The Killin Eye on Organic Food #1: The Conference


After seeing an ad posted on the TTC last month I attended the COG festival on February 20th, an organic growers conference held on Chestnut Street. I wanted to experience a gathering of the minority market in food production, a market vehemently protesting the dominant norm. I skipped down the road to the hotel conference center, ready to involve myself in a fight for the underdog and nab a free organic lunch for my trouble.

Unfortunately, the conference itself is not an event geared towards a casually interested observer: an expensive ticket ($65-$85!) deters those who have only outside interest in organic, and a lecture-based atmosphere can become arduous. Furthermore, each speaker was limited to an approximately twenty-minute slot. While each were able to present a general sketch on their efforts in aiding organic growing, most were time limited and the speakers were only able to present quick bouts of directed anger toward GMO-based growing, and its threatening prevalence in the food market. The ideas presented, although not enough information on their own, have spurred me in the direction of our local organic efforts, and the problems of spreading a renewed sense of vigor towards organic food consumption.

Barbel Hohn was the former Minister of Agriculture and Environment in the German North Rhine Westphalia region from 1995-2005. In her opening remarks, she outlined facts and figures in the ongoing battle of organic versus GMO users: basically that the organic food market has to fight for its proper share of the market against companies that use Genetically Modified foods (GMOs) that are able to sell in large quantities to profit-hungry farmers, and casually overrun the others that want nothing to do with their product. But she truly awoke my interest with her solution, a strategy of turning German farmers into energy producers, offering grants to build renewable energy sources such as windmills on large rural property. However, while her approach certainly helps the state maintain and expand their network of renewable sources of energy, would this offer create effective financial stability to fledgling organic farmers in the face of larger, more flexible competition?

For example, west of Hamilton in a township called Brandt is Ella Haley, a fourth generation farmer, seeking to preserve her family farmland. In her area, she complains that her neighbours use unsafe chemical and sewage sludge treatments from Kitchener lagoon as fertilizer. The unsanitary quality of this practice prevents neighbours from going organic, for the organic branders have strict guidelines of what products to mark with a seal of approval. Ella cannot influence her neighbours to stop this negligent action, and one of the goals of this series will be to research whether there is appropriate action to take against this type of slipshod farming.

However, while this type of fertilizing is allowed, at least there are several international precedents of banning contaminated food. Hohn was quick to remark on her cutting-edge decision to ban British beef due to BSE risk, even before the UN officially sanctioned the action. Yet these large companies always seem to bounce back: even in the face of several health violations, governments seem more willing to turn a blind eye than confront the food conglomerates on further action. A ban on a national level for a product is only ever temporary, but is there any way to target these powerful corporations at the local level? It seems difficult when the prevalence of the franchise market in Toronto is undeniable: Billeh Nickerson, a fast-food poet hailing from BC, wonders “What the hell is up with all the Pizza Pizzas [in Toronto] though? I don’t get it.” After reading this quote in most recent issue of Broken Pencil, it struck me that the slew of Pizza Pizza outlets that we take for granted in Toronto is not the norm across Canada. The reason that Toronto is overwhelmed by Pizza Pizza is that many Ontarians enjoy the ease of online ordering and late night availability, luxuries available due to the deep resources of a large chain of franchises.

But I am mostly concerned with our local organic efforts, such as maintaining the Greenbelt, which celebrated its fifth year on Feb. 28, 2010. The Greenbelt is widely hailed as the best new policy protecting agriculture in Canada - its boundaries encompass the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine, Rouge Park, hundreds of rural towns and over 7000 farms. Say what you will about Dalton McGuinty’s time in office, but one of his major successes has been to help establish and protect the Greenbelt. However, Ontario growers remain restless. They want more space protected and the sooner the better. Larger companies fight to exploit the borders of this space, constantly grappling for control. The Greenbelt has opened a framework for protection, but has not been able to go far enough in some places. Lecturers thought it could stretch further to Simcoe south county, Bradford, Innisfield, Brandt, and Prince Edward County. I’m also actually interested in Markham for once, as the community has opted to freeze their expanding urban belt to begin the process of becoming self-sufficient in food production. Local food ensures safety against the quality issues creeping into the larger companies operating today. However, as Ella demonstrates, corporations can sway these local politics if they have a vested interest in the future of an area, regardless of the wants of other citizens.

Overtaking the dominance of the original Fordian auto industry, the food industry has thrived in post-Fordern restructuring of mass production business models. While cars become a superfluous commodity in economic strife, everyone still needs enough calories to keep going, and the speedy eateries of North America supply a cheap, standardized product through assembly line production. Instead of making adjustments to the process itself to improve sanitary conditions, the flow of profits continues due to technological solutions designed to bypass a reevaluation process, which is perceived as a major hindrance to a company. After all, these companies make a living keeping the massive cogs of the food machine ever-rolling.

In an age where every long-standing corporate institution is facing criticism for long-standing questionable practices, it was only a matter of time before the food industry was held accountable. The general public has a better idea of food production, but at this point, it is obvious that the larger a corporation becomes, the more dominance and influence they are able to direct on the political stage. Ideally no one wants a franchise ruining the landscape of a unique, original town-space, but the question remains: would you not rather an organic, secure franchise in town than a standard McDonalds? It is important to recognize and support rapidly-expanding organic brands such as Stonyfield Farm, an extremely successfully organic yogurt company. Also, check out a dizzying map of organic brands uniting in larger clusters of company ownership between 1995-2007. I have a feeling that networks of organic brands will eventually boost organic foods to a much larger market share.

Logorama, this years Oscar-winning animated short, illustrates that corporate logos have always found ways to fill every urban nook and cranny. Since our well-established system of consumerist competition isn't changing any time soon, the only option left is to supplant the North American stockpile of logos with recognizable, necessarily profitable organic alternatives. Slowly but surely this strategy will catch the citizens no longer satisfied with the conditions surrounding the origins of their food. Barbara Hohn believes that proper labeling efforts creates a freedom of choice. Since in democratic capitalism, it is looked upon as undemocratic to place a ban that encroaches on someone else’s business endeavour, the power that the consumer holds above all else is in their choice of product to buy into. In these articles, I’ll be working out just what choices the common consumer has, and whether the organic process needs to be adjusted to fulfill the expectations of the average Torontonian.


Find Ella Haley at the blog for Sustainable Brandt, a movement she is active in maintaining.

If the dizzying map was too much, look at the organic corporate structure posted here at the Certified Organic Association of BC.