Mary Forstbauer’s son was just six months old when he experienced a sensitivity to nonorganic food. Her 12 children were used to eating organic blueberries from the family’s certified organic farm—Forstbauer Family Natural Food Farm, which started in Abbotsford in 1977 and relocated to Chilliwack about 12 years later—so when Forstbauer’s son put a nonorganic fruit offered by a relative in his mouth, he noticed right away.
“He spat it out, looked at it, and then pushed all the blueberries off of his tray,” Forstbauer recalled of the long-ago incident during a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “All our children, my husband, and I notice when we eat nonorganic food, especially food that has had a lot of sprays on it: the burning in the mouth or other symptoms.”
In addition to blueberries, Forstbauer and her husband, Hans, grow carrots, beets, Swiss chard, kale, zucchini, potatoes, winter and summer squashes, and beans on 90 acres of farmland. Their produce is primarily sold at farmers markets across the Lower Mainland. She said the demand for organic produce is stronger than ever.
“I think people are paying more attention to food,” Forstbauer said. “Especially the younger generation…New parents are very interested in making sure that their children aren’t getting genetically modified food or food that has poisons sprayed on it or chemical fertilizers used in the growing process.”
Matthew Holmes shares a similar sentiment. The executive director of the Canadian Organic Trade Association (COTA) told the Straight that organics were not on the dinner table when he was growing up in Montreal. However, when he became a parent eight years ago, he started thinking more seriously about decreasing his family’s intake of pesticides and chemical residues.
“For children, especially, who eat so many fresh fruits and vegetables in the early years, just the ability to reduce that exposure—even if Health Canada says that the trace levels are safe—I think the less we can give our kids, the better,” Holmes said.
Ottawa-based COTA is a 29-year-old organization that oversees the organic industry, including farmers, seed cleaners, commodity traders, food manufacturers, retailers, inspectors, and certifiers. The group is also involved in helping to maintain standards for certified organic food and products. Holmes joined COTA in 2007 after realizing that he likely would not be an organic farmer himself.
“At a certain point, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have all those skills but I had different skills I could contribute. I decided that helping the sector get organized and professionalized was something I wanted to get involved in,” he said. “That came from working with farmers, working with small food manufacturers, working with organizations. It’s something I really believe.”
The birth of Holmes’s two daughters only reinforced his passion for organic food.
“You bring this perfect little thing into a very corrupt and polluted world and you start thinking: ‘What are the things I can make better and control?’ ” Holmes explained. “Food is one of the first things that kids really encounter in the world that you can help to shape. That was very essential for me.”
Holmes is not alone in his support of the organic industry. According to a 2013 report produced by COTA, the Canadian organic market was valued at $3.5 billion in 2012. He noted that this represented a 300-percent growth from 2006, the last time data was collected.
“Nationally, about 58 percent of Canadians buy organic every week, which includes the guy who buys one cup of organic coffee to the purist who buys a full grocery cart of only organics,” Holmes said. “In B.C., that number goes up to 66 percent, and when you get to Vancouver, you have 78 percent of people buying organic products weekly.
“Vancouver is a really important incubator and essential place for the organic business community to try new products and reach new people,” he added. “You can see it in the farming in B.C. too. There’s a great CSA [community-supported agriculture] movement in B.C. and a lot of diversity in the agriculture.”
COTA is one of the organizers of Organic Week, an annual national celebration of organic food, farming, and products from September 20 to 28. Events include festivals, farm tours, film screenings, and lectures in each province. Many local retailers, such as Pomme Natural Market in Port Coquitlam and Nourish Market in North Vancouver, will also have special deals throughout the week, now in its fifth year.
“This year, Sobeys and Loblaws are participating at the national level, but Organic Week is really driven by local independent retailers,” Holmes said. “We’re a very diverse community in organics, and we think we have some very compelling answers for the world’s problems.”
With files from Carlito Pablo.