Should organics be subsidized? – Opinion

Popoff is an organic inspector and consultant based in Osoyoos, B.C.

Organic activists were pleased with former Saskatchewan MLA Lon Borgerson’s report on how to get 10 percent of farmers in Saskatchewan converted to organic management by 2015.

But many organic farmers and consumers were aghast.

We got where we are in the organic sector by competing in the marketplace. This gives us nothing but pure credibility. We’re as self-made as any farmer who immigrated to the Prairies with nothing but a solid work ethic and a good wife to start a homestead. Distorting that would hurt us immeasurably.

Borgerson recommends a $200,000 a year grant to the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate for full-time staff and lobbying.

This might help activists but it won’t benefit a single organic farmer.

He also wants government to pay 75 percent of a farmer’s annual certification fees, up to $750, but fails to address why organic farmers have to pay $800 to $1,500 a year for bureaucratic oversight. Is there any value for that money?

The oversight comes mostly from the United States and Europe. All of Saskatchewan’s certifying bodies have either been taken over by, or have merged with, out-of-province corporations. So the lion’s share of this subsidy would leave the province.

Why? Can’t Saskatchewanians run offices? And the report doesn’t even address the thousands of dollars in user fees organic farmers pay to certifiers every year on the gross revenue (not the net) of their harvest.

Any farmer can tell you paperwork does nothing to prove the integrity of food. No one looking at a file in an office has any way of knowing if an audit trail reflects reality.

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In fact, spending money on paperwork does a disservice to the majority of honest organic farmers, all of whom, it should be noted, converted to organic management without any handouts simply because they believe in organics.

There are almost as many farmers in Saskatchewan who are certified organic as farmers who consider themselves organic but who are not certified. Why not attract these farmers by simplifying the certification process?

Borgerson’s strategy is to bribe them to sign up for the bureaucratic equivalent of writing an annual high-school essay entitled “What I did on the farm this summer.” How will that make them truly organic? Anyone who needs a subsidy to be organic shouldn’t be.

We should learn from the mistakes of our neighbours to the south. Judging by rural populations, Americans should have at least 10 times more organic farms than we do.

But the result of their official bureaucratization of the organic industry in 2001 is that they now have fewer than four times as many. And only 0.5 percent of their acreage is certified organic, compared to 1.5 percent in Canada. So much for a publicly funded bureaucracy.

In “Grow Your Own Way: Small farmers across the U.S. are dropping their organic certification” (Plenty Magazine, March 6, 2007), Alisa Opar gets right to the heart of the matter, pointing out that “maintaining organic certification costs thousands of dollars and eats up hours managing paperwork.”

Let’s face it, this is not what consumers have in mind when they pay healthy premiums for organic food.

The alternative of testing organic crops in the field is cost effective, and rewards good environmental stewardship instead of bookwork. Best of all it reduces the need for full-time staff. White-collar employees are required in all sectors, but they’re hired according to business needs, not through subsidies.

And whose idea was it that some of these employees should lobby government? Let me see if I’ve got this straight – Borgerson wants taxpayers to pay activists to lobby the government?

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Joel Salutin, an organic farmer from Swoope, Virginia, says it best: “We ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information.” (Michael Pollan, “No Bar Code, the next revolution in food is just around the corner,” Mother Jones, May/June 2006.)

I couldn’t have put it better myself. But this rational approach is beyond the grasp of activists. It’s also missed by some business leaders in the organic sector who should know better.

In 2000, FarmGro Organic Foods received funds from Saskatchewan’s NDP government to import expensive milling equipment from Europe. Proponents claimed there would finally be value-added organic processing in a province that had historically been limited to production and export.

Three short years later a private corporation cut a deal to pay “$3.4 million for a plant that had more than $11 million of liabilities when it was put in receivership…” (Sean Pratt, “Organic mill has a buyer,” The Western Producer, June 2003). Taxpayers were in the hole for $4 million, and organic farmers who had invested in FarmGro never saw their money again.

Brad Wall’s government will now decide what, if anything, it will take from Borgerson’s report. Let’s hope the Saskatchewan Party chooses to reward good organic farm practice instead of tax-funded activism, foreign bureaucracies and mountains of useless paperwork.

There are already a number of high-priced bureaucrats in Ottawa devoted to “overseeing” the organic industry at the federal level. Why duplicate this at the provincial level?

Take a lesson from Vancouver-based clothing manufacturer Lululemon. The New York Times revealed last week that its seaweed clothing didn’t contain any seaweed. The share price plummeted so the Lululemon board decided to start randomly testing its clothing to ensure it contains what the label claims. What a novel concept. You’d think they might’ve thought of it on their own.

Why wait for a crisis? Start giving organic farmers and consumers, who have both happily funded this venture from the start, exactly what they expect: a simple, unannounced, annual test. No expensive bureaucracy required.

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About the author

Mischa Popoff — Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector. He’s the author of Is it Organic?, which can be previewed at www.isitorganic.ca.

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