Help Wanted: Supporting organic agriculture in Canada

 

Rod MacRae is no stranger to the realities of farming; as a child he worked on his family’s Cape Breton dairy farm. This perhaps gives this farm boy turned researcher a unique perspective. MacRae is the son of an agricultural biochemist and a dietician, whose father wore the hat of Nova Scotia Agricultural College principal for several years. Yet, when beginning his university studies, MacRae chose to deviate from the family path, pursuing a degree in history at Acadia University. “I tried to avoid agriculture. Children don’t want to follow their parents,” MacRae philosophizes.

 A West African agricultural development work placement, taken mid-degree, opened MacRae’s eyes and turned him back towards his agricultural roots. This led a Master’s degree in soil science from McGill University.

 Realizing that his true interest and passion lay in the social, economic and political dimensions of agriculture, MacRae once again shifted his focus as he pursued a Ph.D. concentrated on the socio-economic and institutional barriers affecting farmers transitioning to organic agriculture. “I was arguing that there were major institutional barriers to organic transition within government, science institutions and agribusinesses. My thesis was on how to change these institutional dynamics to make them more supportive of organics.”

 Progress has been made toward removing those barriers. Most provinces now have extension agents in place, and basic research and extension infrastructure have been improved. Furthermore, the Organic Science Cluster, which involves researchers from across the country, has been created. MacRae is, in fact, one the many researchers participating to this large research network, with his involvement in projects under the banner of Environmental Stewardship and Product Branding.

 Yet, MacRae feels that, even today, there is still a need for more robust support. The absence of support for the transition process remains a substantial barrier. “It is crucial to implement dedicated transition advisory services comparable to what is done in the European Union, where farmers can get support to develop a transition plan,” comments MacRae.

 MacRae’s involvement in the development of organic agriculture in Canada began in 1987, when he contributed to a revision of the definition of the word “organic” for an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada food advertising and labeling guide. The collaborative work that went into this process also served to illuminate the need for both a unified organic sector and the eventual creation of a national organic standard.

 While happy with the progress made since the early 90s, MacRae still sees a need for further improvements in the organic sector. A 2006 paper, authored by MacRae and colleagues at the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada and the World Wildlife Fund, lists 32 major policy changes that would be required to advance organic farming in the province of Ontario. Biodiversity conservation on farms and the optimization of the so-called “non-productive” spaces on organic farms, such as wetlands, appear on MacRae’s wish list for the future. He also sees room for improvement in labour equity and animal welfare and challenges related to scale, the organic standards, and certification costs and administration.

 But, MacRae is also optimistic about the future of organic farming. “Organic is appealing because of the financial possibilities. There are major input cost reductions and a premium to be earned when you are certified. Organic is not the ultimate expression of sustainability but it offers a nice balance between the ecological dimensions and the financial ones, so that people can make a living while doing it.”

 Along with teaching at York University and advising graduate students, MacRae appreciates working directly with farmers. His research now also includes explorations of the transition to other forms of sustainable agriculture, including advanced integrated pest management and pasture-based systems. He is also concerned with the focus on GMOs for developing the Canadian agricultural industry. MacRae comments, “The government still largely believes that the organic market is a niche market, not a transformative process for creating a more sustainable food system…”

His long-term hope, which MacRae admits may be more of a dream, is to see a sustainable food system in Canada, where every person would have access to an affordable, sustainably produced diet. In his vision, organic products would occupy 10% to 20% of the market, and would serve to lead the other sectors to more sustainable practices.

This article was written by Nicole Boudreau, Organic Federation of Canada, on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners. OACC newspaper articles are archived at www.oacc.info one month after publication.  For more information : 902-893-7256 or oacc@nsac.ca.

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