Cover

Whetting the appetite for organic food

Recent food scares are expected to boost the already burgeoning sector

KATHERINE MACKLEM January 26 2004
Cover

Whetting the appetite for organic food

Recent food scares are expected to boost the already burgeoning sector

KATHERINE MACKLEM January 26 2004

Whetting the appetite for organic food

Recent food scares are expected to boost the already burgeoning sector

Cover

WHEN TED THORPE, a fourth-generation farmer in southern Ontario, acquired his own property in 1990, he broke with a long-time family custom. Instead of working the land using conventional methods, he opted for techniques that allowed him to grow organic fruits and Farmers are struggling to keep up with the demand for organic produce vegetables-clean food on clean land, the self-described environmentalist says. “Farmers are the first line of defence of environmental responsibility,” he says. “If we don’t take care of the land, who’s going to?” Today, Thorpe’s 32-acre farm near Millgrove, Ont., west of Toronto, supplies organic vegetables to health food stores, home-delivery businesses, wholesalers and three organic markets. Since he started, he says he’s seen the organic business grow by “leaps and bounds,” so much that local producers can’t keep up with demand. “We don’t have enough producers to supply locally what the stores need,” Thorpe says.

Demand has been climbing strongly for years, and experts expect the pace to quicken as news of toxic fish and mad cow disease help to drive an industry-wide transition toward producing safer foods. Organic food is still only a niche business in the vast agri-food universe-in 2002, it totalled about two per cent of Canada’s $64-billion market-but that market share is changing. “There is already a certain percentage of people who gear their buying toward local, organic and seasonal,” Thorpe says. “That’s going to grow.”

Here and around the world. In Southeast Asia, farmers are converting

rice paddies for organic production. The European Union is developing an action plan to boost organic agriculture. Paris-based food conglomerate Groupe Danone SA last week acquired control of Stonyfield Farm, a U.S. organic yogourt maker. The industry now even has royal sponsorship: organic farming has become one of Prince Charles’s pet causes.

At home, Agriculture Canada estimates that organic sales are growing by 20 per cent a year and will reach $3.1 billion in 2005. So retailers are making more room on their shelves and produce counters. Three years ago, national food giant Loblaw Cos. didn’t have its own line of organic products; now, it sells 250 President’s Choice organic items and has 50 more coming, most priced about the same as regular products. Geoffrey Wilson, vice-president of industry and investor relations at Loblaw, says he can’t reveal exactly how much of the company’s sales come from organic products, but as a percentage of sales, “it’s growing at a very nice pace. We’ve been very pleased.”

Canada is already a world leader in organic exports, in large part because of the quantity, quality and price of suitable grains grown here without pesticides or genetic modification. That helps companies such as Vancouver cereal-maker Nature’s Path and Toronto baker ShaSha Bread Co., whose products are popular domestically and whose export sales to the U.S. are skyrocketing. On its own, Nature's Path boasts more than 25 per cent of the U.S. organic breakfast-cereal market.

As consumer awareness about food safety becomes more acute, many people want more than just pesticide-free produce and meat. After recent food scares, they want to know where their food comes from, or “traceability,” says Guelph University professor Alfons Weersink, who teaches agriculture economics and business. If enough consumers get picky about the origins of their food, the trend will push producers toward smaller farming operations and abattoirs closer to their markets.

The biggest push to improve the way food is produced, says Justin Kästner, an assistant professor of agricultural security at Kansas State University, comes when something threatens international trade. For instance, trade concerns over mad cow disease quickly prompted Canada and the U.S. to enact strict new food-safety regulations. But it’s consumer demand for organic products that’s transforming grocery stores, and that pressure is not about to let up. KATHERINE MACKLEM