Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for the invitation to speak to the committee.
I am also representing the Organic Federation of Canada, as I have in the past.
First of all, by way of some background, the organic food sector in Canada is one of the fastest growing opportunities in agriculture at this time, as the committee is well aware. Organic Meadow Co-operative is a pioneer and leader in this sector, representing over 100 medium-size organic farms and selling products from coast to coast under our own brand and supplying ingredients for other brands, including a small export business.
In 2010, we invested in our own dairy processing facility in Guelph, Ontario, to better service the domestic market. With over 20 years' experience in cooperation with our farmer-owners; in brand development at the national level; in innovation toward meeting emerging consumer demand; and now in manufacturing, we are well positioned to comment on the Growing Forward 2 policy proposal, and welcome the opportunity.
Organic farmers approach the production challenge from a perspective radically different from their mainstream neighbours. I can speak to this from personal experience, since I began my farming career using the technologies that were available in 1977 and switched to organic production in 1983, when organic methodology was still in its infancy and the market for organic foods was confined to a very small health food niche.
We had very little organization at that time, no regulation or legal definition of “organic”, and marketing channels such as Organic Meadow did not exist. The organic milk from my farm could not be designated and sold as organic until 1995, when we finally broke through the restrictions imposed by the Ontario Milk Marketing Board and received permission to segregate the milk from six organic farms, including my own. That was the beginning of the organic dairy industry in Canada, which is now estimated to have $100 million in annual sales.
We now have well-established marketing organizations across this country in practically all commodities, resulting in total industry revenue of over $2 billion in organic food. We have a national standard for organic production, bilateral trade agreements with the U.S. and the EU, and our own organic science cluster to research organic production methodology.
While the commercial opportunities for organic farmers have expanded tremendously in 30 years, the underlying approach to farming is constant. Organic farmers still rely mainly on resources from within their own farms, striving to establish a self-sufficient, sustainable ecosystem. The health of the soil is paramount, and it is maintained using complex, diverse crop rotations; composted animal manures; cover crops; and plow-downs to enrich soil biology. Organic farmers manage weeds and pests without agricultural chemicals. They avoid antibiotic and hormone therapies in livestock husbandry, and focus on prevention of disease by optimizing housing and nutrition according to the natural preference of the animal.
Organic farms tend to be smaller, more management- and labour-intensive, and often more directly linked to the market through individual initiatives or collectives like Organic Meadow. They use far less energy per unit of production than conventional agriculture does, largely due to the absence of imported nitrogen fertilizers.
As a farmer who has lived within both paradigms, I can tell you that organic farming is much more complicated and more difficult to scale up. We need more farmers to produce organic food. We see that as a good thing, and wonder why government policies seem to be intent on making farms bigger and farmers fewer, to the detriment of rural communities.
The mission of Organic Meadow Co-operative is to provide a link to the market that will sustain those family farms that are swimming against the stream of larger scale, input-dependent industrial agribusiness. We hold a vision for the future of a diverse, resilient farming sector primarily responsive to the needs of our own people.
Having given this general introduction, I'll move on to the specific ways in which we believe government could assist.
Firstly, a Growing Forward 2 policy proposal has identified, as a key driver, institutional and physical infrastructure, stating that “Effective rules, regulations, standards, organizations, and physical infrastructure allow firms to operate and markets to function efficiently for a profitable sector and the well-being of Canadians.”
While there has been significant cooperation between the organic sector and government in establishing a regulatory framework for organics, I would draw the committee's attention to the following urgent needs.
First, there is no funding mechanism for the maintenance of the Canadian organic standard, resulting in a situation where we are unable to fulfill the commitments under the Canadian General Standards Board's policies, and could see the standard lapse, threatening our trade agreements and rendering us helpless to act on necessary revisions. This matter has been raised with officials at both AAFC and CFIA over the past two years, but remains unresolved.
Second, the approval of GE alfalfa—which is awaiting commercialization—poses a serious threat to organic operators' ability to comply with the standard. We have argued very reasonably to this committee, during the special hearings on biotechnology, in favour of a suspension of this approval, but have received no assurances.
The organic sector has worked cooperatively with our mainstream neighbours to accomplish, at great expense to our farmers, the needed segregation to comply with the Canadian organic standard, and to prevent contamination with GE materials in organic corn and soybean production. It is widely accepted that the biology of alfalfa will make managing a GE variety in the same way impossible.
The commercialization of Roundup Ready alfalfa will eventually make it impossible to grow organic crops. We plead with the committee to assist us in this regulatory matter.
Third, the ability of organic producers to serve local and regional markets is dependent upon a small- to medium-scale processing infrastructure, which is sadly lacking in most parts of the country, especially in the area of livestock products. The large-scale processing facilities that dominate the industry are not generally adaptable to the innovation needed for diversification into specialties such as organic foods, functional foods, or ethnic cuisine. We believe that government dollars to assist in the flourishing of smaller-scale, local processing infrastructure pays off in stimulating a vibrant, sustainable regional economy.
Fourth, regulatory burdens imposed in a one-size-fits-all manner often discriminate against smaller processors. Regulations must be appropriate to the scale of the operation. An example of regulatory excess resulting in the disappearance of processing capacity is the local abattoir situation across Canada. An example of the successful encouragement of small-scale processing is the artisan cheese industry in Quebec. Government should learn from these examples.
Fifth, funding of agricultural organizations in Canada is accomplished mainly through commodity check-offs, with some voluntary GFO memberships often tied to tax incentives or other government programs. Organic farmers find themselves overtaxed and under-represented through the existing system.
The cooperation of FPT governments is required to extract a portion of the funding already collected from producers and to channel it back to meet the specific needs of our federal and provincial organic organizations, which are presently volunteer driven and not sustainable.
In general, we in the organic sector believe that meeting the food needs of our own population should have a higher priority in the policy.
Our experience in the market indicates that Canadians want to eat food that is grown here. They are ready to support Canadian agriculture, but find the supermarket shelves full of imported product. Government policy focused on the lowering of production costs to compete in the export market, without sufficient attention to the desires of our own consumers, is at least partly responsible for this outcome. We applaud the current investment undertaken by the government through the organic science cluster, and look forward to round two.
In completion, I would just like to say that as a successful co-operative, we would look forward to the government's continued support for the growth of agricultural co-operatives, which have played such a part in the history of farming here in Canada. I would refer the committee to the excellent paper submitted by the Canadian Co-operative Association on agricultural co-operatives with regard to the Growing Forward 2 policy.