An Appetite for All-Natural Foods: Province-wide Organic Sector Growth in Canada

Molly Shaw

For several years consumer reports have shown a trend in the grocery aisle. More shoppers are seeking out organic, locally-grown, all-natural food and products. Fueled by heightened consumer awareness, organic demand and production in Canada and abroad continues to gain steam and widespread support.

In Canada, the organic market is worth more than $4 billion per year and more than 58% of Canadians purchase organic products every week, mainly fresh fruits and vegetables. Families are seeing the value in putting wholesome foods on the table with 62% of buyers being families with children under two years old.

Per province, British Columbia shows the strongest organic support with 66% of British Columbians buying organic groceries weekly. Saskatchewan has the most organic operations with 97% related to field crops.

National Organic Week Canada

The sector is growing so rapidly in Canada that the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA), Canadian Organic Growers (COG) and the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) organized to launch National Organic Week six years ago.

Every September, National Organic Week is the largest province-wide celebration of organic food, farming and products and helps to build awareness about what the sector has to offer across the country. Weeklong events include farm tours and open houses, wine tasting, food fairs, in-store educational sessions, restaurant specials with organic feature menus and much more.

Organic Week Canada

(Photo courtesy National Organic Week)

In 2015, the event celebrated some major milestones in Canada’s organic history, including an equivalency agreement with Japan and the pending release of updated national organic standards.

“Organics are now available in every province and territory and there are 900,000 hectares of organic products being grown in Canada,” says Rochelle Eisen, president of COG in a Globe and Mail article on COTA and National Organic Week.

Strong organic sector support and job growth

Matthew Holmes, executive director of COTA, also quoted in the Globe and Mail report, says there is much to celebrate. “The 2015 Organic Week is marked not only by the highest consumer sales ever [more than $4 billion annually in Canada] but also the most significant level of government support we’ve seen, from federal investment in the organic grain sector to provincial initiatives supporting farmers to transition to organic. We are excited to celebrate all the Canadian organic sector has achieved.”

Not only are organic products becoming increasingly attractive to consumers, careers in organic farming are also growing. More young people are getting involved in organic farming in Canada and making it a lasting career path. “12% of organic farmers in Canada are under the age of 35 and, compared to the mainstream sector, there are 5 to 10% more females engaged in organic farming,” adds Eisen.

Figures show strong job growth in the organic sector. Although organic farms only represent 1.8% of farms in Canada, the organic sector employs 3.75 percent of the total farm workforce.

Field-to-table traceability

Many organic farms look similar to their conventional counterparts; it’s what is not found on an organic farm that makes the difference — no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fumigants. “This is important in an organic diet, because not only are you not ingesting these chemicals, but you’re not putting them into the environment,” says Cynthia Beretta of Ontario-based Beretta Farms, a partner a supplier to Whole Foods, many farmers markets and area restaurants.

The organic certification process in Canada provides reliable field-to-table traceability and helps assure consumers of the integrity of their organic purchase. “Organic certification lets consumers know that every step along the supply chain is protected and maintained the organic integrity that begins at the farm,” says Helen Long, president of the Canadian Health Food Association. “In Canada, this system is overseen by government organic standards and regulations, and applies to both domestic and imported products.”

In order to be certified organic, there are certain criteria farms must meet. In terms of livestock, animals must be raised without growth hormones, antibiotics or GMO products. Animals must also have access to living conditions appropriate to their behavioral requirements. “The biggest thing is that they have access to outside year-round,” says Beretta.

In addition, all organic farmers in Canada need third-party certification and are subject to no-notice audits. The organic standard applies to the complete cycle, from when the animal was born and raised to when it was butchered and processed. “All those elements have to follow organic regulations,” adds Beretta.

Federal support to address organic production gap

While demand continues to climb, the pressure is on existing organic farmers like Beretta with certified organic operations in Canada representing a small portion of all farms. The federal government is beginning to address the need for more organic farms in order to close this production gap.

Several federal funding measures have helped address the production gap and market stability, including a $785,660 AgriMarketing Program investment overseen by COTA. According to the Globe and Mail, the program will include technical assessments of new and emerging markets for government and industry and will enable COTA to lead outgoing missions to key markets in Europe, the United States, Asia and Latin America. A domestic component will focus on increasing awareness and support for Canadian organic options at home.

With global demand for organic products, there is a need for a strong supply chain of organic ingredients and inputs, such as grain from Canada’s extensive western prairies. Large players such as Nature’s Path, Grain Millers and Clif Bar have worked to put funding into a program that increases the supply of organic ingredients.

A Western Diversification Program with $1.2 million will also contribute to the Prairie Organic Grain Initiative (POGI) to enhance organic grain and field crop growers’ production, quality and profitability, as well as support participation in trade shows and international missions. POGI also works with organic producers to increase production quality and yields through organic farming best practices such as weed management, soil fertility and crop rotations.

Now that consumers are more discerning about what goes on their plate — and what is not — the organics sector continues to see robust growth. This growth presents both opportunity and ongoing challenges for established and new producers looking to meet the field-to-table demand for all-natural food and organic products.