Understanding Organics at the Grassroots Level: An Analysis of Ecuadorian and Canadian Perceptions

By Jason Bradshaw
Earth Common Journal
2014, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

Abstract

There is a growing public concern over the genetic alteration and use of chemicals in conventionally produced agriculture. The perceived risk of such agricultural production has prompted the rising popularity of organic alternatives in both developed and developing nations. These products are defined by their reliance on traditional means that do not require the use of harmful chemicals or pesticides in their production. The organic movement in South America has been defined not only by perceived risks, but also by a desire to preserve traditional ways of life. This is accomplished through grants and funding to indigenous farmers in these regions, allowing them to continue their practice. By interviewing a number of individuals in Ecuador and Canada involved in three levels of the organic process (consumers, distributors, and producers) this study determined common cultural and intercultural conceptions of organic practices. These findings were then related to a number of recommendations for three distinct systems (small-scale farming, free trade, and certification) that are currently relevant to the organic movement.

Introduction

Global Trendsetting

The world is a quickly changing place and, more often than not, other continents are trying to catch up to the trends set by North America. Humankind sees this international influence taking place in a number of fields; be it music, medicine, film, or food. North America has adopted a number of trends from the rest of the world, but the majority of this cultural exchange is tilted in the West’s favour. The research conducted for this article presupposes that the organic trend is becoming popular on most continents around the globe. Many cultures throughout the world are experiencing the impact of this movement and are becoming producers as well as consumers.

One such continent that has become a world leader in organic exports is South America. Indeed, Raynolds (2008) recognizes that “the rising popularity of organic foods in the global North and their increasing availability in mainstream supermarkets is generating a rapid increase in the volume and range of organic imports” (p.161) and that “. . . almost all Latin American countries now export certified organic foods” (pp.161-162). These two culturally diverse populations are influencing each other’s economies and societies through the organic agro-export system. But, just how are organics perceived on each continent? And how does each culture perceive the organic practices of the other? This study has collected data from Quito, Ecuador, in South America and Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada to begin understanding organic perceptions at a grassroots level.

The Organic Movement

There is a growing concern among North American consumers regarding genetically modified (GM) crops and contemporary industrial agricultural practices being used around the world. It can be argued that the public has a considerable lack of knowledge about these practices and that this is in part responsible for the increasingly common sentiments of mistrust of modern, or conventional, agriculture.

In North America, a belief that GM crops are dangerous is steadily increasing and organic farming practices are often touted as a solution, even though consumers are often uninformed about organic agriculture as well. This paper does not intend to prove that either farming practice is superior to the other. Indeed, both organic and GM crop systems do have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. What is shown through the research are the common perceptions, misconceptions, and attitudes towards organic practices and their conventional counterparts through the examination of testimonies from three levels of the organic food process: consumers, distributors, and producers. By determining the perception of organics at each level, the research shows whether consumers are receiving the intended image and relevant facts about organics from a production and distribution level. The study was conducted in two countries, Ecuador and Canada, with differing cultural attitudes towards organics in order to provide a depth of data.

Research Questions

The study aims to answer five research questions relevant to the organic debate and are used to compare and contrast the two countries (Ecuador and Canada).

  1. How do South and North Americans perceive organic foods and practices?
  2. Are South and North Americans informed about the advantages/disadvantages of organic and industrial agriculture?
  3. What misconceptions do South and North Americans have towards agriculture?
  4. What beneficial applications do these differing viewpoints have for promoting organic practices?
  5. How can the data be utilized to promote a better farming system?

Definition of Terms

Perception is a word that can have vague connotations. Perceptions are the building blocks of an individual’s reality and are therefore completely subjective. According to the Oxford Dictionary, perception is “the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted” (2014). This poses some problems when trying to obtain empirical evidence, but a concise definition will serve to create a basis for analyzing perceptions. For this study, perceptions are considered to be a subjective individual viewpoint of the external world. The perceptions analyzed in this study are the impression left on the participants about the organic movement and are examined by how they choose to describe this internal picture.

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary (2005) defines organic as “(1) of or relating to plants or animals, (2) of, relating to, or affecting a bodily organ or organs, (3) produced or involving production without the use of chemicals etc., (4) [of a compound etc.] containing carbon, (5) [of the parts of a whole] fitting together harmoniously, and (6) designating continuous or natural development” (p.583). A number of these definitions of organic can fit within the framework of organic as it relates to the study. Foremost, organic can be considered food (produce or livestock) produced without the use of harmful chemicals or fertilizers. This was an understanding expressed by nearly every participant within the study and is the definition of the word for many people, in general. Organics can also be considered as grown or ‘developed’ in a natural way. Most organic production uses as few industrial agricultural techniques as possible, and instead there is a reliance on a larger workforce and traditional agricultural practices. Finally, organic symbolizes harmonious relationships between systems. It is buyers’ and producers’ ideologies that organic food and production cause less stress to the environment and fewer detrimental effects to the human body.

The term conventional appears numerous times throughout this study, and is used synonymously with industrial or modern when referring to production techniques. These terms all refer to agricultural practices that cannot be defined as organic in nature. This includes (but is not limited to) the use of chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and the use of feedlots. Basically, any practices that are considered harmful or cruel in terms of food production are labelled as conventional, industrial, or modern.

Limitations and Delimitations

This study encountered various limitations in its execution. Though the sample was diverse, compared to past research in this area, it was still limited in a number of ways. Data was collected from one South American city (Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador) and from one North American city (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) and their surrounding areas. This provided a substantive cultural contrast. However, the sample could be broadened to include other South and North American locales in order to provide a greater sample population. Likewise, the sample of intended targets was minimal, meaning two to three participants for each of the three target sample groups. This was due to time constraints while in South America, where the research was restricted to a 10-day timespan.

All participants in the study were either in favour of organics, or not opposed to organic foods and practices. This variable was essential to the research. The bias that participants showed towards organic alternatives had a minimal effect on the research study. Bias is required in order to obtain data that is relevant to the research questions posed. This study does not propose that organic or conventional systems are superior to each other. Rather, it presents information on individual perceptions of organics and aims to present findings of general public opinion.

While in Ecuador, some interviews required a translator. Though English language proficiency at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito was sufficient, English language accessibility presented challenges for some of the participants when providing responses during the interviews. There are a number of validity issues that can arise when having a translator relay the conversation between researcher and participant: Different languages construct different cultural realities, different languages have subtle differences in meaning, different languages sometimes do not share words with a translatable equivalent, and that translators may have biases and manipulate participant responses for their own means (Kapborg & Bertero, 2002, pp. 52-54). This is an aspect of intercultural research that is challenging in which to avoid or control. The researcher can only place his confidence in the translator, acknowledge that these limitations exist, and work to maintain the validity of the research.

Literature Review

In order to understand the broader use of organics throughout the world, various scholarly resources were reviewed with respect to North, South, and Latin American locations and in relation to this study. The following provides an overview of scholars who have studied organics within different perspectives.

Raynolds (2008) stated that nearly every Latin American country exports some type of organic product. Her study focused on the organic export ‘boom’ currently occurring in the Dominican Republic, considered the largest exporter of organics in Latin America. Her article provided a comparison of organic practices being utilized in another South American country, as well as tables of information on organic production across a number of Latin American countries. Raynolds elaborated on the small-scale peasant farming practices within the Dominican Republic that easily lent themselves to organic production. The low-input farming techniques employed by these individuals made use of a number of natural alternatives, due to financial limitations. This concept of local small-scale farming was mentioned by a number of the study’s participant’s as well, and is an important aspect of the organic movement. The study also delved into some of the commercialization and commoditisation that organic products are currently undergoing.

Indeed, she noted that “Once defined according to alternative social and environmental standards, organic quality appears increasingly to be defined by conventional market criteria” (p. 177), and that as these products become more mainstream they will become increasingly shaped by such commercial market pressures (p. 177). Consumers are demanding an organic alternative, but they also want this alternative to appear as physically perfect as the conventional produce that they are accustomed to finding in a conventional supermarket. This consumer demand is placing an increased demand on organic farmers and pushing them towards more large-scale rather than small-scale farming techniques, by demanding an increased workforce and technologies not normally associated with small-scale organic productions.

It is necessary to examine how a product that defines itself as natural can also be a commodity. Upon further observation, it appears counterintuitive that a product that is constantly promoted and excessively labeled could also be considered completely natural. One way to take the commoditisation process into account with organics is to dissect it into two distinct phases: “(i) a day-to-day process that transforms an agricultural product harvested in a field into a primary commodity traded on world markets (testing, sorting, grading), and (ii) a historical process that created the institutions necessary for the existence of primary commodities as a specific category of goods (Daviron & Vagneron, 2011, p. 92,).

As described by Daviron and Vagneron, organic products can be viewed as currently undergoing a transformation by shaping the institutions necessary for the alternative food to become an accepted commodity. Within this framework, the commoditisation of organic foods can be seen as an inevitable evolution, be it for good or bad. Daviron and Vagneron provided a historic approach to commoditisation of agricultural goods and commented many times on organic foods placed within this framework. Their research provided important information regarding future recommendations on how organics could and should be organized within the current agro-business model.

Certification plays a significant role in organic production within most countries around the world. These certification systems are separate from state-sanctioned rules, and can be considered more of a “private voluntary” initiative (Raynolds, 2012, p.496). Certification and regulations are not universal and so it is common for countries to have disparate standards for organic goods and practices. This causes some difficulty in the import and export of organic goods and it certainly factors into trade between South and North America. Raynolds’s (2012) article was useful when analyzing the role that certification plays in the recommendations section of this study. Certification alters individual perceptions by removing the emphasis on the physical quality of goods and placing more focus on the ethical and ecological values related to their production (p. 497). It is important to understand how certification affects organic practices within countries, when importing or exporting goods, and when dealing with small-scale farms and the fair trade system.

In their 2010 article, Darnhofer et al., examined concepts relating to the convent-ionalism of organics. Conventionalism, according to the study, is a hypothesis about the tendency of organic farming to become more akin to modern conventional agriculture, in technological, societal, and economical terms (p. 68). The content in this article was used in the creation of the instrument for this current study, as well as provided a sense of what some participants’ attitudes may be. It was relevant in determining if the conventionalism hypothesis is at play in the public mind and if it can be represented by the data analyzed.

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