A few weekends ago it was that time of year again: the time of gourmet organic chocolate samples from Giddy YoYo and Coco Camino, and fresh organic carrot juice from Pfenning’s Organic Farm. It was the time of year of the Guelph Organic Conference!
On the Friday evening of the conference I was thrilled to attend the keynote forum along with about 100 others. It took place, as I’ve always known it to, in Thornbrough Hall, a University of Guelph building about ten steps away from the University Centre, the location of the trade show and most of the other conference events. The panel was cheerfully moderated by Sarah Dobek of The Big Carrot, Toronto’s famed organic retailer. Four speakers took their panelists seats: Dag Falck of Nature’s Path Foods, Pat Kozowyck of BabaLink Organic Farm, Ekk Pfenning of Pfenning’s Organic Vegetables and Gillian Flies of The New Farm.
The overall topic of this year’s panel was “innovation, vision and change”, and with a wealth of experience at the panel table, the discussion got off to a great start and began with the topic of “change”. While one of the panelists displayed a certain amount of concern over the fact that the organic sector and organic food today may be experiencing what was termed “conventionalization” (organic food going mainstream and potentially losing its integrity), there was consensus among the panelists that organic food becoming more of a norm is certainly a success worth celebrating. Moving forward, Dag Falck of Nature’s Path Foods stated how the organic sector should continue to speak “honestly and ethically” with consumers.
Next was the topic of innovation. As three of the four panelists were operate organic farms, this part of the discussion naturally centered upon the farming side of things. Gillian Flies pointed out how she’s been proud to see her farm grow to include an upcoming local food education centre and commercial kitchen. She also spoke of her farm’s philanthropic vision — as of last year The New Farm has donated over $250,000 worth of produce to The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. For Flies, innovation has always been at the core of her work.
The next topic of discussion encompassed visions for the future. All of the panelists agreed that more government support and programs are needed for Canada’s organic sector. Currently, any Ontario grower selling in the province can call their produce “organic” whether their products are certified and grown in line with the Canada Organic Standard or not. This raised considerable concern among the panelists, with one panelist in particular calling for provincial regulation surrounding the word organic. The panel also proposed an awareness campaign to educate the public about organic food and agriculture, as well as mandatory labeling of GMOs.
“Resources for conventional agriculture need to be shifted towards organic agriculture,” said Flies.
The audience for this year’s panel discussion broke out into enthusiastic and lengthy applauses a number of times over the evening; the panelists undoubtedly inspired the room and brought up ideas that rang true with much of the crowd. By question time, the two microphones on either side of the room had lengthy ques and the moderator just wasn’t able to get to everyone. From teenagers to grandparents, the panelists sure gave the diverse audience some new food for thought and challenges to be solved in the future. And like with most issues, it was also clear that we may need to challenge our basic assumptions if we are truly going to get anywhere, which was summed up perfectly by Pat Kozowyk quoting a native elder when speaking of innovation: “’We only see what we’ve been taught to see’”, she reminded us.