In November 2012, California voters narrowly defeated Proposition 37 — a plebiscite that, if passed, would have resulted in mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods in that state.
Opponents argued that such a measure would have added billions of dollars to food costs, without providing health or safety benefits. Proponents insisted that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food.
Weighing in with a $660,000 donation to the Yes campaign was Nature’s Path Foods, a Richmond, B.C.-based organic food company that shuns genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“We think that when people know what’s in their food, they’ll make different choices than when they don’t,” explained Darren Mahaffy, Nature’s Path’s vice-president of marketing, during a presentation at Olds College on Wednesday.
“We know that they want it. We just need to convince government that it’s important.”
Speaking at Organic Alberta’s 2013 conference, Mahaffy said Canadian politicians are receptive to the idea of GMO labelling. But they’re worried that food prices would increase if such a requirement was imposed.
This would not be the case in the long term, insisted Mahaffy, explaining that farmers would simply switch to non-GMO outputs if consumers demanded them.
He also believes the public’s appetite for organic food would jump, bringing with it environmental and health benefits.
“Organics becomes the default safe place to go for consumers.”
Mahaffy also made the case that organic production can be more profitable for farmers than conventional crops.
Yields might be 15 per cent lower, but eliminating the cost of inputs like fertilizers and pesticides would result in a net savings of about $200 an acre, he said.
“When you do move the yield-relative-to-input calculations, boy organics start to look pretty good.”
A huge market potential exists, said Mahaffy, with consumers of all age ranges and income brackets already favouring organic foods.
Many of the attributes they look for when choosing grocery items — pesticide-free, antibiotic-free, few ingredients, no GMOs, no artificial sweeteners and limited processing — are directly related to organic production.
“Those are things that organic can own and differentiate from conventional products,” he said.
More retailers are stocking organic products, added Mahaffy, and consumers are rewarding them with their wallets.
One challenge facing the organic food industry is the public’s lack of understanding about the differences between “organic” and “natural” foods.
That’s because there’s no regulated definition of natural, said Mahaffy.
“This is a problem for us, because if consumers are thinking that natural and organic are the same, the input cost . . . for a natural product is almost exactly the same as for a conventional product, but they’re charging a premium. And the consumer is not necessarily getting the value that they think they’re getting.”
The Organic Alberta conference took place on Tuesday and Wednesday, with about 130 people in attendance and speakers discussing topics related to the production and marketing of organic crops and livestock products.