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The Road to National Organic Standards — Marching to a Different Drummer

Since the beginning of the year, a broadly based, national committee has been busily attempting to create a national standard for organic farming in Canada, and this time get the job done. This is but the latest attempt to put together standards. The road to national standards has been a long one, much longer than even the pessimists thought when the journey began.

Back in the mid 1980's, the organic industry began to seriously advocate national standards. As in other countries, there was concern about the future integrity of the organic "marque". There was also a desire to bring the definition of organic under some form of national regulatory control, before efforts at the provincial level went too far. In 1990, with the blessing of the Canadian Agricultural Research Council, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) became involved. With the support of the Canadian Organic Unity Project (COUP), the attempt to define a set of minimal certification standards began in earnest.

After two years of work, many in the industry believed standards were at hand. Instead, the AAFC/COUP process dragged on, never making much more headway. Along the way, COUP's role was taken on by the Canadian Organic Advisory Board (COAB). Established in 1993, COAB acts as a national representative for the various organic stakeholders.

By late 1995, a draft standard was sent out by AAFC for pre-publication consultation. In addition to comments specific to the draft, AAFC and others in Ottawa heard serious concerns expressed about the consultation process, and the general direction of the initiative. This was enough to precipitate hearings by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food (Lyle Vanclief , now Agriculture Minister — see article on page 3, chaired the committee) in the spring of 1996. The committee made a number of recommendations with respect to organic certification. These were well received by the Federal government and generally pointed to problems of process. Subsequently, AAFC put the organic issue on ice. In the late summer of 96, one senior official at AAFC described organic as "no-where-ville". It was not looking good.

After a fall of consultations and contemplation, the whole process took a decided right turn. In January 1997, a new effort was initiated, with a significant new player. The Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) was brought in to help facilitate development of a "National Standard", and the federal government provided funding to help it along. CGSB is in the business of setting industry standards, particularly for self-regulating industries. Although CGSB is not well known, the results of its work are. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) seal adorns thousands of products in Canada. When you see the seal, it was probably the CGSB that coordinated the development of the standard associated with the seal.

The CGSB has brought together a variety of representatives of the organic sector on a committee charged with producing a national organic standard. This is not just another kick at the can, since this standard will likely operate in a very different way than envisioned back in the 1980's. Until late 1996, the goal was to define a standard embodied in federal legislation (Canadian Agricultural Products Act). It was a "regulatory approach".

The CGSB initiative will create a National Standard outside of current legislation. It will represent a minimum industry standard, one that can be used by governments to define just what qualifies as an organic product. It will give industry and government a tool to regulate the market. As a National Standard, it could serve as the basis for regulating trade in organic products between or within provinces, or between Canada and other countries. Much international trade takes place on the basis of National Standards.

Although this "non-regulatory" approach will likely produce a standard, it will be weaker because it will not be enshrined in law. Having the standard defined in law is something many organic farmers always wanted, and probably still believe is happening. With this new approach, the standard might be developed but never effectively applied. Enforcement will depend on actions following the standard's development. It will require that the standard be referred to by provincial and federal governments. It will also require that the organic industry widely participate in developing the standard, and then widely adopt it. This aspect is critical to any "non-regulatory" approach, and it remains to be seen if it can be accomplished.

Copyright 1997. Ecological Agriculture Projects.


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