

MacRae, R.J. 1991. Strategies to overcome institutional barriers to the transition from conventional to sustainable agriculture in Canada: the role of government, research institutions and agribusiness. Ph.D. Dissertation, McGill U., Montreal.

Madden, J.P. and Dobbs, T.L. 1990. The role of economics in achieving low-input farming systems. In: C.A. Edwards, R. Lal, P. Madden, R.H. Miller and G. House (eds.). Sustainable Agriculture Systems. Soil and Water Conservation Society, Ankeny, IA. Pp. 459-477.

Meeker-Lowry, S. 1988. Economics as if the Earth Really Mattered. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia.

Milio, N. 1988. An analysis of the Implementation of Norwegian Nutrition Policy, 1981-87. report prepared for the World Health Organization 1990 Conference on Food and Nutrition Policy. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

National Academy of Sciences. 1989. Alternative Agriculture. National Academy Press, Washington.

Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture. 1975. On Norwegian Nutrition and Food Policy. Report #32 to the Storting, Oslo.

Oelhaf, R. 1978. Organic Agriculture: economic and ecological comparisons with conventional methods. Allanheld, Osman, Montclair, NJ.

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. 1991. Ontario Agricultural Statistics: 1990. Publication #20.

Ringen, K. 1977. The Norwegian food and nutritional policy. American J. Public Health 67:550-551.

Science Council of Canada. 1979. Canadian Food and Agriculture: sustainability and self-reliance. Science Council of Canada, Ottawa.

Sholubi, Y.O. and Stonehouse, D.P. 1994. Report to Farmers Cooperating in "Economic Analysis of Organic Dairy Farming in Ontario" Department of Agricultural Economics and Business, University of Guelph. Guelph, ON.

Statistics Canada. 1988b. 1987 Apparent Per Capita Food Consumption in Canada. Part I. Catalogue #32-229. Supply and Services, Ottawa.

Van Bers, C. 1991. Sustainable Agriculture in Canada: a scenario of the future. M.A. Thesis, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON.

Van Bers, C. and Robinson, J. 1993. Farming in 2031: a scenario of sustainable agriculture in Canada. J. Sustainable Agriculture 4:41-65.

Vogtmann, H. 1984. Organic farming practices in Europe. In: D.M. Dral (ed.). Organic Farming: current technology and its role in a sustainable agriculture. ASA Special Publication 346. ASA/CSSA/SSSA, Madison, WI. Pp. 19-36.

Warkentin, B.P. 1976. Agriculture, food and renewable resources in a Conserver Society. Conserver Society Project Vol. 2, Study 3. GAMMA, Montreal.

Warkentin, B.P. and Gertler, M. 1977. Canadian Agriculture in the Year 2001: scenarios for a resource-efficient agriculture and an eco-agriculture. Unpublished report submitted to the Science Council of Canada. Macdonald Stewart Institute of Agriculture, Ste-Anne de Bellevue, QC.

Warnock, J.W. 1982. Reliance on Food Inputs: an analysis of the short and long-term prospects for continued food imports to B.C. Peace Valley Environmental Association, Dawson Creek, B.C.

Warnock, J.W. 1984. Canadian grain and the industrial food system. Presentation to Learned Societies Conference, Guelph, ON. 10 June.

Waterer, D. 1993. Production of vegetable crops in Saskatchewan. Summary of presentation to the CSA "Quick Start" Workshop, Fort Qu'Appelle, SK. November 13, 1993.

Youngberg, I.G. and Buttel, F.H. 1984. U.S. agricultural policy and alternative farming systems: politics and prospects. In: S.S. Batie and J.P. Marshall (eds.). Restructuring policy for Agriculture. Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg. Pp. 44-66.


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