Food In Canada


The evolution of organics

A growing number of consumers in Canada continue to support organic food and beverages

The second annual Hall of Legends recognizing the significant contributions of individuals to the American natural products industry saw Canadian organic food manufacturer Arran Stephens grace the stage with his wife, Ratana.

The founders of Nature’s Path summed up the growth of organics succinctly in a ceremony at the 2013 Natural Products Expo West in the Anaheim Convention Center in March. “What began as a tiny seed found fertile ground and became a movement,” noted Arran Stephens, who started Nature’s Path Foods Inc. in 1985.

Indeed, the pioneering brand has seen organics move into the mainstream, with today’s shopper able to find certified organic products at most grocery, drug, club or mass merchandisers. From whole foods to pre-packaged products, there’s now usually an organic version. And regardless of the controversies surrounding organics, the sector has broad-scale support from Canadians, and that isn’t about to change any time soon.

Growing and changing

An organic audit from the Canadian Organic Trade Association (COTA) shows that Canada’s organic market grew to $3.7 billion in 2012. Comparing the new data with two other audits conducted in 2006 and 2008, there was nearly a tripling of organic food and beverage sales in mainstream retail, from $586 million in 2006 to $1.4 million in 2012. National highlights released in April show fruit and vegetables capturing the lion’s share of sales, with 40 per cent of the total. That was followed by beverages (16 per cent), dairy and eggs (15 per cent), bread and ready-to-eat cereals (12 per cent), packaged and prepared foods (eight per cent), condiments and snack foods (four per cent each) and meat, fish and poultry (one per cent).

Shauna MacKinnon, Projects & Development manager at COTA, says the new report is a first of its kind for the membership-based trade organization, and represents the most comprehensive study of Canada’s organic marketplace to date. A detailed national market and consumer analysis will be available in September.

One surprise finding was that the typical buyer of organic groceries has changed. “Canadians indicating they were of non-Caucasian ethnicity were one of the highest buying groups,” MacKinnon says. In addition, families with young children continue to be strong supporters. But now consumers between the ages of 35 and 44 are the majority of shoppers, indicating, says MacKinnon, that “people who have started buying at [an earlier] stage in their life have continued buying.” According to the COTA report, Canadians choose organic foods in line with their broader social, health and environmental values.

Last September a report on organics from Stanford University drew headlines and controversy, as researchers concluded, after looking at several studies, that organic foods offered no extra health benefits compared to conventional foods. But the findings probably did little to change consumer attitudes. Amy June Sousa of the Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm in Washington State, says an organic label does not lead consumers to automatically assume the product is nutritionally healthier. In fact, she says, “the link between organic and good-for-you has weakened” with so many highly processed organic foods available.

Instead, the Hartman Group’s report Organic and Natural 2012 indicates that consumers see the term “organic” more as an absence of negatives: the absence of pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics in the growing methods. “More organically involved consumers are going to know what the USDA label allows for and what it doesn’t,” says Sousa. “But as we see more mainstream consumers getting into organics, they don’t know all those details. They just know it doesn’t contain pesticides and it’s possibly better because it’s free of chemicals.”

Healthier environment

Organic consumers may feel like environmental stewards knowing that they support an agricultural system that uses few chemical inputs. In fact, over half of Canadians believe organic farming is better for the environment, states the COTA report. A side-by-side comparison of farming practices shows that this belief is correct. In the fall of 2011 the Rodale Institute released the latest results of a 30-year study, The Farming Systems Trial. It concluded that organic farming is far superior to conventional systems when it comes to building, maintaining and replenishing the health of the soil. “For soil health alone, organic agriculture is more sustainable than conventional,” noted the researchers.

Despite the desire to support an ecologically sustainable form of agriculture, Canadians also look to organics as a way to avoid genetically engineered food. In Canada, any product certified organic under the Organic Products Regulations (OPR) cannot use genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to the Canadian Organic Growers’ website. Under the Canadian Organic Standards (COS), organic producers ought to use certified organic seed and must demonstrate to their certifying body that they have done everything possible to prevent GMO contamination from neighbouring fields. In the U.S., the National Organic Program (NOP) makes the same requirement.

“The non-GMO issue is definitely driving people to organic,” says Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path. “If you look for the organic label, you’re assured of getting food that is grown and processed without the use of GMOs.”

But there’s debate whether or not organic food can really be completely GMO free. At an annual agricultural conference held every January in Guelph, Ont., discussion amongst organic industry leaders conceded that there will always be a remote chance of pollen and seeds from genetically modified crops finding their way onto organic farms. And, as there’s no testing for cross-contamination, even certified organic products can never be 100-per-cent GMO free.

While certified organic products are currently the best defence against GMOs, consumers can also look out for products labelled with the Non-GMO Project seal. The non-profit organization offers North America’s only third-party verification and labelling system for non-GMO food and products, including testing.

Broad-scale support for organics will continue as reasons for choosing organic food and beverages evolve. While those reasons may currently be based on the desire to reduce the exposure to pesticide residues, to support a sustainable agricultural system, or to avoid genetically altered food, these motivations will undoubtedly change as the movement gains momentum. Adds Sousa: “Consumers across all segments possess greater knowledge about organics, and their increased knowledge is leading them to ask more questions than ever before.”