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Big Box Eyes Organics

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Big Box Eyes Organics

Gone are the days when organic was equated with a hippy or fringe culture. Step into your nearest natural foods market and you're as likely to come across a spiffy SUV owner as you are a sandalled tree hugger.

Gone are the days when organic was equated with a hippy or fringe culture. Step into your nearest natural foods market and you’re as likely to come across a spiffy SUV owner as you are a sandalled tree hugger.

According to a 2005 Agriculture Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency report, Canadians spend almost $1 billion a year on organic foods, and sales are increasing 20 percent annually. But behind the scenes, another shift is taking place. Family-run farms fight for space alongside new, larger-scale operations. Small manufacturers are bought out by bigger ones. Small whole food retailers compete against musclemen like Loblaws and Wal-Mart. Multinational companies search for a piece of this lucrative pie and…well, you get the picture.

The organic industry is in the middle of a big-box transformation, leaving many people wondering how consumers will be affected.

A World of Organics

We already have more shopping advantages than we did 30 years ago–organic selections available from around the world, funkier packaging, and better product labelling, including labels from certifying agents. On American organic imports, a US Department of Agriculture logo guarantees the food product was grown without synthetic agrochemicals, veterinary drugs, or materials produced from sewage sludge, genetic engineering, or hormones.

The US has had national regulations for several years, while the final publication of Canada’s Organic Product Regulation happened in December 2006. These regulations, which will be phased in over the next couple of years, require organic products to display a new Canadian Organic logo. It will certify food products that meet Canadian organic production standards contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.

“We’re very encouraged,” says Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods during a phone interview. “Organics in the US experienced a jump of 35 percent between 2004 and 2006 in consumer recognition after the US put their national program together and marked their products with the US Department of Agriculture organic seal.”

Falck sits on many committees and boards, such as those of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada and Canadian Organic Growers. He’s also on the main board of the Organic Trade Association and is on the organic council of the Canadian Health Food Association.

In regards to Canada’s organic regulatory process, Falck explains that the laws aren’t expected to change a lot in terms of how certified organic farms are presently run.

“The biggest change will be for the consumer,” Falck says. “Currently more than 40 different organic logos are used in Canada. This is an opportunity for a [unified] Canadian logo, for more consistency and less confusion in the marketplace.”

He adds that the new regulations will give the Canadian Food Inspection Agency necessary power to enforce fraudulent claims.

Generally, our proposed regulations are very strong, says Falck, and they are on par with international standards. But will they remain so? Do big-box organics mean organic standards will eventually be diluted to placate rising demand?

Defending Canadian Standards

“Organic is subject to contradictory pressures,” says Wayne Roberts, PhD, project coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council. Roberts is senior author of seven books and winner of the 2002 Canadian Environment Awards Silver Medal for his contributions to sustainable living.

“I don’t long for the days when organic was ‘pure.’ I’m not pining for those days. We’re growing and more people want it and that’s good,” he says.

Still, Roberts questions the federal government’s ability to protect our laws from outside influence. “Having a nongovernment regulatory body means more transparency, more consumer involvement, and quicker adaptation in a faster changing world,” he says. “The organic community is more capable of holding [organic] to a high standard than the government is. The government stamp is eventually going to dilute it.”

“Protecting the integrity of organic certification is going to be an ongoing challenge,” admits Falck. “There’s always going to be pressure to do what some people call watering down or weakening of the standards. So we have to have systems in place that prevent this from happening without consultations with people in the industry. We always have to be on guard.”

“Government involvement will give all parties, including multinational groups that want to get into organics, some power to lobby,” he says. “It’s a more open process, and with more interested parties at the table, it increases the challenge. In a sense, we’re adding to our challenges because [the] is growing. But that’s going to happen anyway.”

Muscling in on the Market

That growth may happen even faster than expected. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, recently announced that it will expand into organic sales and make it more affordable, a declaration that has generated mixed reactions.

On one hand, what’s wrong with cheaper organic food? Analysts point out that the amount of food labelled organic and sold in Canada should rise exponentially.

“To me, it’s really two questions,” says Falck. “What’s good about Wal-Mart moving into organics? Increasing organic acreage, which means more land being transitioned from a polluting agriculture to organic agriculture that eliminates pesticide use. That’s good. Making organic food accessible and affordable to as many people as possible is also good. What’s not so good about Wal-Mart moving into organics? That’s a question more to do with business practices. If business practices affect the organic industry negatively, that’s not a good thing. It’s a question of balance.”

The Cornucopia Institute, a US-based organic farming watchdog group, is definitely suspicious. They argue Wal-Mart will fulfill its goal of driving down the price of organic food to within 10 percent of conventional food prices by cheapening the organic label. Their September 2006 report entitled “Wal-Mart Rolls Out Organic Products–Market Expansion or Market Delusion?” suggests this new organic will open the door to corporate agribusiness, factory farms, and cheap imports of questionable quality.

Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council also believes Wal-Mart’s influence may have unintended consequences. Writing recently in Toronto’s NOW magazine, he says, “The only way to mess with organic prices is to mess with organic rules, already under constant pressure in the US, where the Department of Agriculture controls the organic label and has allowed standards to erode to the point where factory-style cow and livestock farms are setting the norm. The same pressures will be applied to a Canadian government label.”

Power in Staying Local

“Perhaps we need to amplify [the] organic by adding another local, sustainable element to it,” Roberts muses on the phone. “If consumers want to do something proactive, what they should look for are organic-plus labels–organic plus local or organic plus sustainable.”

Roberts is a big proponent of local eating. In fact, his next phone interview is scheduled with CBC Radio for a story on local foods for seasonal cooking.

Sustainability is a priority for many companies. “Our most important value is to leave the earth better than we found it,” explains Falck. “Even before organic certification was a reality, when we purchased organic grains from a farmer, we said, ‘You have to promise you didn’t spray with pesticides and chemicals.’ And the farmer had to go to a public notary and sign an affidavit.”

The company continues to improve its environmental accountability. For instance, its new initiative to reduce product packaging by 10 percent will save 144 tons of paperboard, 942,000 kilowatt hours of energy, and 1.3 million gallons of water each year.

“For me, I love being in the middle of this evolution of organic,” says Falck. “It’s an exciting time. The movement has taken off.”

It certainly has. The future of organic sales has never looked brighter. Exactly how this merging of traditional food philosophies and big-business ideals will affect regulations and consumers remains up in the air. It’s comforting to know that some companies are setting a good example.

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