Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Agriculture and Forestry
Issue No. 29 - Evidence - Meeting of May 9, 2017
OTTAWA, Tuesday, May 9, 2017
The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry met this day at
6 p.m. to continue its study on the potential impact of the effects of
climate change on the agriculture, agri-food and forestry sectors.
Senator Ghislain Maltais (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry continues its
This evening, we are pleased to welcome Ashley St Hilaire, Director of
Programs and Government Relations with the Canadian Organic Growers, and
Derek Lynch, Associate Professor with the Faculty of Agriculture at
Dalhousie University. Welcome to both of you.
Before we begin, I would ask the senators to introduce themselves,
starting on my left with the co-chair of this committee.
Senator Mercer: I'm senator Terry Mercer, Nova Scotia.
Senator Dagenais: Jean-Guy Dagenais from Quebec.
Senator Tardif: Good evening. Claudette Tardif from Alberta.
Senator Gagné: Raymonde Gagné from Manitoba.
Senator Bernard: Senator Bernard from Nova Scotia.
Senator Petitclerc: Chantal Petitclerc from Quebec.
Senator Pratte: André Pratte from Quebec.
Senator Beyak: Lynn Beyak, Ontario. Welcome.
Senator Doyle: Norman Doyle, Newfoundland.
Senator Ataullahjan: Salma Ataullahjan, Toronto, Ontario.
Senator Ogilvie: Kelvin Ogilvie, Nova Scotia.
The Chair: Thank you, senators.
I would like to now invite the witnesses to make their presentations.
Ashley St Hilaire, Director of Programs and Government Relations,
Canadian Organic Growers: Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, and honourable
senators of the committee. We thank you for inviting us to speak to you
today about the potential impacts of climate change and the repercussions of
carbon pricing on organic agriculture.
I am the Director of Programs and Government Relations, Canadian Organic
Growers. I'm joined here today by Dr. Derek Lynch, Associate Professor,
Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University.
In advance of our presentation, we submitted a briefing note to members
of the committee which summarizes our perspectives and provides
recommendations on government research policies and programs that we believe
will support farmers in adopting practices to reduce their greenhouse gas
and energy footprint. For today's testimony, we'll focus on key
recommendations and discuss the science behind these.
Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit
the environment and the economy. While we often refer to organics as a
sector, it's important to remember that organic agriculture is a
standardized approach to producing food using energy efficient and
A key aspect of these techniques is that they allow farmers to enhance
the soil health and fertility and retain soil carbon, thereby eliminating
their need and reliance on external inputs such as synthetic fertilizers,
which, as we know, contribute to over 70 per cent of Canada's total nitrous
oxide greenhouse gas emissions.
We're not here to say that every farmer should pursue organic
certification, but we think that every farmer who relies on external inputs
to increase their soil fertility can benefit from the adoption of organic
soil management practices.
This is particularly important to note as carbon pricing frameworks are
implemented. These will inherently increase fertilizer prices and put a
farm's profitability at risk if the farmer is not equipped with techniques
to reduce fertilizer use.
However, when we talk about climate change and agriculture, we can't just
focus on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to discuss
farm level climate change adaptation strategies that will result in a more
energy efficient and resilient farming system. Again, we can look to
techniques used in organic agriculture as a means to achieving this.
I would like to turn it over to Derek now to speak on energy use in
Derek Lynch, Associate Professor, Faculty of Agriculture, Dalhousie
University, as an individual: I would first like to thank the committee
for the opportunity to speak on the critical and complex topic of climate
change mitigation and adaptation. My research is primarily in agronomy and
agroecology, but for 10 years until 2015 I was Canada Research Chair in
Organic Agriculture at Dalhousie. I have focused on examining the
environmental impact of low-input or biologically intensive farming systems
such as organic while also developing innovative management approaches for
all agricultural systems.
I also recently served on the national sustainability and climate change
working group of the national agricultural round tables. That working group
had representatives from all the major agriculture and food sectors,
including seafood and organic. It is actively providing a synopsis of the
current status, challenges and opportunities for all sectors in agriculture
related to climate change.
In the following I will provide a brief overview of research on three
characteristics of farming systems related to today's topic, namely,
embedded energy use, soil carbon status, and soil health and resiliency.
On the first topic of embedded energy use, a comprehensive assessment of
the global warming potential of any farming system includes an assessment of
greenhouse gas emissions, changes in soil carbon, plus quantification of the
inherent energy cost embedded in producing the agricultural product,
including from all inputs.
Most national studies of energy using across the entire agricultural
supply chain, such as conducted in the U.S. or the U.K., have found that the
farm management regime accounts for as much as 50 per cent of this embedded
energy cost. Comparative studies on farms in Germany and Switzerland have
found that most organic farms have lower embedded energy use per unit
product than conventional farms, while our own review of the existing data
of 130 studies, including Canadian, found organic grain and livestock
systems reduced energy use and improved energy efficiency per unit product.
Other more recent meta-analyses, such as that by UBC researchers, also
agreed with these assessments.
However, while the U.K. and the U.S., as I mentioned, have completed life
cycle supply chain or from field to fork assessments of energy by sector
across Canadian agriculture, the supply chain energy footprint is poorly
understood. Thus, one of our recommendations in our brief is to perform a
life cycle assessment and energy audit of the Canadian agriculture and
agri-food system. That assessment would look at each agricultural sector in
detail with a focus on embedded energy use on farms, in transport,
processing, distribution, retail, and in the kitchens of Canadians.
On the second topic of soil carbon status, the largest global terrestrial
storehouse of carbon is in soil organic matter. Thus, even a small change in
soil organic carbon contributes substantially to climate change mitigation.
By some estimates, between a 3 per cent and 15 per cent offsetting of
greenhouse gas emissions.
Maintaining and improving soil organic carbon is also an important
adaptive strategy for increasing the resilience of soils to a changing
climate. However, across many agricultural regions in Canada the shift to
increase annual cropping and simpler rotations of often crops with low
residue is projected to be leading to a decline in soil organic carbon.
While organic cropping systems often may rely on increased tillage,
organic crop rotations necessarily are characterized by extended and more
complex or diverse crop rotations, often including perennial forages with
legumes, green manures and even added weed biomass. A number of studies have
shown the net effect of these combined practices is that organic farming
systems help retain soil organic carbon. Importantly, these types of
agronomic practices are the key components of climate-smart agriculture
being promoted globally.
On the third topic of soil health and soil resiliency or climate
resiliency, soil health is a term that integrates the measurement of soil
chemical, biological and physical properties. Many critical aspects of soil
health are directly related to the maintenance and regular addition of
organic matter to soil.
Conventional no-till systems reduce the disturbance of soil and thus
maintain soil organic carbon and may improve soil health, but the rates of
return of organic residues to soil can be low. More importantly, a no-till
regime may not be permanent.
In contrast, organic farming systems are carbon intensive, relying on
regular additions and incorporation of organic matter. The decomposition of
these added organic materials directly drives biological activity and
increases soil health. As a result of these practices and improved soil
health, organic systems have been found in studies to perform particularly
well under environmental stress as a result of improved water infiltration
under intense rainfall events like we are having, and thus can lead to
reduced water erosion and associated loss of soil quality and soil carbon or
improved water retention and plant available water which enhances yield
stability under drought periods. These are examples of key attributes of
climate-smart soils and system resilience to extreme weather linked to
One of the recommendations in our brief, actually from the sustainability
and climate change multi-sector working group, is to invest in research,
tools and programs that support the verification of outcomes and demonstrate
the impact of farming systems with respect to climate mitigation and
adaptation or resilience.
Now I'm going to hand it over to Ashley for some concluding statements.
Ms. St Hilaire: We would like to end things by emphasizing the
fact that practices in organic agriculture can be used to mitigate and
reduce the impacts of climate change. These practices can be utilized by
farms of any type and scale and are not reserved for those who decide to
pursue organic certification.
We're concerned that carbon pricing will increase the cost of
made-in-Canada agricultural products and food and potentially decrease the
competitiveness of Canada's agricultural sector.
Furthermore, we are concerned that the rising costs of fertilizer inputs
as a result of carbon pricing could be detrimental to a farm's profitability
if they are not prepared with the knowledge and skills to adopt new soil-
management practices. We believe, therefore, that it is prudent for this
government to conduct an assessment of the economic impact of carbon pricing
on the agricultural sector.
Furthermore, when creating policies like carbon pricing, which will force
a shift in agricultural practices, it is critical that the government
prioritize research, knowledge transfer, and on-farm extension services,
which include organic techniques, so farmers can gain the skills they need
to operate energy efficient, profitable farm businesses without passing on
the cost to consumers.
Beyond that, we'd like to see the government develop a revenue neutral
system for carbon pricing of the agricultural sector. This revenue should be
used to incentivize and reward best environmental and climate resilient
practices on farms beyond just carbon emission reduction. Carbon pricing is
a top-down, punitive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It
should be balanced out by programs that reward farmers who have taken steps
to protect and enhance the resiliency of their farm ecosystems.
In closing, I thank this committee for the invitation to testify on the
impacts of climate change and carbon pricing, and to provide recommendations
on how our governments can support the agricultural sector's pursuit and
understanding of climate-smart farming practices. We look forward to
answering your questions.
The Chair: Thank you very much for your good presentations.
We will now begin the question period.
Senator Mercer: Thank you both for your very informative
presentations. Very informative.
You said that review of existing data from 130 studies, including your
own, Dr. Lynch, found that organic grain and livestock systems reduced
energy use and improved energy efficiency per unit of product.
What is the cost of all this?
Mr. Lynch: Do you mean the cost of the research?
Senator Mercer: No, the cost effect that this reduction has had.
Mr. Lynch: If I understand your question, you mean —
Senator Mercer: You have talked about energy efficiency.
Mr. Lynch: Yes.
Senator Mercer: How much money is saved there?
Mr. Lynch: That's a very good point. Primarily, organic systems
are more energy efficient because of the avoidance of using energy intensive
inputs in farming systems, with some exceptions. You're not using nitrogen
fertilizer, which is very energy intensive, but there would be other inputs
that are energy intensive too. Even in livestock systems, there are
concentrates and pesticides, et cetera. There is that direct saving in input
costs. It's the primary saving in input costs if you shift to a lower input
farming system, even if it's not organic. Those are the most direct savings.
Senator Mercer: I was surprised at your statement that
conventional no-till systems reduce soil disturbance, and thus SOC
mineralization and improve soil health, but rates of return of organic
residues to the soil can be low and the no-till regime may not be permanent.
Mr. Lynch: Yes.
Senator Mercer: That's the first time that I remember hearing at
this table that no-till doesn't have a permanent effect.
Mr. Lynch: It depends on if it's maintained permanently and you do
not disturb. With a no-till system in particular, you're tending to not
disturb the surface of the soil. It's a no-till system. You're accumulating
soil organic matter in the surface, so it's really important that you do not
disturb that and revert to tillage at any subsequent date.
In contrast, in a more diverse cropping system with deeper roots the
organic matter in the soil carbon is not just in the surface. You are
depositing it lower down in the soil profile. If you're emphasizing a
no-till system, you're sort of putting all of your eggs in the surface of
the soil. You might put it that way, and it's really more important you do
not disturb that accumulation of carbon in the surface.
A recent review by VandenBygaart with Agriculture Canada looked at some
extension information from across North America and found that while no-till
has been widely adopted in conventional agriculture, the cases where it has
been maintained permanently in a no-till status are not as high as people
For various reasons, farmers have had to go back in and till, maybe even
one year in ten, but it has an impact on that deposit of soil carbon if it's
an intermittent no-till system rather than a permanent no-till system. I
would be glad to provide that review by VandenBygaart.
Senator Mercer: Thank you. That would be helpful.
My final question: You did say that one of the recommendations was that
we perform a life-cycle assessment and energy audit of the Canadian
agriculture and agri-food system.
That sounds like a good idea, but two questions go with that: Who would
do that and how much would it cost?
Mr. Lynch: I could probably suggest the first, but honestly I
would be guessing a bit on how much it would cost. I cited two studies. The
comprehensive study done in the U.S. on their energy footprint from farm
through to distribution, processing and even storage in the home by the beef
and dairy sectors, et cetera was conducted by USDA, the U.S. Department of
It was a huge study. It's one thing to make the recommendation, but I
appreciate it would be quite a piece of work. In the context of the
importance of the contribution of agriculture to climate change, it's
Senator Mercer: I'm not suggesting that I'm against it. I'm trying
to put it in context so that we know as we go along. If this recommendation
were to come out in the end as one of our recommendations, I know the first
questions we would get from the Department of Agriculture would be: "How
much is it going to cost and who's going to do it?''
Mr. Lynch: Agriculture and Agri-food Canada is the obvious
candidate. In fact, many of the components of that are already there. Many
assessments of typical tillage and energy costs of tillage have been done by
This is coming at it from a different angle, though. It's not just
looking at the farming system. It's going right across the supply chain.
That's very helpful, because then you can target your efforts in each sector
where it's more likely to have impacts on the actual energy cost of the food
Senator Gagné: I believe that traditionally Canada has looked to
Europe, where most of the research related to organic agriculture exists. I
find that these studies tend not to influence public policy in Canada.
Would you like to comment on that?
Mr. Lynch: Would you like me to comment, or Ashley?
Senator Gagné: Both of you.
Mr. Lynch: Would you like to comment, Ashley?
Ms. St Hilaire: I can start it off. I'm sure you will have more to
Sometimes it's the perception of organics that holds us back from making
gains in public policy. Much of the feedback we hear from Agriculture and
Agri-Food Canada and the people that we work with in the minister's office
is that they don't want to favour one sector over another. They have this
equal approach to treating all of the different commodity groups.
That's where we need to paint a clearer picture of what organics is. It's
not just a sector; it's an approach. Should we emphasize and encourage
sustainable agricultural practices? Yes, and organic is a sustainable
Sometimes it's the way we communicate and speak about organics. We always
want to have policies that benefit all of the agricultural commodity groups.
What we're trying to say is that when you invest in research in organics
these are techniques that can be used by any producer. You don't have to do
a whole slew of work to be certified.
In part, it's the way we have presented ourselves.
Mr. Lynch: From the research perspective, I think that's true.
There are 20 or 30 years of research on ecosystem services in farming in
Europe and payments to farmers. Sometimes 50 per cent of their farm income
is because of bundled services, and organic was bundled into that. They have
devoted a lot of research in Europe to see if it's really true that you get
more soil organic carbon under organic farming.
In the last 10 years, there has been a huge advance in research in Canada
and North America that has looked at organic farming. We have organic farms
in Canada that have been running as commercial organic farms for 30 years or
more now. I had a great opportunity to work on that kind of angle to see
whether it's true that organic farming contributes broadly in ecosystem
It's very interesting to note that the Canadian consumer has shifted in
the last 10 years. When polls of Canadian consumers were asked, even 10
years ago, why they buy organic, it was almost invariably a health benefit
response. Now it's not. It's more of a complex response, with a good third
of respondents saying that the perceived environmental benefit is why they
are buying organic. That's important.
Senator Gagné: How can organic producers help others adopt low
greenhouse gases practices? How can that knowledge transfer take place?
Ms. St Hilaire: Traditionally, extension services were carried out
at the provincial level. We have seen in the last 20 or 30 years that these
extension services have been greatly scaled back. One of the big ones was
the prairie extension service that was running for 30 years that was stopped
in 2010. For whatever reason, we haven't seen perhaps a value or we're not
valuing these extension services enough.
A lot of it has to do with the reliance on technology to solve all of our
problems. The research is showing us that technology can only get so far.
You can only create a seed that's so good or machinery that's at a certain
level. We have lost an appreciation for the technique and practices of
farming, and an understanding of the ecosystem, the soils and how everything
interacts in the environment. That's what people in organics are excited
about, and that's what you learn when you're practising organics.
When these technologies fail, such as a pesticide that is pulled off the
market and is no longer available, or the price of an input like fertilizer
goes up, now we are seeing that farmers are left without another solution.
They don't know where to turn because now their technology is not something
they can use anymore. That's why we often say that organic is a business
risk management tool because it protects against that price and input
volatility, that unpredictability. For us, the extension services and
knowledge transfer are absolutely critical to get the word out, to get that
training and to make it available to farmers.
This government prioritizes knowledge transfer. We hear them talking a
lot about it in the minister's mandate letter, but in the last organic
science cluster program we are just finishing now the knowledge transfer
budget was cut completely. It was a $1.1 million budget and they severed
that. We are doing all this great research, and we are not given the
opportunities to get it out into the hands of farmers so they can adapt and
get better at what they are doing.
Mr. Lynch: I can comment briefly. If you think of some of the key
agronomic practices within organics relevant to the topics of climate change
and climate resiliency, none of them are unique to organics.
Lots of sectors are trying to encourage diversified cropping for lots of
reasons that are often related to soil in terms of depositing soil carbon at
lower depths, improving soil health and improving soil resiliency. You may
have to diversify your cropping if you're an organic farmer, but it's not
unique to organic farming.
Improved reliance on legumes is used to reduce fertilizer use, to be more
efficient, to reduce the energy footprint of the farming system and to
improve nitrogen use efficiency. Using green manures, protecting soil and
reducing soil erosion are cross-coding recommendations that are not unique
It's very exciting to see some new funding coming forward in the next
round of cluster funding across agriculture in Canada. These kinds of
practices are being looked at to see how they can be adopted across all
sectors. Nobody is saying that looks like organic farming. It doesn't really
matter if it looks like organic farming. These are globally recognized as
the ways to address the issues of soil health and soil carbon.
Senator Beyak: I have no questions. Your presentation was
excellent, thoughtful and balanced. I learned some new things today, and I
wanted to thank you very much for that.
I liked the ideas you gave us for keeping it revenue neutral and using
revenues for research and development. Thanks for that.
Senator Petitclerc: I would like to ask you a question, because I
do understand and you have explained it very well, on how less invasive
organic growing and farming is. It has been well documented, and we know
I don't know that I want to call them the detractors, but even here in
committee some people were saying at one time that if we all go organic, the
planet will starve. How sustainable or how possible is it to go big scale in
terms of costs and productivity? Is it realistic to want to expand organic
Ms. St Hilaire: Often we focus on yield. It's all about yield and
productivity is the key measure for success in agriculture. We always like
to put that in the perspective of the health of the environment. At what
cost to the environment are we willing to have these yields? What sacrifices
are we willing to make?
Organic agriculture is catching up. How long have been investing in
Canada in research in organic agriculture? It has been 10 years. We're on
the second science cluster and are moving into the third. We've only had 10
years of formalized government level research in organic agriculture, and in
that time the yields of many of those commodities are catching up.
One of the biggest impacts to increasing yield is using the right seed.
You want to have regionally adapted seed that is bred for organic
conditions. There is research out of Manitoba showing that when you're using
the appropriate seed for organic production, the yields are competitive, if
not better than conventional producers. We're making gains in that area in
terms of productivity, but we never want to sacrifice organic productivity
for environmental health, and that's where we're trying to find the balance
with organic agriculture.
Mr. Lynch: I think you were partly asking about the size of the
farms. I know the overall productivity was mentioned as well. I was on a
tour last fall after a conference in Quebec when we visited some of the
largest organic farms near Montreal.
The scale can be very impressive, but on productivity I always partly
answer in this way. Sometimes organic is juxtaposed as a box to fit in and
your level of productivity will be tightly constrained by it. If you have
the opportunity, as I have, to look at the productivity of organic dairy
production across Ontario, as well as organic grain and potato production,
there is quite a range of intensity even within organic standards. You can
have a very low input system. It might be more profitable, but there will be
low productivity. Still within organic you can push the system. You can have
a higher productivity that might not be as profitable, but the productivity
will be higher and you'll find that scale. With that range, you're
overlapping with a different range and the lower input of conventional
production. There is a spectrum we need to play with, I guess I am getting
at, in terms of integrating some of the practices we're talking about but
absolutely maintaining productivity.
Organic has learned a lot in the last 10 years of where the weaknesses
are and about increasing the productivity. There are a lot more synergies
than two separate systems here.
The Chair: I would like to continue along the same lines as
Senator Petitclerc: why are organic products so expensive? If an average
Canadian family of three or four children is shopping in a grocery store's
produce section and sees one bag of carrots for $1.95 and another for $5.95,
which one do you think the mother of the family is going to choose?
Ms. St Hilaire: Thank you for the question. A criticism we receive
in organics is that it is costlier and more expensive. We are seeing that
price margin coming down. As our systems and our techniques improve, we're
getting better at growing food and our yields are catching up. Our prices
are definitely coming down on organic commodities.
It's important to understand why it is more expensive for these products.
It comes in part due to the lack of available support systems for organic
producers. Basically they assume all of the risk of their production
systems, and that's reflected in part in the cost.
If you want to become organic, it's a three-year transition period. It's
a high-risk period where you're learning a completely new way of growing
food. Often there are infrastructure and capital expenses on your farm that
you didn't have before. You have to invest in new equipment. For grain
farms, they have to invest in grain mill storage on their own farms. It is a
big expense for them. In addition, certification is an expense. In a lot of
other countries there is a cost-share program for certification. We don't
have anything like that available in Canada, so that certification fee is
absorbed by the producer.
There are gaps in supply chain right now. There is a limit in terms of
appropriate storage and transport facilities, and slaughterhouses that are
willing to take organic meat and take on that risk themselves. Sometimes the
transport costs are a lot higher. A variety of mechanisms result in a higher
premium for organic products. However, consumer research shows that at the
retail level, moms and millennials are the biggest consumers of organic
The Chair: Excuse me. I have another question, and the senators
do, too. You mentioned in your brief that not all producers are accredited
or certified. So I can find a bag of carrots labelled "organic'' at IGA, but
in reality they are regular carrots for bunnies. How can Canadians be sure
that the organic produce they buy is certified organic, and that they aren't
being duped about the product, be it vegetables or another product?
Ms. St Hilaire: I think the point we wanted to make in our
presentation was that the practices used in organic agriculture are
available to all producers in Canada, whether or not they choose to certify.
We're not saying that organic practices are limited to organic producers.
It's a technique everyone can use.
At the supermarket you would never see anything that hasn't been
certified to meet the Canadian Organic Standards. It's very heavily
regulated. The Canadian Organic Standards are owned and held by the Canadian
General Standards Board. They are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection
Agency. If there is a product with an organic label that is not true, in
that they are not meeting those standards, it would be a fraudulent activity
enforceable under the CFIA.
Right now we have a complaints-based model. They don't actively look for
fraudulent cases. It would be based on complaints by consumers or anyone
concerned about their practices. We have a high level of brand integrity in
Canada as a result of this partnership we have with government to establish
rigorous Canadian Organic Standards.
Senator Dagenais: Thank you to our witnesses. My first question is
about carbon. Could you give us some concrete examples about the impact that
the carbon tax will have on an average producer compared with a major
Ms. St Hilaire: When we think about the carbon pricing of an
agricultural system, most often we're thinking of the impacts on the cost of
the inputs they're using. We're thinking about what will increase in cost.
As a result of carbon taxes we expect it will be fertilizer because that's
very energy intensive to produce and fuel on farms. We're thinking of the
taxes that are going to happen. Those are the two main inputs that would be
affected by carbon pricing.
Fortunately for organic producers, they are not using synthetic
fertilizers so the impact of carbon pricing for them will likely be limited
to an increase in the cost of fuel.
Senator Dagenais: Let's go back to organic products. Don't you
think that the price of organic products limits the clientele to a select
group of consumers who have the means to buy them? Average Canadians earning
$30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 a year will choose less expensive products to
feed their families. Don't you think that this is aimed at Canadians who
have the means to pay for organic products?
Ms. St Hilaire: Another association we work with is the Canada
Organic Trade Association do annual market research on the organic sector
and they conduct Ipsos consumer polls. We're seeing that over 50 per cent of
Canadians buy organics every week and hey plan to maintain or increase their
purchases every year.
Canadians place a high value on sustainably produced food. They are very
conscious consumers, and they are very literate. They understand that
organics benefit the environment, and they are willing to pay a premium for
We're also seeing that the grocery bills of consumers who regularly
purchase organic products are only about $25 more a week. It's not
inaccessible. There is a myth that it's only available for the elite, and
we're not seeing that.
The consumer polls we are seeing show that a diverse group of people buy
organic. There are not any trends in terms of age or ethnicity, but we hear
that mothers and millennials are the biggest consumers of organic products
Mr. Lynch: If I could partly answer from a slightly different
angle this question on the cost of food, perhaps you won't be surprised
where I'm coming from. I'm thinking of who pays, in a sense, if we actually
want to have farming systems that maintain soil organic matter, maybe
increase soil carbon and partly address climate change. For some sectors in
agriculture, achieving these latter goals would actually mean deintensifying
with more diversified crop rotations and less frequency of the high value
Ultimately as a country the question: Does that mean those prices of that
farming system are passed on to the consumer, or does the country subsidize
it as we've seen in other jurisdictions? The true cost of food is a much
larger question. What's actually embedded in the cost of the food is a
bigger picture and is relevant for all sectors in that regard.
Senator Tardif: I would like to ask you to expand further on two
statements that are included in the information package you provided to our
The first one is that Canada has negotiated organic equivalency
agreements with 90 per cent of our major trading partners, including the
U.S., European Union, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Japan. Agreements with
Mexico and South Korea are currently being negotiated. What is understood by
organic equivalency agreements?
The second statement is that Canadian value-added organic food producers
are relying on imports and are having difficulty finding reliable and
consistent sources of ingredients. Could you expand further on those two
Ms. St Hilaire: An organic equivalency agreement allows for the
free trade and labelling of organic products between two countries. An
organic product produced in U.S., according to the National Organic Program,
which is what they call their organic standard, would meet the same
standards pf production as our own Canadian Organic Standards.
Between countries there are often differences in their organic standards,
so the equivalency agreement is negotiated with governments. They do an
evaluation of each other's organic standard and determine that it meets what
they're looking for in terms of criteria to allow for an equivalency
agreement. A product that is produced to the National Organic Program
standards can be labelled organic here. They don't have to go through
Canadian organic certification again.
We do not have an equivalency agreement with China, so any products from
China labelled organic have been verified to meet the Canadian Organic
Standards. Does that clarify it?
Senator Tardif: Yes, thank you. Was that an issue with the
European Union trade agreement with Canada at all?
Ms. St Hilaire: We have had equivalency with them for a long time.
I'm not as well versed on that. I wouldn't be able to fully comment.
Senator Tardif: What about the second statement saying that
organic food processors that rely on imports are having trouble finding
reliable and consistent sources of ingredients?
Ms. St Hilaire: One thing our partners in the U.S. have that we
don't have in Canada is a national organic integrity database. In the U.S.,
it is operated by the USDA and it is updated every month. It lists every
certified organic operator in that country, what they produce, and confirm
their certification and who they are certified with.
If value-added processors are looking for ginger or an ingredient, they
are using for their value-added commodities, there is no database they can
access in Canada to see who is producing that ingredient. They're relying on
brokers. They're relying on Google Internet searches. They're calling us,
especially for producers of niche specialty crops that are difficult to
find. As a result, they will import these products from international
producers because they can't actually physically locate where they are in
Canada. We make it very difficult.
Senator Tardif: Thank you. That was new information for myself at
Senator Bernard: I want to pick up on the points some of my
colleagues raised about cost differentials. I would question the consumer
research that says it's really not so much an issue.
I'm thinking particularly of people who live in poverty. I'm thinking
about so many people in the country who are reliant on food banks. When food
banks were first introduced they were meant to be a short-term measure, and
we now have well over 20 years of people dependent on food banks.
I'm wondering what research has been done that links organic products,
health outcomes and real issues like the real poverty people are struggling
with. I don't think people who are going to food banks have the option of
organic products. These are people that are using food banks but there are
also people in food deserts. Again it's not a choice. I would assume they're
not factored into the consumer research studies.
Who is participating in those studies? Where are the other marginalized
voices? How are they impacted by the trend toward more organic?
Accessibility to organics is definitely a big issue that we talk about
with organic stakeholders. We're always looking at ways to reduce the cost
to make them more accessible.
The market research studies weren't conducted by our association. I would
be happy to follow up and send you their report, so you can look at how they
conducted the study and all the findings from it. I don't want to make any
guesses about what assumptions were made in that research.
There are new options to access organics that make them more affordable.
Direct marketing, actually buying the organic products directly from the
farmer agricultural models are ways to do that.
For instance, on a personal note, I participate in one. For 35 a week, I
get all the organic vegetables and more than I could possibly eat. That is a
pretty affordable amount to spend for locally grown organic produce. Farmers
markets are another option and roadside stands. Any time there is
opportunity to reduce costs, organic farmers want to be profitable and sell
more. They need to access and open up their market to more consumers, and
those are ways to do that.
Senator Bernard: I would be interested in seeing more of the
consumer-based research because I think that's pretty important. Also, I
think the committee would be interested in understanding more about direct
marketing and how that is working and if the direct marketing is actually
reaching food deserts for people who wouldn't normally have access.
Senator Pratte: As happens quite often, I'm a bit at a loss here.
Since your GHG footprint is usually lower, I would have thought you would
favour a carbon pricing system because, as you mentioned in your brief, it
should convince some farmers to change their practices and go into organics.
Shouldn't you applaud such a system and say, "Hurray, let's go,'' because
your practices should be favoured by such a system?
Ms. St Hilaire: The point we wanted to make was that it certainly
creates the incentive to adopt new practices that reduce fertilizer use, but
we were concerned there aren't the support systems in place to make it
easier and less painful for farmers to adapt, basically, to what the
regulation will mean for the cost of their input. We're concerned for
farmers that will be in that situation.
Fortunately, it will not be organic producers, but organic agriculture
practices are available to those farmers. We want to help reach them. We
think that's why extension and knowledge transfer are so important. They
have to go to together.
It's the same with pesticides. When you pull a pesticide off the market,
the whole industry starts panicking because they have no other tools
available to them. I guess they feel abandoned by the government and resent
policies being put in place that seem very top-down, that don't always
consider the reality of the farming system and don't allow the time to
Mr. Lynch: I would add that there was a remarkable consensus in
the working group of the round tables talking about climate change that the
carbon tax approach was too crude a tool, in a way. It certainly needs more
study in terms of the likely efficacy of that tool in agriculture.
As an aside, a colleague of mine recently did a study in B.C. that isn't
published yet. He is an agricultural economist at Dalhousie. He and some
colleagues looked at the effect of the carbon tax on farm profitability and
found it directly affected farm profitability. There is no indication as to
whether it has had a benefit in terms of shifting practices toward
mitigating climate change and adaptation to climate change.
The organic sector and others are saying that we need a more
comprehensive strategy than just a tax. In the organic sector you would
primarily be taxing fuel use, which is a very small part of the overall
energy or carbon footprint of food products. It's actually missing the mark
in that regard.
Senator Pratte: I was surprised by what you wrote in your brief.
There may be a link between my first question and your answer to this one.
You mentioned that in the U.K. and the U.S. they have complete life-cycle
assessments of energy use in the agri-food sector, and we don't have that in
Mr. Lynch: As far as I know, and I stand to be corrected, when we
did that review back in 2011 we couldn't find any comparable comprehensive
assessment in Canada. Given the focus on climate change, it would seem very
useful to have that.
Senator Pratte: Would there be major differences between what we
have in Canada and what they have in the U.S. and the U.K.?
Mr. Lynch: That's an interesting question. In some sectors,
including organic, we are very import-dependent. Maybe the transport would
be more than 10 per cent of the overall carbon footprint. We need to assess
that kind of contribution.
Senator Pratte: That area of research could be interesting.
Mr. Lynch: Yes, I think it's important.
Senator Mercer: I've added a question to my list based on what you
just said. You said there's a Dalhousie professor who is doing a study on
the effect of the carbon tax in British Columbia on the profitability of
You may not want to say it, but we'd love to have his name and perhaps
have a talk with him, if you could share that with us.
Mr. Lynch: Dr. Yiridoe, and he's in the Business and Social
Sciences Department of our faculty.
Senator Mercer: I want to go back to what was said about organic
pricing. I'm the principal grocery shopper in my family. I monitor the
prices. I have noticed a slight decline in organic prices but availability
is still an issue. However, you said that someone shopping organic would be
paying $25 more a week. That's $100 a month. Then you also said the drivers
of this market are mainly women and millennials.
These people had better be making good money. Senator Bernard and I
represent a province where this is an issue. For a lot people, not just in
Nova Scotia but all across the country, $25 a week or certainly $100 a month
would make decisions about going into a grocery store and buying organic or
non-organic pretty simple for them. They're buying the cheapest because they
cannot afford it. We're having a hard enough time feeding our families as it
is. I am not referring to those of us around this table. We're doing quite
well, thank you very much, but a lot of people are suffering.
I'm shocked at that price. The cost benefit may be there for the farmer,
but I sure don't see a cost benefit for the consumer. Unless you can get the
price down to where it is the same as non-organic or better than
non-organic, I know what decision the general public, while wanting to eat
better and thinking they are going to eat better if they eat organic, would
make. I know what decision I would make if I had to decide whether I was
going to buy my granddaughter a pair of sneakers or I was going to eat
organic. I would be opting for my granddaughter.
Mr. Lynch: It just occurred to me that a lot of sectors are being
driven to branding that sort of parallels organic agriculture in some
fashion, whether it's the carbon footprint of their product or it guarantees
a sustainable fishery. Whether it's the retail sector that is driving this
or the consumers broadly driving an interest in the overall impact of
agriculture, in some ways that's a good thing, but it does increase the
price of agricultural products. The organic sector is perhaps an early
pioneer in the concept of your buying, in a sense, the farming system.
You're not just buying the cheapest food possible, you're buying perceived
benefits. We're finally doing the research to validate whether it's true or
not. That's what you're buying. You're buying that farming system, not just
a food product.
We've seen other sectors essentially paralleling that and sometimes, as I
mentioned, being driven by retailers to do so as well. To me, this is part
of a broader paradigm shift, you might say, in all of our relationships to
food and farming systems. Who pays for that shift, those climate benefits.
or whatever else there might be, is a very complex decision. In some
jurisdictions like Europe it's not the consumer that pays. It's the country
as a whole that pays.
Senator Mercer: The issue is we're going to have 9.7 to 9.8
billion people on this planet by 2050. If we can't find a way to produce
enough food to feed them there will be a lot of angry people, and angry
people cause world disruption. There will be famine and there will be wars,
et cetera, et cetera. I don't need to explain that to you.
We need to find a way to feed them. One of the ways not to feed them is
by driving the price up. We have to find a way to bring the price down and
get production up.
The complicating factor is that many of these countries, including our
neighbours, subsidize agriculture, and we don't subsidize agriculture in
this country. That's a real issue. I'm not suggesting that we get into the
subsidies to agriculture, but we're not playing on an even playing field
Senator Beyak: Your response to Senator Tardif raised a question
for me. You spoke about other nations having a national organic integrity
database and I wonder if that would be helpful to us here. Would it be
costly for us to emulate one that's already working elsewhere, and have you
discussed it with somebody?
Ms. St Hilaire: It's something that our sector has been
recommending for many years now. We see it as a tool that can be used to
verify an organic claim. It builds public trust and creates transparency in
our system, which is something that we really value.
It was part of our submission on the next policy framework. It has the
added value of helping bring together the industry for value-added
processors, but most importantly for transparency and verification of
organic claims. It would not be costly; it's just a fancy Excel database.
Senator Petitclerc: It could be a long answer, but maybe a short
answer will suffice.
I want to go back to climate change. You have demonstrated very well how
organic agriculture has less invasive impacts on climate change. Maybe it's
there, but I did not get the effect of climate change on your sector, which
uses the study we're doing.
Do you feel that the effect of climate change is the same on organic
agriculture versus conventional agriculture? Are you equipped the same for
those challenges, or maybe better? Is it more challenging than it is for
Mr. Lynch: The short answer is that risk management is challenging
for any agricultural sector, as are unpredictability and especially climate.
I am an agronomy and soils person so I tend to think of soil. Organic
farming at least strengthens the soil's ability to be more resilient and
improve soil health. It's not unique to organic. Diversified farming and
many other practices can improve soil health. That's one tool of resisting
and adapting to climate change.
There would be plant breeding and there would be other things we could
do, and globally we are doing, to try and anticipate the major challenges of
Senator Petitclerc: But in general you wouldn't say you are in a
worse situation than conventional farming.
Mr. Lynch: There's some built-in resilience because you have a
more diversified system inherently.
Ms. St Hilaire: We mentioned as part of the briefing notes that
the higher amount of organic matter in organic soils benefits them both in
periods of drought where they can retain water better and in periods of
increased precipitation because they don't leach nutrients as much. The soil
structure is more tightly held, so there's less erosion.
Those are the two events that we are seeing as a result of climate
change. Organic farms are set up to fare better. That's why we often say
they are more resilient and they are climate-smart practices.
Senator Petitclerc: Thank you.
The Chair: Mr. Lynch and Ms. St Hilaire, I sincerely thank you for
your testimony. As you can see, we would have needed two hours of your time.
Several issues remained unresolved. I hope you will have the opportunity to
come back. Your testimony was very interesting and constructive. The
senators asked some good questions because we are welcoming several other
agricultural groups, and questions about organic products come up often. I
would say that we haven't yet found the balance; some days it's off to one
side, and the next day it's back up. Getting the organic system to occupy
the place you want it to have the Canadian public will take some time.
(The committee adjourned.)