The Canadian food and agriculture sector is currently facing some significant environmental, food safety and financial difficulties which are affecting percep- tions of Canadian food, both domestically and internation- ally. These realities explain, in part, the development of the new Agricultural Policy Framework (APF), adopted in 2002 and being implemented by the federal, provincial and terri- torial governments.
To date, with the possible exception of Quebec, Canadian governments have treated organic food and farming as a niche market to be supported in limited ways. But in other nations, rapid growth rates have forced governments to think differ- ently about organic food and farming. In several European countries, the organic sector now represents a significant percentage of the agrifood economy and rural landscape, with the attendant environmental, economic and social benefits.
Organic farms are generally characterized by complex cropping patterns with significant use of green manures, intercrops and legumes; reduced reliance on synthetic pesti- cides and fertilizers; reduced tillage; deep and extensive root masses; high soil organic matter levels; and good soil tilth. Animal stocking densities are usually lower, and animals usually receive more exercise and diets better adapted to their digestive systems. Many animal production aids, such as growth hormones and antibiotics, are not permitted. Organic foods are usually processed in ways that minimize removal of essential nutrients and many shelf life extension aids are not permitted.
This paper presents data and analysis to support the position that organic food and farming is more than simply a niche market opportunity. Given the relatively low adoption lev- els to date in Canada, the extensive benefits of organic farming systems are not yet very visible. However, there is growing evidence that adoption of such systems produces multiple bene- fits that can solve pressing agricultural problems in Canada.
In terms of its impact on the envi- ronment, several studies and investigations in Canada and around the world show that organic agriculture has a much better performance than con- ventional farming, whether in terms of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions or biodiversity. Agriculture is known for being a significant polluter, par- ticularly of water systems. Canadian data are lacking, but the annual cost of damage to water from agricultural practices in the USA is estimated at $2.6 billion. The cost of pesticide damage to all natural capital in the USA is estimated at $3.70 per kilogram of active ingredient. In contrast, the data support a con- clusion that no current systems outperform organic farming in pollution reduction.
An extensive European comparison of organic and con- ventional farming systems and their environmental impacts found that organic farming was the same or better than conventional on all environmental indicators, except in organic farming systems there was some potential in a few cases for more soil erosion, and for more nitrate leach- ing. A UK study of the real costs of the British food basket estimated for instance that the external pollution costs of organic farming are one third those of conventional agriculture, while a Swiss study concluded that it was cheaper to pay organic conversion subsidies to all the farmers surrounding a lake, than to pay for a technological solution to clean up the lake. In Atlantic Canada, an investigation con- cluded that an organic seasonal-grazing dairy system generated 10 percent less soil erosion and 40 percent less nitrate leaching compared to the average of all other dairy profiles studied, including low-input and intensive dairy systems.
Farming in Canada contributed about 13 percent of total 1996 Canadian greenhouse gas emissions (with fossil fuel use included), up 4 per- cent from 1986. To reduce these emis- sions, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that mitigation practices should: a) enhance sustainable production; b) have additional benefits for farmers, including profitability; and c) generate products that are suitable to consumers.
From a systems perspective, organ- ic farming usually leads to reductions in emissions and meets the IPCC’s cri- teria for success. Relative to most con- ventional farm operations, organic farming reduces soil erosion, stores more carbon, does not require synthet- ic nitrogen and pesticides (and their associated emissions), eliminates nitrous oxide emissions from non-bio- logical sources, does not permit anaer- obic digestion of manure (and the associated methane emissions), often has lower animal stocking rates which contribute to lower methane emissions generally, consumes less energy and water overall, and has higher percent- ages of farm acreage in perennial crops (including pasture) and shelterbelts.
Moreover, there is some empirical research on organic farming systems that demon- strates that they causes green- house gas emission reductions, greater adaptive capacity in the face of climate variability and significant carbon sequestration potential. The most comprehen- sive comparative studies to date showing the benefits of organic farming for GHG (greenhouse gas) reductions and carbon stor- age have been carried out by research teams at Michigan State University.
In Canada, a 12-year organ- ic vs. conventional cropping trial in Manitoba showed that energy efficiency was nearly doubled in the organic systems studied. A modelling study in Atlantic Canada examining 19 different dairy production sce- narios found that a seasonal- grazing organic system was 64 percent more energy efficient and emitted 29 percent less greenhouse gases compared with the average of all other analyzed systems. And a review of 33 comparatives studies of organic and conventional farming systems also found that the former led to biodiversi- ty improvements for most of the stud- ied organisms.
In the OECD countries, consumer confidence in the food supply has been tested of late. Diseases, worries about new technologies, and concerns about the ability of regulatory systems to keep up with changes in the global- ized food system are all contributing factors. Whether these concerns are real or perceived, the loss of consumer con- fidence is worrisome to governments and the food industry, and it is making management and record-keeping more onerous for many farmers and mer- chants. As in the case of its environ- mental impact, organic agriculture presents a better balance sheet than conventional farming in this regard.
Organic farming and food process- ing standards, such as those developed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) for instance, will not grant certification to farmers whose opera- tions include a number of products and practices perceived to be risky by many consumers. These include the use of most synthetically compounded pesticides and fertilizers, growth hor- mones, antibiotics (unless the animals life is in jeopardy), most synthetic preservatives and additives, irradia- tion, and genetically modified organ- isms; and the application of raw manure (except under very specified conditions). As a result, residues of production pesticides are almost always lower in organic foods. Animals must be a fed a diet for which their digestive system is adapted (e.g. high forage diet for ruminants), so the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is reduced, and the digestive con- ditions associated with elevated E. coli 0157:H7, a particularly problematic disease organism, levels do not nor- mally occur on organic farms.
In theory, bacterial contamina- tion from manure should be lower in organic products because of compost- ing requirements, but only a few stud- ies have been conducted in this area. Some disease organisms are reason- ably well controlled directly or indi- rectly with pesticides in conventional systems, so they, or associated disease hazards, are generally controlled. If organic systems are not properly man- aged to minimize the presence of these diseases, there may be addition- al risks. Critics of organic farming argue that these hazards are inherent- ly more elevated in organic systems, but there are alternative control strategies that can be applied. Unfortunate- ly, there is limited data on the effec- tiveness of these alternative control measures. Increasingly, however, they are the subject of innovative ecologi- cal research.
Organic certification provides for many of the traceability systems that are now emerging in food safety require- ments for conventional products. In Europe, inadvertent contamination of organic food has been traced more quickly than in conventional foods.
For at least 80 years, scientists have known that soil conditions affect some nutritional parameters of foods. This knowledge produced refinements in fertilization strategies to improve wheat milling quality or to lengthen the storage period of many foods.
Because organic farmers employ fundamentally different soil manage- ment practices than do conventional farmers, the question has been raised whether organic foods may have a more optimal nutritional profile, in par- ticular those constituents that exist in smaller quantities and may have a subtle impact on health. Although some argue this is irrelevant given the amount of food available to Canadians, data from historic nutrient files in Canada, the US and the UK suggest that levels of some micronutrients have fall- en significantly over the past 50 years. Given that over half the Canadian pop- ulation likely does not follow Health
Canada’s Healthy Eating Guidelines and some 10 percent of Canadians report being deprived sporadically of sufficient food due largely to poverty, it is possible that such nutrient losses could have an impact on health.
This is a complex field. Review studies looking at organic versus con- ventional plant foods have produced mixed results. The most consistent (but not definitive) results pertain to lower quantity but higher quality grain pro- tein, and lower nitrate and higher vita- min C levels in many organic foods.
Studies where test animals are fed an organic vs. conventional diet are some- what more consistent. Researchers look at larger indicators ”” the health and fer- tility status of the animal as an indicator of its overall health. Animals on an organic diet tend to perform better in fer- tility and infant morbidity parameters than those on a conventional diet. How- ever, the reasons for this result are not clear. Is it related to nutritional parame- ters or possibly the lower levels of pesti- cide residues found on the organic foods? The limited number of studies on humans consuming organic vs. conven- tional diets have produced mixed results for those on primarily an organic diet, some showing fertility advantages or lower organophosphorus pesticides lev- els in the urine of children, others show- ing no significant differences.
Many Canadian farmers are now facing financial difficulties. Prices for many commodities are low, and the costs of inputs to maintain yield levels are rising. In discussions about solving these problems, most of the attention has focused on the design of farm financial safety net programs, the squeeze on prices associated with US and EU subsi- dies, global market pressures, and the need for even greater productivity. Little attention has been devoted to input cost reductions and exploring markets with price premiums.
That organic agriculture systems are usually more profitable than con- ventional farming systems is not wide- ly appreciated by policy makers.
From worldwide evaluations, we know that plant yields in organic sys- tems are on average 10 percent below conventional systems (in North America and Australia they generally range from 20 percent lower to slightly higher). But they are likely to continue to rise as the appreciation increases and as more money is devoted to research. These increases in the yield are not always as great as those under some conventional systems, but they occur at a much lower environmental cost.
For animal products, the yields in the organic sector are on average 20 percent below those in conventional farming. However, comparisons here are even more difficult than for plant systems, because of the wide differ- ences between organic and conven- tional rearing systems.
The gross margins in the organic sector are at least as good, if not better than, conventional regimes. In more extensive systems, the decrease in input costs is often sufficient to maintain gross margins, whereas in more intensive pro- duction systems such as those found in Europe, premiums are often required to offset yield declines. Four factors usually account for positive income results.
First, operating costs in organic production may be up to one third lower, particularly for energy, chemicals and drugs. Variable input costs are 50 to 60 percent lower for cereals and grain legumes, 10 to 20 percent lower for potatoes and horticultural crops, and 20 to 25 percent lower for dairy cows. Second, where premium prices are available, the net income is likely to be higher. Third, many organic farmers achieve higher net income by selling directly to con- sumers, which allows them to capture a greater percent- age of the consumer dollar.
Finally, in many European countries, government payments for environmen- tal stewardship compensate for lower yields relative to conventional produc- tion. Organic farm support payments account for between 16 and 46 percent of farm profits, depending on the product and the country. Of course, in Europe, almost all farmers rely on support pay- ments of various kinds. In the aggregate, government investments in organic farming produce savings on other farm subsidies suggesting that they rely less on payments than do conventional farmers. Therefore, if organic farming systems are more profitable, this should reduce the pressure on farm financial safety nets and the demand for government dollars to support them.
A variety of studies suggests that sustainable agriculture can con- tribute significantly to rural vitality. For example, a study of four communities in the US Midwest found those with more sustainable agricultural practi- tioners were better at mobilizing com- munity resources for local development. They participated more actively in local government, and they contributed to the creation of new community economic development structures and new businesses. This result was attributed, in part, to the problem-solving skills and self-reliance of sustainable agriculture practitioners. A North Dakota study concluded that more sustainable agriculture would enhance some economic sec- tors (transportation, utilities, business services and nonmetal mining), but would be detrimental to others (con- struction, professional services, finance, retail trade and agricultural processing). But overall, better infra- structure for marketing, processing and storage needs would result in pos- itive overall benefits. Currently, many communities lose significant local economic opportunities because they lack the products and services required by farmers practicing sus- tainable agriculture.
There is also evidence, particular- ly from intensive systems in Europe, that labour demands are generally higher on organic farms, although the degree varies considerably from enterprise to enterprise and activity to activity. There is some evidence that under conditions of good prices, wages are higher in organic systems as well. A few studies have attempted to estimate the labour impacts of signif- icant conversion to sustainable agri- culture in a region, although this is difficult to quantify. They report employment is higher by 10 to 100 percent, depending on the region, the commodities involved and the scope of the food chain examined. In more extensive organic systems, however, this effect may be reduced.
One additional reported benefit is increased tourism in regions with sig- nificant numbers of organic farms, likely due to the more positive image of agriculture conveyed.
These data suggest that Canadian governments would be wise to allocate more resources to organic farming development and adoption. Rural revitalization is a pressing gov- ernment priority and one of the pillars of agricultural policy. We would argue that more support for organic farming could well compliment the federal government’s efforts to improve rural community viability. Surveys suggest that many conventional farmers would undertake the transition to organic if the right supports were in place. Governments elsewhere have learned what supports are most effec- tive at speeding up the adoption process and Canadian governments could learn significantly from those experiences.