Priority setting for organic research in Canada begins

man with pigs in a barn Sébastien Angers operates Ferme Rheintal, an 84-hectare organic farm raising mainly pigs as well as cattle at Sainte-Monique, Québec, and also runs a company processing and direct marketing fresh meat and charcuterie raised on the farm. Participants attending the 2nd Canadian Organic Science Conference at Longueiul, Québec, spent one day of the conference visiting some of the province’s many organic farms. Photo: Lorraine Stevenson

Scientists and others attending the 2nd Canadian Organic Science Conference Sept. 19 to 21 begin listing needs to guide provincial and national funding initiatives

By Lorraine Stevenson
OrganicBiz staff

Longueuil, QC – Organic researchers are going to be looking for farmers, processors and other sector representatives to tell them what sector priorities are the most urgent.

Meeting during National Organic Week to discuss and set priorities for their work, many of the 200-plus participants attending the 2nd Canadian Organic Science Conference here September 19 to 21 were scientists and graduate students, there to presenting their studies’ findings in agronomic, soil, crop and animal sciences.

Their work is supported by the Organic Science Cluster II, a federally supported initiative for increasing Canada’s scientific capacity in organic agriculture, matched with industry support.

The first — and last — time they were together to discuss research priorities was in 2012 at the University of Manitoba. Similar to last time, the plan of action chosen ultimately also determines the future direction of organic sector.

Andrew Hammermeister, director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) and an assistant professor in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University, who facilitated that part of the conference, also reminded them of the limited funds available to meet the sector’s needs.

Are we looking for more profitability? The gold star of environmental sustainability? What direction do we want this to go? – Andrew Hammermeister

“We’ll have to be strategic about what issues we want to deal with,” he said. “We’re serving the farmers, businesses, consumers, society and the government.

“All of these different groups are looking for something coming out of this organic research. Are we looking for more profitability? The gold star of environmental sustainability? What direction do we want this to go?”

Those questions will soon be put in front of farmer groups, organic associations, businesses and other stakeholder groups across Canada as this process hits the road to gather data to inform what’s officially called the Research Needs Task Force of the Organic Value Chain Roundtable. All data collected will be summarized by the OACC.

The priority setting process is bound to raise more critical questions, including what’s to be done for an otherwise a globally-recognized system of production, yet one not widely adopted, and while having potential to impact major global issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss not growing nearly fast enough to do so.

Here at home organic farms comprise less than two per cent of Canada’s total farms, even as demand for organic food has been growing exponentially to the point where Canada is now the fifth largest organic market in the world.

Yet even as we have developed this highly transparent, consumer-driven and heavily regulated production system, we aren’t speaking a language that a lot of consumers understand, said other speakers attending the conference.

Scientific research specific to Canadian growing conditions remains “very slim” said Canadian Organic Trade Association (COTA) executive director Tia Loftsgard.

And right now there just isn’t enough backing the kinds of claims organic agriculture should be making such as how it can mitigate climate change, support pollinators and produce healthy soil.

“We often need to remind the public and the industry that organic is about more than simply reducing our exposure to pesticides and GMOs,” she said.

Economic and social studies also do not exist in the sector “and this is an obstacle in order to convince government of the triple bottom line benefits,” she added.

Loftsgard was one of nearly 20 additional invited speakers at an event also devoted to looking at big picture issues around organic agriculture’s present and future states.

“Right now in the organic sector worldwide we talk a lot about this next phase of organic agriculture,” said Josée Boisclair, conference co-chair and a researcher with IRDA (Research and Development Institute for the Agri-Environment) based in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Québec.

“People are very interested to know more about organic and what’s happening in a wider context of food security and climate change.”


Plenary keynote speakers at the conference included Markus Arbenz, executive director of the 800-member global organic umbrella Organics International (IFOAM), speaking on a future vision and strategy that would move organic beyond the small fraction of the world’s food production it currently occupies.

Urs Niggli, director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) based in Switzerland, addressed the assembly via video-conference, tackling the thorny issue of organic’s yield gap compared to conventional — meta analysis currently pegs it at around 20 per cent of conventional — and making a strident argument around why organic science must find a way to close it.

Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, a senior natural resources officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, spoke later in the week of a planet in “an era of climate and dietary chaos,” arguing that even as most food systems, including organic, now strive toward sustainability, none thus far have demonstrated capacity to provide for both nature and people’s security.

The conference was held in a province providing strong incentives and investments through its provincial Ministere de l’Agriculture, des Pecheries et de l’Alimentation du Quebec (MAPAC) to help farmers transition to organic.

Caroline Halde, an assistant organic agriculture professor at Université Laval and conference co-chair, said the innovation found on Quebéc farms has been most definitely directed by farmers, not researchers.

“Also one of the reasons we have so many organic farmers would be that they’re just very well organized,” she said.

“There’s been for years, since the 1970s, an organization of organic farmers that has been doing conferences and organizing field events. That has really helped with the knowledge transfer to farmers.”