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There's a growing market for organic products but certification can be a challenging process
By John Cranfield, Ontario Agricultural CollegeThe North American organic food market is one of the most dynamic and rapidly growing sectors of the global food industry.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada estimates the value of retail organic food sales in Canada at $2 billion, with an estimated annual growth rate of 20 per cent. While the number of certified organic producers more than doubled over the period 1992 to 2004, the annualized rate of growth in the production base was only 10 per cent. Differences between the growth in supply and growth in demand means that the Canadian organic food marketplace is often undersupplied, and approximately 80 per cent of organic food sold in Canada is imported from the United States.
While strong demand for organic food in Canada has created a viable alternative to conventional production for some producers, organic production is not an easily reachable target.
To become certified organic producers, farmers must undergo a conversion or transition period that lasts a minimum of three years, and can be longer for livestock producers. The length of this transition, along with other management and production factors, leads some producers to abandon conversion plans altogether.
If the Canadian organic sector is to continue to grow, and if domestic organic production is to play a role in that growth, circumstances must facilitate conversion to organic.
In this respect, three questions come to mind. What motivates a producer to convert to organic production? What are the barriers or challenges associated with transition/conversion to organic? What are the perceived benefits of conversion to organic?
In a recently published paper, Prof. Spencer Henson, graduate student James Holliday and I attempted to answer these questions using data from a sample of Canadian dairy and vegetable producers who were either undergoing transition or certified as organic. The results of our study address an existing knowledge gap and challenge the view emerging from the extant literature.
Previous research that sought to understand the motive for converting to organic suggests that the profit motive has become an increasingly important factor in recent years. However, our results suggest that health and safety and environmental motivations were more important factors in a farmer's decision to convert to organic production than profitability and economics.
Moreover, differences in the importance of profitability in the decision to convert were not statistically different across cohorts of producers who converted prior to 1990 and those who converted after 1994. Likewise, there were no differences in the importance of the other motives across transition cohorts, suggesting that the motives underlying transition have not changed over time in Canada.
This conclusion challenges the view that the ideological orientation of organic production has shifted from an environmental/ health focus to an economic/profit motive in recent years.
Problems and challenges rated most highly related to the level of external support, in particular from government and marketing agencies, and the nature of markets. These results point to the need for environments and institutions that facilitate development of markets for organic foods. Important in this regard is the final implementation of a Canada Organic national standard on Dec. 14, 2008 by the Government of Canada, an action that suggests a recognized need for institutions that facilitate more orderly and transparent marketing of organic food products in Canada.
Negative pressure from other farmers and farm groups was also identified as a significant problem and challenge, and points to the importance of social acceptance of non-conventional production systems.
Interestingly, farm productivity and disease control were ranked as the least important problems and challenges faced by producers when they transitioned. This speaks to producers' ability to internally manage and innovate around production-related problems.
Lastly, the most highly rated potential benefits were noneconomic in nature, relating to reduced exposure to agricultural chemicals and improved food quality. Economic impacts, including lower input costs and higher profitability, were scored among the lowest of the listed benefits.
This suggests that many of the benefits of organic conversion do not relate to the economics of the farm and farming, but rather to the perceived safety of farming methods to the farmer and their employees.
Understanding the motives, challenges and benef its associated with conversion to organic production is critical to developing strategies aimed at attracting producers to organic production or easing the transition process. Only by overcoming the problems and challenges will the organic sector prosper.
(John Cranfield, Spencer Henson and James Holliday. 2010. "The Motives, Costs, Benefits and Problems of Conversion to Organic Production." Agriculture and Human Values 27(3): 291-306.)
This article orginally appeared in the October 26, 2010 edition of Ontario Farmer. OACC graciously thanks Ontario Farmer for permission to post this article.
Posted November 2010
© 2012, Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC)