The oldest organic conference in the country returns next week to the University of Guelph.
The event brings together the best minds, thinkers, doers and shakers in the organic world for a few days. This year it will take place January 23 to 29.
The keynote speaker is Paul Holmbeck of Holmbeck EcoConsult, who spent 25 years leading the organic lobby in Denmark. He is credited with unifying Denmark’s organic movement as a driving force for market development, farm innovation, consumer support and strong organic food politics. He is also credited with helping the country achieve 60 per cent of all public kitchens in the country serving organic food.
Denmark tops organic sales in the world, with 80 per cent of Danes choosing organic food and over 75 per cent buying it every week, according to conference organizers.
“None of this happened on its own,” said Holmbeck in a release. “Ontario is poised for a similar breakthrough.”
Carolyn Young, the executive director of the Organic Council of Ontario, says the partnerships Holmbeck created in Denmark are, “together with effective consumer communication, credited with making Denmark number one in the world for organic sales with 13 per cent of the food market (compared to Canada’s three per cent).”
She says her organization came across Holmbeck’s work in an article discussing how US organic policy could learn from Denmark.
“It was all about bringing everyone together on the same page,” she said. “We are excited to bring him to Canada to learn from his inspiring work in Denmark and to open up a conversation about the differences in organic policy between Canada and Europe.”
The Guelph Organic Conference was started in 1982 by a pair of grad students and has continued with multiple organizations helping to keep it alive since. Most recently, the Organic Council of Ontario has become the primary organizer.
So why continue this conference? Why does it matter?
“People who farm organically often report feeling isolated in their communities – organic producers make up only 18 per cent of all farmers and operate on only 1.45 per cent of all agricultural land in Ontario. This conference has been the meeting place for organic businesses for almost four decades. People come to see old friends and to do business,” Young said.
“The Guelph Organic Conference has seen the organic movement grow from the seed of an idea to a thriving industry, one that is a solution provider for the climate crisis, biodiversity and human health.”
Jennifer Osborne runs All Sorts Acres, an organic sheep dairy and art gallery in Grey County. She is presenting at the conference about exploring value-added livestock operations. With her small sheep farm, she’s been able to explore producing products like art supplies, ice cream and non-traditional wool products.
“An event like the GOC is a place where one can meet people with vastly different backgrounds. This kind of environment can plant the seeds for unique innovation and collaboration. It’s a great place to learn and be exposed to interesting ideas. It’s also a welcoming space for those that don’t come from an agricultural background.”
Osborne says she first became interested in organic agriculture in 2005 after a large electrical blackout. “It was that event that suddenly got both my husband and I interested in where our food came from,” she said.
According to Young, consumers and farmers are more and more going down that same line of thinking, especially in light of inflation attributed to far away global events and fragile supply chains.
“Organics couldn’t be more relevant than at this current moment,” said Young. “In the wake of the COVID pandemic and the ongoing strife in the Ukraine, Canadians are demanding more from their food; they are looking to invest in their health, in local and secure supply chains and in solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. With the cost of fertilizers and inputs going up, more and more farmers are turning to organics for solutions. Inflation is testing consumers’ commitment to these principles, but organics are still leading the charge for regenerative and climate-friendly foods. And with a global market worth more than $172 billion, organic is no longer the fringe market it was in 1982.”