Sustainable Food System: What Does This Mean?

by Randy Whitteker, General Manager

Over the years we have reviewed the mission and vison of the Co-op to ensure that we are heading in a meaningful and relevant direction for our members. At various times we have questioned the use of the word "sustainable" as it seems to mean many things to different people. Still, there is much written about the concept of sustainability, so it need not be thrown out, just clarified. The Leopold Center ( says that "sustainble agriculture addresses the ecological, economic and social aspects of agriculture." These are the same aspects that must be addressed in a sustainable food food system, a system that brings our food from the farm to our homes.

Now, as we move towards legal standards for organic food, concerns from within the organic community are being raised about sustainability. Along with certification standards comes the mass appeal of organic with the trust compontent seemingly under control. On the one hand, as organic goes "mainstream" we'll see more land go into organic production. On the other hand, market pressures will be brought to bear on organic products just as they are on conventional food products.

Given our concerns for the negative impact of conventional farm practices we should be glad that farming will evolve towards a more ecologically sound approach. But, what are the trade-offs that will be made as certified organic is taken up into the mass market supply chain? Recently, the word's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, announced its intentions to be a larger player in the organic marketplace. This will certainly bring organic products to Wal-mart customers at lower prices on many major brands. This will also further raise the credibility of organic in all markets, falling back on the old adage that "rising tides lift all boats". So should society not be rejoicing?

Price is often cited as the reason that organic hasn't exploded in sales. Although organic revenues have been rising at a rate of about 20% per year, this could be much higher if it were more "affordable". There are many reasons that organic food is higher priced than convetiontional food including:

1)conventional food production is subsidized to help keep farmers farming, albeit at a loss (average net farm income in Canada is negative); organic production is not subsidized;

2)economics dictates that when demand is greater than supply there is upward pressure on price; currently demand is outpacing supply in most organic food categories;

3)organic farming is like a version of fair trade, whereby the farmer gets a more fair return on his/her investment of land/labour and capital;

4)the external costs of ecological and human health degradaion are not calculated into the convetntional food system.

These are just some of the reasons that make conventional food cheaper than organic. But as organic is increasingly co-opted into the mass market supply chain there are fears that it too will be subjected to the same economic pressures to make it more "competitively priced". Each sector of the supply chain, including the farmer, will be "squeezed" to lower costs to make way for reduced pricing. In the short term, with supply tight, prices won't immediately fall, but some suppliers will shift allegiance to their prime customers leaving less important customers with spotty service or will choose to stop supplying some customers altogether. (For example, a large US-based organic tomato supplier recently pulled out of Cananda citing "inefficiencies"; in the meantime, mass market retailers in the US are ramping up their demand for organic products). Concerns also prevail for the quality of products that, despite their organic raw ingredients, may be subjected to lower cost ingredients to reach target price. This could happen by adding more sugar, salt or other fillers. The product may still "contain organic ingredients", but lose on quality to price considerations.

Thus we see growing interst in values-based labels where price, though still a concern, is not the predominant determining factor in the end product. Certified Organic remains important, but other factors come into play. Thus, we come back to the concept of sustainability, where the values in the value chain take on a greater importance. In a sustainable food system, more emphasis will be placed on local production and economies, on a reasonable financial return for all supply sectors, including the farm, and on ecologicdal and human health impact. As one writer put it, we are starting to see the emergence of food citizens, not just food consumers. A citizen of food makes buying choices that are not strictly tied to price, but includes broader criteria with more holistic implications.

- ONFC Membership Communique - April 2006.