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OPINION:Canada Organic: What’s That?

by Anne Macey



Canada Organic is a label that would prove to consumers that the product was produced in Canada by methods which meet a basic standard of organic production.

Is it necessary? I think so. Last week my local health food store devoted a whole shelf to organic pasta. One brand was certified organic and made in Ontario; the others – who knows? The shop assistants didn’t. It came in bulk in a box, had been ordered as organic and was a lot cheaper. I am a consumer who wants to support Canadian producers and regional food systems, but the labelling didn’t give me the information I needed to make a real choice. The existence of a simple Canada Organic label would have told me if it was certified organic on a Canadian farm.

Organic producers have been self-regulating since the early '80s when certification agencies appeared. In 1989, when the government started to look at how the label organic was used, we made sure we were there to join in the discussion and put forward our views. We asked for legislative support to help protect organic or organically grown from fraudulent use. Also we wanted something visible to help the consumer understand what was behind the word organic; we wanted to give consumers a clear option for supporting environmentally sound, sustainable agriculture practices. A national standard would also help in both domestic and international marketing.

And so it started...endless rounds of consultations and consensus building until there was agreement across the country on the meaning of organic, at least for crop production, if not for livestock and processing. It was a major achievement and took hours of volunteer time. Meanwhile, as the European Community regulations were put in place, the focus turned to trade barriers and export. For many people, Canada Organic was no longer about protecting the word and reaching consumers; it had become for them a label that would benefit the farmers exporting. Those who disagreed philosophically with export agriculture, or who were horrified at the thought of more bureaucracy or organic police, began to back away from the process.

Two years ago, Canada was leading the world in defining organic, with the grass roots driving the process and getting co-operation from the government. Other countries were even looking at our system as a possible model to follow. The Canadian Organic Advisory Board (COAB) was formed but the momentum died. The process still goes on although it has slowed to a snail’s pace. The development of regulations for the production methodology of a self-regulated sector was breaking new ground in Agriculture Canada. I fear we were too optimistic in thinking the bureaucracy could be flexible in its approach. Standards for organic production cannot be frozen in time and, as we learn more, changes are bound to be necessary. We envisioned a National Organic Standards document that would be revised regularly and added to – a document that would be referenced by government legislation but not one that was translated into a set of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ regulations. These are much more difficult to change if only because of the length of time it takes to go through all the regulatory steps. If we cannot get the flexibility, do we still want the regulations?

Perhaps we were also nave to think the government would be willing to financially support the development of a small section of its constituency because it represented a step forward in advancing sustainable agriculture. But now we have a new Liberal government with proposals for a National Food Security Plan. In Chretien’s Red Book, organic is not mentioned under Sustainable Agriculture but under Food Security and Border Inspection. Here the development of organic food standards is considered part of the measures needed to ensure the quality of food products produced or imported into Canada. Now is the time to renew our lobbying efforts for funding from the government to help us move forward.

The size of the organic sector is one of the problems – where are all those producers? The numbers of certified farmers have not increased as dramatically as anticipated a few years ago. There are many reasons – the growth of community shared agriculture projects is one factor. As consumers get closer to the farmer, there is not the need for a label; the consumer already knows where the food comes from and how it was produced. There are, however, still many people left to reach, and Canada Organic can only help. If we want to be able to buy organic at the local grocery store and if we want more farmers to adopt organic methods, we have to encourage trade at all levels. We have to recognize that many processors of organic food (as opposed to some of the giants in agri-business) are on the same side as the primary producer, and we must work together to set basic standards that we can all live by and to develop a system that provides a healthy economic return for our endeavors.

Although COAB is considered the controlling body of a self-regulated system, bioregions will develop in their own appropriate ways and must have the freedom to do so. COAB’s role is to ensure that basic quality standards are common to all. Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada wants to deal with an organization that speaks with one voice for the organic "industry". We had envisioned a decentralized organization that acknowledged all regional perspectives and came together to achieve common goals. In either case, before regulations are put in place, COAB will have to demonstrate that it has the support of the industry (i.e., the certification bodies, producers and processors) and that it can function effectively. Unfortunately, without the regulations, we now have a chicken and egg situation where it is difficult to generate funds to get the system going.

It is too expensive to run a system that meets the approval of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada on the backs of producers alone. It is up to all of us – producers, processors, retailers, consumers and governments – to work together actively to bring this about. COG has put a lot of human and financial resources into the process because we believe it to be good for the future of organic agriculture. We are not interested in the turf wars of certification agencies; we are interested only in the health of the organic movement as a whole. Perhaps we've got it wrong and no one but a few export-orientated farmers want it to happen, but I think we need Canada Organic if we are to reach more consumers. If we want to make it happen, we can. Let’s get on with it.



Ed. Note: We are always interested in our readers’ views. Please write and let us know what you think about Canada Organic.



Copyright 1994. Anne Macey

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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