By Len Monheit
This past weekend, for the first time in a few years, I had the opportunity to attend the Annual Organic Agriculture Conference in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. This event (27th of its kind) has always been a bit outside our core coverage here at NPIcenter, in that the audience includes a strong consumer component, and the agricultural services support sector, which always has a strong presence at this event, is relatively unknown to us as well. Whatever the case, I now remember why I so enjoyed it a few years ago and found it so thought provoking an experience.
Due to other commitments, I was unable to participate in one of the event’s highlights, a Friday evening Town Hall meeting to discuss current issues. From my recollections, this meeting is typically a high energy, far-ranging enthusiastic and passionate discussion and presentation of points of view, and I can only surmise that with issues such as sustainability, global versus local, organic standards and ‘term misuse’, this year’s Town Hall lived up to its billing. (Anyone who was there that can weigh in is welcome to comment.)
I was able, though, to attend the Saturday session and tradeshow and to interact with several participants. First off, the keynote presenter was University of Toronto demographer, Dr. David Foot. I first saw Dr. Foot several years ago in Ottawa, and I recalled that his mix of economics, logic and irony challenged government policy, business practices and predicted, in a somewhat unusual manner, commercial opportunities and consumer behavior. I (and the rest of the packed audience) was not disappointed.
Dr. Foot went through population demographics over the years, focusing significantly on North America’s aging population and its implications as well as obvious desires, offering several predictions that bode very well for the organic sector, and also for nutritional products companies. He then went on to a global overview, suggesting that the demographics of both Turkey and Brazil made them mid-term countries and economies to watch as they were both focusing on standards of education and the immediate creation of jobs to retain younger workers, compared to numerous other countries around the world where both of these commitments were absent. I was struck by the fact that while his focus was ‘organic’, there was a solid take home message and perspective independent of business sector, and applicable whether the audience was interested in local, national or international issues. To my mind, the audience was engaged (certainly for 9:00 on a Saturday), entertained, and educated. I believe many hoped for more specific incorporation of organic data in both the US and Canada, but Dr. Foot provided some general behaviors and numbers to suggest that Canadian organic growth might even outstrip US growth rates.
This year’s tradeshow involved some 160 booths on multiple levels of the University of Guelph University Centre, and was a significant expansion from what I remember from a few years ago. Notable companies ranging from Sunopta to Nature’s Path to Stonyfield Farms stood alongside organic certifiers, agricultural services providers, government agencies, trade associations and start-ups in one of the most dynamic show environments I’ve ever experienced. Those walking the show floor represented many walks of life, and in common, they had this passion and commitment for organic and sustainable, and intense curiosity about the exhibitors on display. The feeling of community and connection was overwhelming, and I was struck by the fact that in the natural health products and supplement arena in perhaps more formative, less mature, momentum-building years, this absolute enthusiasm and vibrancy was as dominant as it obviously is in the organic arena, at least in Canada.
The weekend also featured a continuation of presentations (begin earlier in the week) addressed at all aspects of the organic community, veteran or novice, including tips on agricultural models, organic farming, green business, nano-technology and many other topics.
‘Kudos’ to the organizers. I hope next year to be able to participate in more of the event, and encourage anyone who was in Guelph this past week to share their thoughts as well. ([email protected])