Lifestyles

It’s growing, naturally

One of the great emblems of the 1960s hippie subculture, organic food blossoms into a $1-billion Canadian industry

Susan McClelland February 7 2000
Lifestyles

It’s growing, naturally

One of the great emblems of the 1960s hippie subculture, organic food blossoms into a $1-billion Canadian industry

Susan McClelland February 7 2000

It’s growing, naturally

Lifestyles

One of the great emblems of the 1960s hippie subculture, organic food blossoms into a $1-billion Canadian industry

Susan McClelland

In 1988, when Cherie Pitre changed her diet to include only organic food, it was a decision born of desperation. Pitre, then 18 and a new mother living in Taber, Alta., was suffering from severe hives that at times left her face swollen beyond recognition. The painfully itchy condition did not respond to various prescription drugs, so Pitre, who suspected the hives were caused by something in her environment, began looking for food that had not been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides during production. Easier said than done: there were no organic food stores in Taber, so she had to drive more than 265 km one way to pick up supplies at an organic store in Calgary. But within a month, the itchiness had stopped, and within a year, Pitre had fully recovered. “It’s easy to see the parallels between health and food,” she says. “Unfortunately, many people need a bad experience to remind them of that.” Nowadays, Pitre is doubly thankful for her diet changes. Not only does she credit her conversion to organic foods with relieving her illness, but she became so convinced of its benefits that, after moving to Lethbridge in 1995, she opened an organic food store that has grown into a prosperous business. That timing coincided with a dramatic increase in demand for organics—produce that has been grown without synthetic chemicals, and meat raised without injections of hormones and antibiotics. Despite scant scientific evidence that organic food really is healthier, worldwide sales have shot up by about 20 per cent a year since 1991, and last year topped an estimated $15 billion.

Though there are no hard statistics available, experts estimate that Canadian outlets—from farmers’ markets and bakeries to delivery services and even large commercial supermarkets with organic sections—accounted for an estimated $1 billion of that in 1999.

There are several reasons for the boom. Like Pitre, many people are trying to solve specific health problems. Others just want to reduce their intake of the chemicals used in food production. And as witnessed by last week’s protests in Montreal at a conference on genetically modified organisms, many people are growing wary of the way science is manipulating foods’ basic ingredients—without admitting as much on the labels. “Herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and GMOs have all been tested one at a time, but not for long-term results or in conjunction with each other,” says Jennifer Hastey, a shopper at a Halifax organic food shop. “To tinker with genes and not know how that is going to impact the environment in the long run is a monstrosity.”

One of the great emblems of the 1960s hippie subculture has come of age. On a chilly Friday afternoon in January, for instance, Vegetable Kingdom, an organic store located in downtown Toronto, is swarming with fashionably dressed men and women, university students and children, who walk the aisles with shopping baskets bulging with fruit, rice, meat and spices. Similarly, the Great Ocean Natural Food Market in Halifax attracts locals such as Cathy Jones of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and customers who travel weeHy from throughout the province. “It’s not just the granola kids anymore,” says Eleanor Heise, a Quebec

farmer and president of the Canadian Organic Growers. “ ‘We are what we eat’ has become trite, but it is true.”

While organic farming isn’t new, it only began to gain popularity in Canada in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, the industry grew at a steady, though modest pace, and farmers began forming associations and certification agencies. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that organics really blossomed, in part as a response to the confusion seen globally over genetic engineering of plants. Experts estimate that from 1985 to 1998, hectares of land devoted to organic farming in Canada leapt from 50,000 to 404,000, though that still represents only about six per cent of all farmland in the country.

Part of the appeal of organic food is the industry’s rigorous certification process. At least 43 private agencies now operate across Canada certifying that organic produce has been grown without manmade pesticides, artificial fertilizers and GMOs, and that meat has been fed with organic vegetables and grains. Inspectors also verify that during production the food has not been irradiated or treated with preservatives or other synthetic additives. “We don’t

make any assertions that organic food is better,” says Robert McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Organic Advisory Board Inc. “What we do say is that there is a process of on-farm safety, product verification and quality assurance.”

Many consumers, like Tekla Hendrickson, a 29-year-old mother in Toronto, say they turned to organics out of mistrust over how other foods had been made. “Reading the labels of non-organic food is frustrating because even if it says ‘healthy or nutritious,’ you still can’t tell what is in the food being sold,” says Hendrickson. “With organics, I am given this information so I trust what I am eating.” Even so, what sold Hendrickson, who converted to organics over a year ago during the second trimester of her pregnancy, was the taste of the food. “I was expecting it to be bland, but the taste reminds me of what food was like when I was a child,” says Hendrickson, who now purees organic vegetables for her daughter.

So why isn’t everyone rushing to the local market for organics? One reason is the price, which at times can be double that of non-organic items. What pushes the price up is that organic farming is done on a small scale with 20 to 30 crops a year as opposed to one or two large yields, says Peter Stonehouse, professor of business and agriculture at the University of Guelph, Ont. Lowering the costs, however,

are home-delivery companies, which, for about $35 a box, deposit organic foods direcdy on the consumer’s door at prices comparable to most non-organic food. “Every piece of our produce comes in from the farm and out to the customer in a day, so we cut the wastage and lower the costs,” says Andrew Capeau, owner of Organics to You, a delivery service in Vancouver. “Typically, a grocery store will lose 15 to 20 per cent on produce they don’t sell and have to throw away.” Home-delivery services are booming. Capeau, who started his company five years ago with a borrowed van, now has 20 employees and a customer base of 8,000. Yet there is still the appeal of going to the local organic market, where staff spend a great deal of time adding the personal touch. For instance, when Leo Ferrari, a retired university professor, couldn’t relieve a prostate problem that had been plaguing him for years, the owner of Aura, an organic market in Fredericton, apparently could. After beginning to eat kefir, an organic low-fat yogurt, twice a day, “all of a sudden I could sleep through the entire night, something I hadn’t done in a long time,” says Ferrari, who for about two decades has sworn by organics. “My doctor calls this black magic, but I’m 72 and I’ve lived longer and healthier than I ever expected.” For lovers of organic food, that’s all the inspiration they need.