Organic rules finally thrashed out

On June 30, Canada will launch its long-awaited national organic regulation, bringing the country into step with most other developed nations.

“It has been a long haul. It’s a great achievement and I think everybody is really happy and excited with this,” said Matthew Holmes, managing director of the Organic Trade Association in Canada.

“We’re really seeing it as a coming of age for the sector.”

An industry that was once bitterly opposed to any form of government interference began lobbying for a federal regulation around 1999, to enforce the newly created voluntary national standard. The lobbying effort intensified when Europe indicated it would not accept product from countries without a recognized regulation.

Ten years later, after many disputes and delays, the regulation is days away from implementation.

Laura Telford, executive director of Canadian Organic Growers, said all the hard work will pay off in the form of increased consumer awareness and trust of organic products and more farmers producing them.

The industry has been held back by a chronic lack of supply.

“We just cannot meet demand. I really don’t quite understand what the problem is,” said Telford.

Sales have been growing at a double-digit pace for many years, while organic acreage is creeping up by one or two percent annually. Telford said there are about 3,700 organic growers in Canada. She would like to see 5,000 over the next three years.

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The average Canadian farmer is 52 and may be reluctant to undergo the three-year transition to become certified. But the regulation should generate publicity for the Canada Organic Biologique logo and as growers become more aware of the demand for organic product in markets like Toronto, they should be more willing to make the switch, said Telford.

Holmes said the regulation will promote better consumer understanding of organics. One label will replace dozens and shoppers will be able to read the national standard that governs that label and be assured that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is overseeing the process.

He thinks the Canadian experience will closely mirror what happened when the U.S. adopted a federal regulation in 2002.

“We know there was a dramatic increase in consumer awareness and confidence in organic products in the U.S. at that time,” said Holmes.

But critics of Canada’s regulation say that confidence may be misplaced.

Mischa Popoff, an organic consultant and former inspector, said both the U.S. and Canadian governments considered introducing mandatory testing of organic products but were beaten down by the industry. He thinks that is a glaring omission.

“We need surprise inspections and testing of organic fields,” he said.

Holmes argues that the government is enforcing a process standard, not a product purity standard. Organic agriculture is not only about avoiding pesticides, it’s a whole series of practices, many of which can’t be tested.

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He said there is a rigorous audit trail and that adding testing would be heavy-handed and costly.

Popoff said he can test for a lot more than pesticides. He can determine whether fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics or fertilizers were used. And he said the expense argument is bogus and outdated. He can test for 150 prohibited substances for $150.

Wally Hamm, president of Pro-Cert Organic Systems Ltd., one of Canada’s largest certification bodies, pushed for the development of the federal regulation to maintain access to export markets.

He is pleased with the result but said there are still loopholes.

The biggest loopholes are that inter-provincial trade and imports will be regulated, but a farmer who is producing product solely for export or for trade within his own province does not have to comply with the Canadian standard.

That means much of the product sold at farmers’ markets is unregulated in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario, where there are no provincial regulations to back up the federal regulation.

“We need to put some pressure on the provincial governments right across Canada to move on this issue,” said Hamm.

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