Blooming Organics: Consumer interest in organic products is growing
You may think of organic foods as a small sector, but it is a sector marked by remarkable growth. According to Agriculture and Agrifood Canada , the organics sector has enjoyed 20% annual growth over the past decade.
While only 1.3% of Canada ’s farmers grow or raise organic produce or livestock, organics are no longer hard-to-find specialty items. Major supermarket chains have developed high-profile lines featuring a wide array of organic products.
As organics have taken their place among mainstream consumer choices, buyers have welcomed the option. The U.S. report Organic Food and Beverage Trends 2004 found that two-thirds of Americans used organic products at least occasionally.
In Canada, the total value of the organic market is not known, but a report prepared for Agriculture and Agrifood Canada estimates it at least $440 million in 2003 retail sales, and probably closer to $800 million.
The term “certified organic” means that the grower or processor has been approved by one of about 50 accredited organic certifying bodies in Canada . While certification criteria vary slightly from province to province and among different certification bodies, most are based on similar principles of environmental protection, attentive processing and humane treatment of animals.
Growth and production of organics prohibits the use of various substances and processes, such as chemical fertilizers and irradiation. Beth McMahon, director of the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) notes that organic foods are not genetically modified and no genetically modified items are used in their production. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are also prohibited.
Organically raised livestock must have access to fresh air, and are not treated with antibiotics, she adds. There is often a lot of attention paid to the behavioural needs and natural habits of animals.
“Having cows is pretty heavy in terms of environmental damage. They do graze a lot. So they keep smaller herd sizes so they can rotate them and ensure that their land is being managed correctly.”
That effort may pay off, though. Organic Monitor’s report on the North American market found that the mad-cow scare contributed to a 35% jump in demand for organic meat products.
Beth McMahon has also noticed that trend.
“Organic meat is definitely one of the top growing items that we’ve noticed, especially with mad cow and avian flu, and people being nervous about the antibiotics that they put in feed and the humane treatment of animals,” she says.
“There’s a few restaurants around here that are primarily organic and they find that serving this meat is a real plus for their customers.”
Pesticide residues and other contaminants that may be present in conventionally produced fruit and vegetables have also been issues with some buyers, but McMahon says that consumers have become even more concerned about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“A lot of people get into organics when they have young families and they’re concerned about GMOs,” she said.
Research findings on the safety of GMOs have not been consistent, so some families would prefer to avoid genetically modified products, McMahon says.
“Organic is really your only certification that you’re not getting any,” she explains.
For some restaurants, the big draw for organics on the menu is freshness, because many items are sourced locally. This is particularly strong in tourist markets.
“It kind of goes along with the slow food movement,” McMahon says. “Just having things that are locally produced, and they can show people where it comes from, or they have little profiles of the farmers nearby, so when people are going to P.E.I. they’re eating a local organic potato. It seems to be an interesting little niche that they’re developing.”
The organics industry has set itself a goal of increasing its market share to 10% of the Canadian retail market by 2010. The foodservice market is expected to follow suit. That’s a lot of growth, but it may not be unrealistic.
“We, at least, have been noticing large growth,” McMahon says of the organics market in eastern Canada . “We’ve had a couple of restaurants that are only serving local organic products open up in the last year. For our tiny market, that’s a big statement.”