There was a time when Ted Zettel would look at his friends' dairy cows and shake his head.
Mr. Zettel, a farmer based near Walkerton, Ont., couldn't figure out how the animals looked so healthy. No special chemicals in the feed. Letting the cows graze at will.
Mr. Zettel, now chair of the board of Organic Meadow Co-operative, which represents more than 100 milk, egg, grain and oilseed family farms nationwide, became an organic farmer and got in on the ground floor of what is now more than a $1-billion industry.
Organic farms make up 1.5 per cent of all farms in Canada, according to 2007 statistics from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
The question now? How to reconcile the demands of so-called conventional farming standards with organic standards. It's something that organizations such as Mr. Zettel's and the Canadian Organic Growers (COG) group are just beginning to look at.
With last year's Canadian legal standards for certifying organic farmers put into place, the government now boasts of 3,600 certified producers farming 530,000 hectares of land.
Theoretically, the land does have a lower carbon footprint once farmed organically: the International Trade Centre (a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations) did a report on organic farming and climate change in 2008. They found most farms decrease their footprint by as much as 15 per cent - although the results vary widely.
Yet when it comes to food safety, there's not as much research completed. That's what COG hopes to change. In March, COG - a national organization representing gardeners, farmers and consumers - received $50,000 from the government to figure out how to best harmonize safety standards.
COG will pick five farmers with interesting ideas and give them some money to spread their thoughts to others.
It's one of the first such initiatives ever taken under the new government standards.
"The way the food safety groups work is they are run by the conventional food safety organizations," explains COG's Laura Telford, citing the Canadian Horticultural Council as an example.
It gives the impression that organic farmers "don't need to worry about food safety" since they already shy away from injecting extra chemicals into farming. But COG says there's a lot more to food safety than that.
Take avian influenza, which the World Health Organization says has killed millions of chickens and 262 humans as of last summer.
To prevent against infections, Ms. Telford says the conventional food industry demands farmers strictly segregate their chickens from wild chicken. Government organic standards dictate the opposite.
With food safety concerns at their fore, organic producers also worry about consumer confusion about what all the different labels mean and whether it's worth paying the often higher price.
Brad Reid, now president of Certified Organic Associations of BC, has been farming chicken for a generation.
"It's very confusing for people when they go into store. [They see]free range, free run, certified organic, animal welfare," Mr. Reid says. "And then they see the [higher]price. And North American consumers, for generations, have been driven by price."
Mr. Reid says it comes down to values. Lower prices force conventional farmers to look for shortcuts. Through nearly 24-hour daylight in barns, injecting chemicals in feeds and other measures, it now takes only 4.5 weeks to grow a chicken to two kilograms.
Two decades ago, that same process took two and a half months.
Although the organic industry has been able to fight against this pressure so far, he sees the number of new entrants eager to get a piece of the market starting to put pressure to drive the prices down.
"I grew up in farming. If you walk into a barn and the birds are literally playing, play fighting, chasing, that's natural interaction for a chicken," Mr. Reid adds.
"That should be a motivation … but unfortunately in the last five to six years organic has become a market instead of a lifestyle. … It's causing pressure in the organic industry to move away [from their]basic principles and put price at the front."
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