Principles of Organic vs. the Market

At the recent ACORN conference, Shannon spoke on a plenary panel called ‘Striking a Balance – Philosophy, Principles and Outcomes of Organic vs. Market Development and Profitability’.

Other panelists were Allison Grant, Dr. Andrew Hammermeister, and Dr. Av Singh.

This is what Shannon said:


“I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot over the course of the season and especially since this plenary topic was devised and I was asked to speak to it.

I’ve delved more deeply into what these 4 Organic Principles mean to me – for my life, my farm, the life of other humans in my community and around the world, and for the lives of all the other species we share this planet with – of which we humans are only 1 among millions – though we mostly act as if we are the only one that really matters, or the most important.

Principles of Organic


These 4 Principles really inspire me and I can’t imagine how anyone could not support a vision of a world with more of these qualities.

But our current economic model does not align with these Principles, in my opinion.

Our current economic model is based on continuous growth on a finite planet.

It is based on and promotes a constantly growing GDP – or Gross Domestic Product. GDP grows whenever money changes hands – regardless of the reasons that money is changing hands.

When there is an increase in citizens being treated for cancer – GDP increases.

When there is an increase in crime and the associated industries around capturing, convicting, and holding criminals – GDP increases.

So, why are we prioritizing GDP as a society over health, happiness, and a sense of security and safety?


Our current economic model has brought us NAFTA and other Free Trade Agreements where the interests of foreign investor multinational corporations legally outweigh Health, Ecology, Fairness, and Care.

The free trade agreements outweigh a country’s sovereignty, its food sovereignty, any policies or protections put into place to promote the health of its people, the protection and preservation of its ecosystems, the care and fairness towards its inhabitants – human and non-human, the legal rights and human rights of all its people, including and in particular Indigenous peoples.

A primary way the free trade agreements have so much power is through a mechanism that most Canadians know nothing about.

This mechanism is called Investor State Dispute Settlement or ISDS for short. It is what allows multinational corporations to sue a country for enacting policies they see as against their interests – their financial interests. Policies like, perhaps, the prioritization of local food supplied by local companies or Canadian-grown products. Or policies to protect our environment.

Canada is one of the Top 5 countries in the world for the amount of times it has been sued using this mechanism.

You can imagine all the legal fees associated with this – which is paid by the Canadian taxpayers. And which, of course, raises our GDP.

And while this can represent a large burden on Canadian taxpayers – imagine how this same mechanism affects smaller countries around the world – and the power they feel to put policies into place that are truly beneficial for their inhabitants.

Canada has primarily been sued over our environmental policies – which dis-incentivizes our Canadian government from putting more environmental protection policies in place.


Now I want to discuss the financial picture of Canadian farmers overall within this economic model.

Our gross farm sales for all Canadian farms taken together has grown dramatically over the last 60 years. I have seen many charts showing this – which our government and agricultural industry point to in a self-congratulatory way.

But that’s not the full picture. When you add in a line for farm debt to this graph, you can see that farm debt across our country has grown faster than gross farm sales and has far surpassed them in value.

Now add-in net farm income – farmers’ actual take-home pay. This line has barely changed at all in the last 60 years – in fact decreasing slightly, taking inflation into account.

The picture is suddenly very different. With input companies and banks capturing most of the wealth, and farmers dealing with financial stress that can lead to physical and mental health issues, and family and relationship breakdown.

financial picture of Canadian farms

(also check out this more recent graph that is similar though doesn’t include farm debt)


So, now that I’ve made you all feel super depressed, I want to turn it around a bit.


I think our Organic Principles are very much in line around concepts like Gross Domestic HAPPINESS rather than Gross Domestic Product.

Concepts like Steady-State Economics which is an economic model of ENOUGH or sufficiency.

And concepts around capital expressed and valued in many forms – not just monetary forms.

I just came back from the National Farmers Union convention in Ottawa – through whom I’ve become a member of their Indigenous Solidarity Committee.

One of the speakers at the convention was an incredibly inspiring Anishnaabe kwe woman named Danielle Boissoneau who shared the worldview of The Dish with One Spoon.

She said that all of already share one dish. Our Earth. And having only one spoon ensures that we each take only what we need before passing the spoon on – in order to ensure enough for everyone.


I believe that striving to fit the round organic peg into the square hole of our current economic model has not served us well.

But I’ll admit that it’s very hard for me – as I’m sure it’s hard for many of you – to see how an alternative would work practically and how to get there. I was born in the ‘80s. For my entire lifetime – every message, from the media to our education system – has taught me to fit into the economy of continuous growth on a finite planet.

But in an economy of Enough – I see room for valuing Health, for valuing Ecology, for valuing Fairness for our planet’s farmers who are more diverse than our stereotypes portray, Fairness also for our world’s farmworkers who are not mentioned, seen, recognized, or respected sufficiently, and Fairness for all Eaters. I see room for valuing Care for our farmlands but also our ecosystems or foodways (or foodlands) that provide abundant food not grown on farms. And also Care for those who have suffered and are suffering injustices due to our current economic mentality, suffering intergenerational trauma, displacement from their homes, disempowerment, and have been stripped of their dignity.


Through considering my own life and farm business through the lens of these 4 Organic Principles, my vision and dreams for the future have been adjusted as well as my indicators of success – what is required for me to see my farm as successful.

Throughout this conference, I invite us all to think deeply about these 4 Organic Principles and what they mean to you.

How the production techniques, marketing ideas, business tactics we learn fit with these Principles.

How your life and your farm fit into your vision of these Principles currently – and how you can imagine changes in your future.

I look forward to continuing this conversation with you.

Thank you.”

The Future of Organic Farming


Organics isn’t just a farming sector or a marketing option…Organic is a movement! And, like any other movement, it needs to change over time as it grows and people demand more from their movement. Organic farmers, leaders, processors, and eaters around the world recognize this and have been trying to work together to envision what they want the future of the organic movement to look like.

I saw a presentation on this topic (called Organic 3.0) at last year’s ACORN (Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network) conference, given by Dr. Andy Hammermeister and I was really inspired!

So, I googled Organic 3.0 and found a discussion document written about it on the IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) website.

And I read it and I liked it but it was kind of long and I wasn’t sure how many people in general would be geeky enough to read it.

So, when I attended the National Farmers Union youth retreat this spring and was supposed to think up a topic I would want to speak on, I chose this one.

The pictures in this blog post come from that presentation I gave (and some come from Andy Hammermeister’s presentation).

Rudolph Steiner

So, if we’re looking at Organic 3.0 as the future, what was Organic 1.0?

Organic 1.0 is the reason organic farming started at all. People from all over the world were concerned with the direction agriculture seemed to be moving in and wanted an alternative that could support people as well as the Planet.

Some of these individuals became well known because they did research, wrote books and articles, gave speaking tours and they became known as the pioneers of organic farming. The picture above shows Rudolph Steiner, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, and J.I. Rodale, but there were many more from every country in the world.


The organic movement is based on the principles written in the photo above. I love these principles….they inspire me so much…these are the principles that make me grateful to live in this world and to always work to make it a better place! I know many people believe in these very same principles whether they support organic farming or not. And these principles are right at the front of the 2015 Canadian Organic Standards…this is what it’s all about.

Organic Regulation

Organic 2.0 is where we are right now in the organic movement and have been since the 1970/80s. This is when we moved towards having an understanding of just what organic farming meant. Creating definitions (which is what the Organic Standards really are). And regulating the term so that people who wanted to eat organic food knew what they were buying when they saw the word or logo.

This has not been a perfect system and has created many challenges, including very small-scale or subsistence farmers around the world feeling left out, organic farming becoming market-driven rather than principles-driven in some cases, the Standards becoming really a minimum standard where it’s hard to certify or enforce the “heart” or true commitment of the farmer.

However, Organic 2.0 has really allowed many farmers to start getting the respect and fair wages for the work they do. And has allowed more people to access organic food while increasing the amount of acreage around the world devoted to organic agriculture.

Food insecurity

But, we still have so many of the global issues that got many of us into organic agriculture in the first place. It’s hard to overcome these just using Organic Standards and Regulations.

And so Organic leaders the world over, want to figure out ways to strive for more, to always do better, and to really work to overcome these huge global issues.

Canadian Organic Growers


There is no set plan….we are all in this together and all of our input and actions will be needed. But there has been a collaborative effort to try to think up some strategies. And these are listed in the Organic 3.0 discussion document in more detail. But I thought I’d outline them for you and I would love to hear your thoughts.

Vision for Organics

These “key features” will likely be interpreted differently by every person who reads them and I think that’s important. That’s how great things happens!

I know I think of specific ways I can implement these on our farm, and Bryan will have different ideas.

Innovative farmers

I love this one! Innovation is definitely a good word on our farm.

I think sometimes people think that organic farming is “farming like our grandparents” or “going back in time.” From my perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. Just look at the picture above. I don’t often see old-fashioned, black-and-white photos of high tunnels on farms and row cover protecting crops from cold weather and pests.

We are constantly trying new things, they just happen to be things that respect the principles of organic agriculture.

To me, the idea of war is old-fashioned and out-dated but that is still the mindset used in much of our “modern” agriculture: waging war against every other living being who we share this planet with, in an attempt to offer benefit to our own kind, while inadvertently harming ourselves as well.

6-row seeder

This is a good one too. I know our farm isn’t perfect and I’m happy for the opportunity to spend my life trying to do better and better every year. Our farm is a life’s work of improvements to be made. That is what makes it so intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually challenging and fulfilling.

And there is no one “recipe for success” for a farm. What works super well on one farm may be a flop on another. Learning from other farmers around the world is exciting and important but so is learning from the people around you. On a regional level, Bryan and I find it so important to visit other farms (both organic and non-organic farms) throughout Atlantic Canada and have been so grateful for the mentorship and sharing offered by this community. The Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) has been the most useful resource in this regard, offering us tons of opportunities to connect with other farmers.

farmer to farmer

This one really recognizes that the current way organic farms become certified and recognized as organic farms is an imperfect system. It doesn’t work well for everyone and there are other ways to offer eaters transparency in their food system, especially as farmers who sell directly to those eaters.

While we are committed to organic certification for our farm, if we ever stopped certifying our farm as organic, we would still farm in the same way (while of course constantly improving).

Even if I couldn’t call my produce organic in that situation, I would still be an organic farmer in my soul. Nobody can take away my place in the Organic Movement!


Organic farmers and eaters are not the only ones who live by those principles that were listed before. There are so many groups of people, calling themselves something different, who believe in those principles and are trying to move the world in a similar direction!

We need to band together and we will likely find ourselves in the majority of the earth’s people. Together, we are so much stronger!

fair food

Historically, and in the present day, farmers have had the least amount of power in the food system. Our voices are the smallest, what we provide has been valued the least, we are told that our knowledge is less important than the “experts,” that we must purchase fertility, seeds, and other inputs from those who know how to do it better, and then sell our produce for low prices to people who can distribute and sell it better.

Farmers need to become an equal member along the “value chain” from field to table.

And, in general, other types of food workers are similarly dis-empowered, whether through being paid non-living wages or treated disrespectfully.

hidden costs of agriculture


The price of food is all out of whack. Farmers cannot make a living (over 80% of farmers in Canada require off-farm income to survive) even though they are providing citizens with one of the most essential needs (after air and water).

And so many costs have not been factored in. Environmental costs, social costs, health costs that taxpayers must pay for now and that our future citizens will have to pay even more for.

How can we change this? This is a huge question but definitely one that many people are starting to think about.

Check out this recent article, Organic Isn’t Too Expensive, Non-organic is Too Cheap, from the EU about a campaign to teach people about the true costs of “regular” food and comparing it to organic food. I would love to see something like this in Canada!

Organic 3.0

So, this chart above gives you a bit of an idea of some of the pathways we can take from where we are now  to where we might go in the future.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas of how these ideas might be implemented? I think this is a conversation worth continuing.