This question was posed to the closing panel at this year’s Canadian Organic Growers Conference. Organic farmers, food producers, nutritionists and writers convened in Toronto this past Saturday to examine the issues and explore how organics is changing the world.
The day-long event included a keynote speech by Helge Hellberg of Marin Organic from Marin County California, who is hard at work to make Marin the first completely organic county in the United States. Hellberg, a Certified Holistic Nutrition Counselor recounted a visit to Marin County by Prince Charles, who is one of the world’s leading supporters of the organic movement to visit the Marin County farmers market. Hellberg’s inspiring speech set the tone for the day, as participants broke off into different seminars that ranged in topics directed towards farmers, food producers and consumers.
With The Canada Organic Regime coming into effect as of December 14th, 2008, organic farmers and food producers are working hard to ensure organic integrity. Everyone in the industry is excited about the new regulations as a means to differentiate organic products from mainstream ones, but much discussion centred around the fact that the government, whose job it will be to enforce certification standards, does not have a background in organic principles.
This certification doesn’t mean, of course, that organics will automatically be available everywhere. The struggle to not only make organics more accessible, but to encourage stores to stock them and customers to buy them, continues.
Dr. Laura Telford of The Canadian Organic Growers offered the following advice:
- customers should demand organic food from all places they buy food, such as supermarkets, farmer’s markets, etc
- take responsibility for getting the right info. This may well be the most difficult and time consuming aspect of figuring out what we’re eating but is imperative to being an informed consumer
- inform yourself about the reality of conventional food systems
- being informed helps to avoid “grocery store paralysis” in which consumers are overwhelmed by opposing information and marketing and don’t know what to buy
Dr. Telford also spoke on the second panel I attended on the topic of organic and local. At that discussion she stated that she preferred to see the word “local” purged from our lexicon in favour of the term “food sovereignty”, a system that would empower farmers to control food systems, and give consumers the right to sustainably-grown food. She questioned some of the given assumptions of the locavore way of eating, such as the purported economic and environmental benefits, citing instead that creating shorter foodchains overall would be a wiser goal.
Potential confusion comes into the mix with Local Food Plus (LFP), represented on the panel by founder Lori Staalbrand. LFP offers their own certification system for local foods and works to foster systems between farmers and processors, as well as consumers. LFP has set up partnerships with businesses like Il Fornello, Fiesta Farms and even University of Toronto.
She points out that farmers involved in the LFP partnership with Fiesta Farms have seen their sales double, and as LFP’s goal is to support local farmland and diversity (and by extension local farmers) Staalbrand feels that we can have a sustainable system that includes both local and organic. With half of LFP-certified farms also carrying organic certification, creating produce that is both local and organic seems an achievable goal.
In the final seminar of the day, in which the panel was asked “Can Organics Feed the World?” panelists determined that at present, it could not. Currently, demand exceeds production and organics are seen as a threat to conventional food production. A plethora of issues that include First World subsidies and an increased demand for conventional crops to produce ethanol all offer the potential for organics to expand considerably in coming years, but consumers need to keep themselves informed of the issues and both buy organic products and demand them when they are not available.
Telford suggested that organic farmers and producers sift through the practices of the conventional food world to see what works and what procedures could be adapted to an organic system. With most organic farmers working on smaller farms, co-operative systems could also be put in place to allow each farmer to maximize output and profit.
Can organics feed the world? There was a time, not too many decades ago, when organic was the default system, and farmers managed to feed the world reasonably well. The most poignant moment of the day came when Alvin Filsinger got up to accept the Lifetime Organic Hero award. A video showed Filsinger and his wife working their apple farm back in the 40s, while Filsinger related their first use of DDT, a product he had been told would make his life easier and more productive. He had come across a robin’s nest full of eggs about to hatch, and checked the thing daily. Shortly after he sprayed the orchard with DDT, he checked the nest again to discover all the eggs had rotted, the chicks dying without ever having hatched. It was then that he made the decision to abandon the pesticides and continue to farm organically.
Feeding the world is a huge goal, one that we cannot, at present, heap onto the shoulders of organic farmers. However, there are myriad reasons to choose organic products, to buy them where available, and demand them where they are not. Supporting organic food systems, particularly local ones, not only provides the food sovereignty Telford advises, but makes the earth a better place overall.