News  Bringing organic meat to the city

Farmers harness creative tactics to reach a growing market

You don’t have to be a militant vegan to eat more sustainability.

Small establishments around Montreal are trying to offer customers alternatives to industrial farming, while still accommodating a variety of diets and lifestyles.

Jeff Asch, owner of Cote-des-Neiges organic store EcollegeY, described his business as one of the few of its kind in Montreal – a grocery store, rather than a high-end health food establishment, that appeals to customers outside the demographic of “vegetarian pill poppers.” “Meat definitely is a great part of our business,” he said.

Organic Campus, a McGill group that supplies students with organic food, said that logistical issues, rather than ideological ones, keep the group from offering meat.

“We rarely carry meat because our farmer doesn’t have enough supply coming in,” explained Matthew Howco, coordinator of Organic Campus. “Occasionally he brings it to market, but that’s very rare. If we contacted an alternative supplier for meat only, there’d be a whole other issue with storage.”

Eating organic isn’t just for the well-off, either. Debbie Timmons of Ferme le Crepuscule, a small farm outside Trois-Rivieres that serves the greater Montreal area, said that they cater to a diverse clientele from a variety of income groups.

Asch also attested that anyone can make eating organic work with their budget. “We get plumbers and janitors and security guards. It’s just a choice they’ve made,” Asch said.

Even though meat production inherently involves higher carbon emissions than plant cultivation, it’s a big step up from factory farming.

In order to produce meat on a large scale, conventional farms cut costs in ways that compromise the health of the animals, according to people in the organic foods industry.

Six months before cattle are slaughtered, Asch explained, they are typically brought to a feedlot and put on a diet of about 90 to 95 per cent corn.

“Cattle are grazers. They’re not supposed to be eating grain, and it comes close to killing them,” Asch said, explaining that to prevent death, the cattle then receive antibiotics that stimulate their appetites and cause them to eat excessively, leading to strips of fat in the meat.

As Canadian meat is distributed extensively around the world – contributing to larger carbon emissions with the fuel consumed in transportation – the industry has also been cited as a major culprit of global warming.

But an April study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that even though food may be transported thousands of kilometres, only 11 per cent of the carbon footprint from meat comes from transportation; most of it – 83 per cent – comes from the growth and production of the food. The researchers argued that switching one day’s worth of calories from meat and dairy to chicken and fish will cause a comparable reduction in the carbon footprint.

The study did not examine organic meat, or its reduced use of resources in production.

Going organic is a complicated process, involving meeting strict standards and large amounts of paperwork. Farmers end up raising smaller numbers of animals, feeding them a certain diet, and taking care of the soil – all of this while being monitored by a third party certification body, according to Asch.

Because small farms don’t benefit from economies of scale, they have to get creative with distribution. Ferme le Crepuscule delivers client orders to 25 drop-off points around the city. They operate on a family basis, currently servicing around 800 families. South of the border, Mount Airy Farms, a small organic farm in Virginia, is looking into selling their stock live to restaurants and grocery stores and letting them take care of the processing, according to Mike Quick, who handles their sales.

As stands now, organic meat is more expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.

“It’s supply and demand,” said Howco. “If consumers made the choice to eat organic meat…or less meat as a whole, organic meat would go down in price.”