Organic Listening Sessions Report Back

To help better understand the needs of the organic industry and to identify ways industry and government can work to grow the organic food market in Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) held listening sessions in late November and early December 2017 with producers, processors, distributors, retailers, marketing boards and agricultural organizations. This document provides a summary of what was discussed during those listening sessions.1

Session Format

Four sessions were held in three different formats (in-person roundtable, in OMAFRA field offices connected via webcast, and online webcast (one in English and one in French)) to ensure broad participation and feedback from across the organic industry value chain. In advance of the sessions, a discussion paper was shared with attendees to help initiate and inform the discussions. OMAFRA began each session with a brief presentation, and then opened the discussion to participant comments.

The presentation contained an overview of the sector, current government supports and potential challenges facing continued growth of the sector. For all of the listening session formats, five questions were posed to participants to generate discussion:

  1. What are the opportunities for continued growth of the organic sector?
  2. Which segments within the organics industry hold the most promise?
  3. What are the barriers to growth and how can Ontario overcome these challenges in order to continue to grow the industry?
  4. What best practices or approaches from other jurisdictions could be considered for Ontario to benefit the organic sector?
  5. How can the industry and government work together to best position the sector for continued growth?

The first session was an in-person Roundtable with 13 industry leaders held on November 28, 2017, in Guelph. The organic value chain was well represented, with attendees from businesses at the producer and retail level, agriculture and food organizations, organic sector organizations and certification bodies.

A second session was held on December 5, 2017, across eight OMAFRA field offices, connected via webcast and teleconference. 49 participants attended the in-person discussions at field offices in Ridgetown, Woodstock, Vineland, Brighton, Kemptville, Verner, Guelph and Toronto.2 Two online webcasts were held on December 7, 2017, one in English and one in French, reaching 38 participants (36 in English, 2 in French).

Participants were also invited to submit any additional feedback by December 15, 2017, and nine additional written submissions were received. In total, the listening sessions included 100 participants with representation from along the entire value chain.

What We Heard

The listening sessions generated wide-ranging and productive discussions of the questions posed in the discussion paper. In follow up, OMAFRA committed to reviewing the feedback and providing a summary of what was heard to participants. Below are the highlights from each of the questions discussed. Overall, the conversations centred on how to support the industry across five main themes:

  • Regulation of the term "organic"
  • Transition support
  • Research and education
  • Technical expertise
  • Data collection

Questions 1 and 2: Organic Industry Opportunities and Potential

The first two questions, "what are the opportunities for continued growth of the organic sector?" and "which segments within the organics industry hold the most promise?" were grouped together for discussion purposes. Overall, session participants painted a picture of an industry with wide-ranging opportunities for continued growth.

OMAFRA heard that there are many opportunities for import replacement, as the volume of imported organic products grows every year. To help address this demand, the industry would benefit both from expanding its foundation of serving the primary product market, and from finding opportunities to focus on value-added activities to serve both domestic and export markets. There is also potential for value-added activities beyond primary food products. Fruits and vegetables, red meat and poultry, dairy and eggs, wine grapes, wine, cannabis, cash crops, legumes and pulses were identified as specific products with the most potential.

OMAFRA also heard that there is an opportunity to market organic products to consumers who need to avoid products with conventional inputs. Similarly, organic products could be better marketed to millennials, who seem to have a high level of interest in buying organic. There is also a growing market for ready-to-eat meals that the organic industry can tap into.

Question 3: Barriers to Growth

The third question focused on challenges facing the organic industry. Participants were asked "what are the barriers to growth and how can Ontario overcome these challenges in order to continue to grow the industry?" In response, OMAFRA heard that in order to capitalize on opportunities for growing Ontario's organic industry, more effort is needed with respect to:

  • data collection and data availability to help the industry determine baseline levels of activity and better assess the size and scope of opportunities, as no comprehensive source of data on the organic industry exists. Since the listening sessions, the Organic Council of Ontario launched its Ontario Organic Directory in January 2018 as a first step in helping to connect and promote Ontario's organic businesses.
  • additional resources and dedicated technical support to provide advice to players along the value chain (e.g. on production practices, disease management, transition preparation, etc.). More organic curriculum, especially in post-secondary institutions, would also be helpful.
  • regulating the term organic as a way to lend consistency and credibility to the marketing of organic food, protect consumers from false advertising, and reduce consumer confusion. At the same time, there was also support for accommodating small producers through an alternative model to formal certification (e.g. a pledge system).
  • building up Ontario organic processing infrastructure and capacity; for example, there is a perceived lack of abattoirs, flash-freezing facilities and storage capacity.
  • developing supports to offset the reported cost of transitioning from conventional to organic production; and
  • research in a range of areas related to organic agriculture, including best production practices, crop varieties and weed control.

Question 4: Best Practices from Other Jurisdictions

A fourth question asked participants to share best practices that Ontario could adopt from other jurisdictions. The question posed was "what best practices or approaches from other jurisdictions could be considered for Ontario to benefit the organic sector?"

Attendees offered examples from other provinces, the United States and Europe.

In Canada, Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba were seen as leaders in best practices. For example, Quebec and Manitoba governments collect organic sector data and provide extension services, and British Columbia offers a pledge-based model as an alternative to certification for small farmers. In the United States, organic organizations' promotion and research activities are funded via optional re-direction of a small portion (0.1%) of producer, processor and handler sales of organic products. The United States Department of Agriculture also provides funding for organic farm demonstration plots for certain products. And the E.U. conducts research into best practices and technology beneficial to the organic industry and disseminates the results widely through an all-access communications forum. In addition, the E.U. awards merit points to recognize the contribution of organic production to other government goals, such as climate change mitigation and soil health.

Several innovative or best practices were also identified from other Ontario agricultural organizations. For example, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario is running farmer-led research programs. The Chicken Farmers of Ontario recently launched an artisanal chicken program, which includes training and coaching to bring small scale producers into the system while also serving niche and growing markets. And ProCert, an organic certification body, offers certification for small farms at a reasonable cost.

Question 5: Government-Industry Collaboration

The fifth and final question asked participants "how can the industry and government work together to best position the sector for continued growth?" Participant suggestions included development of a sector strategy, access to government programming for the organic sector, and consideration for recognition of the ecological services provided by organic production.

Attendees indicated a desire for additional dedicated technical expertise for the organic sector, along with provision of more learning opportunities and information about best practices, including establishing benchmarks. Greater promotion through the already-established Foodland Ontario program Organic logo would also be helpful.

Conclusion

OMAFRA is now working to review and investigate the wealth of content provided in these comments and would like to thank all participants for their valuable contributions.


1 This document provides a summary of comments but is not a transcript of the listening sessions. As a result, comments have not been attributed to individual participants or the organizations or businesses they represented.

2 Sault Sainte Marie was offered as a ninth location but there were no participants that registered or attended this location.


For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca
Author: Jill Melo-Graydon - Senior Policy Advisor (EDPB/OMAFRA)
Creation Date: 03 April 2018
Last Reviewed: 03 April 2018