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Eating the way nature intended

B.C. Organic growers are ready to enter the world market

It’s a tale of two tomatoes. Or three. Or four.

One is grown in a greenhouse under artificial lights, consuming electricity and heat provided by fossil fuel-powered generators. Another is grown outside with the aid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Another is produced on a factory farm somewhere, genetically modified to resist pests and the cold.

The fourth tomato, however, is a little bit different. It’s not quite as perfect looking, with spots and scars here and there. It costs a little more, but then it has a higher nutritional value, according to some dietitians. It was grown without any artificial fertilizers or pesticides, and sits before you the way nature intended.

Which one do you buy?

An increasing number of enlightened and health-conscious consumers are picking tomato number four, potato number four, anything that is certified organic.

Last year, B.C.’s 500 organic farms sold about $12.5 million worth of organic products, and growth in the rest of the country continued in the range of 20 per cent annually. Canadian markets for organic products are expected to be worth $3 billion annually by 2005. How do you like them potatoes?

While Canadian consumers will be a large part of this market, organic growers are also looking south and to Europe as potential markets for our organic products.

The Certified Organic Association of British Columbia (COABC) is taking steps to ensure that the province’s certification program is accepted by these new markets.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has kicked in a $45,000 grant to the association, to tweak the province’s program so that it falls into line with international requirements – small differences of opinion as to what exactly the minimum requirements are for food to be considered "organic" are all that is keeping Canadian produce off foreign shelves.

"Our growing organic sector depends on having a credible certification program that guarantees the growing methods for organic products to consumers," said agriculture minister Ed Conroy. "Our growers need to meet global standards to expand into the international marketplace."

A new certification system will presumably meet the requirements for organic certification in the U.S., Europe, and other organic producing companies.

Right now B.C. is ahead of the game, according to COABC president Glen Wakeling. "B.C.’s organic community continues to be envied by our counterparts in the rest of Canada. We have superior grade organic standards and good support from our provincial government. This success can be attributed to the work of all the dedicated people in the organic movement."

The COABC currently promotes organic agriculture and educates the public on the environmental and health benefits of going organic.

The organization is also responsible for issuing and monitoring the use of the "British Columbia Certified Organic" symbols on food products since 1993, when it was the first program of its kind in Canada.

Research, and the recent uproar over Mad Cow disease and genetically modified foods, shows that consumers truly want more accurate information about the quality of their food and how it is produced. Although it often doesn’t look as aesthetically perfect as other produce, with organic you can be reasonably sure of what you’re getting.

Locally, there are a handful of organic farmers, six at the last count, who mostly serve the local market in Whistler – with 50-plus restaurants, three full-service grocery stores and high volumes of enlightened tourists from the U.S. and Europe, there is enough demand in the valley to keep up with the supply.

A few of the organic farmers that produce roots and tubers sell to specialty stores like Capers in the Lower Mainland, but there hasn’t been a need to develop opportunities in foreign markets.

"It definitely won’t affect anything for us," says Lovena Harvey who runs the weekly farmer’s market in the Upper Village in the summer, as well as The Gathering Place organic farm. "We won’t even consider selling to a foreign market. Our stuff is all for local customers, mostly Whistler."

During the spring, they do sell Watercress to specialty stores in the Lower Mainland, but they are busy enough growing organic specialty items for Whistler restaurants and stores.

Their main crop is a selection of seven salad greens and six edible flowers, which are popular in local eateries. They also grow a selection of special beans, such as purple fava beans, and scour the countryside for wild foods like stinging nettles and burdock roots.

Harvey says it shouldn’t be a problem for other Canadian organic farmers that don’t happen to live near resort communities or urban areas to reach foreign markets. Although she hasn’t seen the changes to the certification process proposed by COABC, she has studied certification processes and believes Canada’s present system to be among the best in the world.

"Whether you’re in Ontario or B.C., the certification process is basically the same set standard, there are set Canadian guidelines. There are differences between the provinces, but all provincial guidelines are in accordance with the Canadian standards, which are very high," says Harvey.

"If anything, it is we in Canada who are concerned about American standards."

In Canada, before a farm can become certified, there is a minimum three-year waiting period to give the soil time to process any chemical fertilizers and pesticides that may be left over from conventional farming. The soil and water is tested by registered organic certification agencies, and the farming is monitored closely to ensure compliance – the credibility of the organic label depends on it, and farmers take it very seriously.

In the U.S., however, there are some organic certification associations that will award organic status after just one year, to help farmers make the cross-over to organic more easily. People who grow organic eat organic, and Harvey says there are some organic imports that she won’t touch.

The core of all organic farming is the belief that natural foods, grown and harvested ethically, are better for the consumer and better for the environment.

The COABC definition of organic farming is that "Organic Agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

While this definition seems simple enough, not everyone believes that organic food is that different from conventionally farmed foods. The COABC is currently battling the B.C. Egg Marketing Board, which is attempting to force B.C.’s Certified Organic egg producers to join their system and pay a levy to support it – this would add about $1 to the cost of a dozen eggs and diminish what organic producers see as a huge difference between the two eggs.

One egg is laid by a chicken who has a sheltered place to nest, a place to roost and the freedom to run around an enclosure eating grubs and grass as it sees fit.

The other egg is laid by a chicken that is cooped up in a cage only slightly larger than itself, fed a diet that makes egg shells white, kept in a climate controlled building, and injected with antibiotics to keep her from getting sick.

The eggs are different in colour, size, and, once cracked, in taste and texture. The organic egg, because of the wider variety of foods ingested by the chicken, are believed to have more nutritional value.

Which one do you buy?

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