Canada’s efforts to make organics official have come a long way, but there’s still work to be done before December 14, 2008
A network of players and government agencies is trying to reconcile all the puzzle pieces to give farmers unencumbered access to provincial, national and international organic markets.

By Pamela Irving

Origins of The National Organic Standard

In December 1996, the Canadian Organic Advisory Board (no longer in existence) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada initiated the development of a National Standard of Canada for Organic Agriculture. The CGSB established the Standards Committee for Organic Agriculture (the "Committee") that prepared and reviewed six draft standards for organic agriculture between January 1997 and March 1999. The draft Standard was published in 1999.

Players at the
organic table

Organic Federation of Canada (OFC). The group’s mandate is: “To represent the Canadian organic industry while working with provincial, territorial, and federal governments as partners on national organic regulatory issues.” Stephanie Wells, Hornby Island, British Columbia, president; Arnold Taylor, Kindersley, Saskatchewan, chair; Nicole Boudreau, Montreal, Quebec, national coordinator.

Canadian Organic Growers (COG), Ottawa, Ontario. Education and advocacy network facilitating the process of making changes to the Standard; Laura Telford, executive director.

Value Chain Roundtable. Representatives from across the organic industry and Canada; Paddy Doherty, Quesnel, British Columbia, chair.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Role: monitor and implement the Organic Regulations in Canada.

Canadian Organic Office (COO). New, Ottawa-based federal office extension of CFIA set up to oversee implementation and monitoring of the Organic Regulations. Michel Saumur, Ottawa, Ontario, manager.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Federal government department responsible for agriculture Mike Leclair, Ottawa, Ontario, senior market specialist.

Canadian General Standards Board. Makes changes to the National Standard through its Standards Committee on Organic Agriculture.

~ P.I.

Canada Organic Regulations in a nutshell

On December 21, 2006, the Organic Products Regulations (OPR) that were published in Canada Gazette, Part 2. They include a two-year transition period and will come into force December 14, 2008.

These new Regulations provide a competitive advantage for the
Canadian organic sector and will protect consumers against deceptive and
misleading claims on organic products. The Regulations will also increase the organic industry's capacity to respond to international and domestic market opportunities.

A comprehensive national consultation process on the organic regulatory initiative was undertaken from 2003 through 2005.The Organic Products Regulations reflect the key concepts of the federal regulatory program that attained wide-scale agreement among stakeholders during these consultations.

Certification will be mandatory for interprovincial and international trade and for all products that bear the Canada Organic logo.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will monitor the implementation of the new Regulations.

The Canada Organic logo was developed to identify products which have been certified as meeting Canadian requirements. Use of the logo supports the growth of Canada's organic industry.

Canada's Organic Standards, Regulations and enforcement practices differ slightly from those in United States, primarily due to differences in legal and governmental structures. The organic regulatory systems of all countries are based on CODEX guidelines. Mutual recognition of trading partners’ systems is common throughout the global economy.

Canada is confident that the U.S. conditions for recognition will be met.

The CFIA has initiated mutual recognition agreement for the trade of organic products with the United States.

Source: Michel Saumur, Canadian Organic Office, Ottawa

Supporting smallholders in organics

According to Paddy Doherty, there are ways to make the certification process accessible and affordable to smaller farms in Canada. British Columbia has a “low risk” rule, whereby farms considered to be “low risk” based on a list of specific criteria—such as being small in size and in no proximity to conventional practices—do not have to be inspected every year. Co-ops of market gardeners could also develop and certify as co-ops.

“There are ways to get provincial governments to cover certification costs for small operations. Prince Edward Island covers certification costs for small operators and Manitoba and Saskatchewan are investigating doing so,” says Stephanie Wells, president of the Organic Federation of Canada.

Gwen Simpson, a small market gardener in Alberta, says she believes organic certification is important for larger operations that export or provide products to in-country retail outlets, but that small operations may not need it. “Get to know the farmer. Ask questions: how do you grow your food?”

~P.I.

Organic backgrounder

Canadian Agricultural Products Act: "A [federal] Act that regulates the marketing of agricultural products in import, export and interprovincial trade and to provide for national standards and grades of agricultural products, for their inspection and grading, for the registration of establishments and for standards-governing establishments.”

Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement anticipated for the completed federal organic protocol, published Sept. 2, 2006, in the Canada Gazette.

December 13, 2007: The Canada Organic Regulations published December 2006 were largely driven home by Paddy Doherty, one-time hippie farmer and now chair of the federal Organic Value Chain Roundtable.

Doherty left “big city” Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1974 to join a commune in caribou country. To earn his keep, he became a brakeman on the railroad, a job he held for 20 years. Along with two farm partners, Doherty established Dragon Mountain Farm—a 10-acre market garden of mixed certified organic vegetables. Today the farm delivers fresh vegetables in boxes every week to 125 homes and outlets in the local area; 170 ewes and lambs are also now part of the farm’s mix.


Photo courtesy Paddy Doherty

This is the almost-secret life of Paddy Doherty. Most Canadians involved in organics know him simply as “Paddy,” a chief organizer of the country’s new Organic Regulations. While it may be a leap from railcars to regulations, it’s not an illogical one considering the rest of his background.

Doherty was hired in 2003 by the Certified Organic Advisory Board of British Columbia to help drive home the Canada Organic Products Regulations to make Canada more competitive in the export marketplace and boost consumer confidence in Canadian organic products. A threat by the European Union to embargo Canadian organic imports unless they implemented an acceptable organic program lent urgency to the task.


Photo courtesy Paddy Doherty

"Democracy is not efficient; it’s silly to think it can be."

-- Paddy Doherty

For Doherty, the job entailed organizing national meetings, minutes and teleconference calls, and translating everything official from English into French and vice versa to meet Canada’s dual-language protocols. It meant three years of working to establish common understandings across cultures, places and industry sectors. “Democracy is not efficient; it’s silly to think it can be,” said Doherty from his farm office.

When the new Organic Product Regulations were published in the Canada Gazette (akin to the U.S. Federal Register) a year ago, champagne was uncorked and many thought it was a done deal. But the new Regulations are only in an implementation— or shake-down—phase and aren’t scheduled to take effect until December 14, 2008.

The Regulations flow from The Standard

The national Regulations are enforceable under the National Standard of Canada for Organic Agriculture, which governs organic human food and livestock feed. The Standard has been in effect since 1999 and was revised in September 2006.

The purpose of the Regulations is to establish a system by which the federal government can regulate the use of the "Canada Organic" agricultural product logo on food products and livestock feed certified as meeting the provisions of the National Organic Standard, and that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.

“This national organic regime is intended to facilitate international market access, provide protection to consumers against deceptive and misleading labeling practices and support the further development of the domestic market,” said Michel Saumur of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA, which is accountable to the federal minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC, similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA), is charged with implementing the organic regulations.

Key players in the Canada organic standards and regulations process (left to right): Brian Baker, OMRI, observer on the Standards Committee; Stephanie Wells, OTA Canada West and chair of Organic Federation of Canada; Laura Telford, Canadian Organic Growers; Mike Leclair, senior market development advisor, Organic Sector Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada; Paddy Doherty, chair of the Organic Value Chain Round Table.

The Standard provides requirements for organic production systems through its two parts: the General Principles and Management Standards (which deals with practices) and the Organic Permitted Substances List (which deals with products).

The Standard outlines the following principles:

  • Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution and optimize biological productivity.
  • Replenish and maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
  • Maintain biological diversity for long-term sustainability.
  • Recycle materials and resources whenever possible.
  • Provide appropriate care to livestock to promote their health and behavioral needs.
  • Maintain the integrity of organic foods and processed products from initial handling to point of sale.
  • Use renewable resources in locally organized production systems.

Canada’s Permitted Substances List (PSL) is a “positive list” detailing what is allowed in organic production and processing. (By contrast, a negative list would show what is not allowed.) It is undergoing revision to conform to all the country’s organic initiatives. “There will be regular revisions on a schedule and we can build in a mechanism that allows for growers and industry to adapt to changes,” says Stephanie Wells, president of the Organic Federation of Canada, one of the groups involved in the organic policy negotiations.

Changes needed

Responsible for updating the National Standard is the Standards Committee on Organic Agriculture. This is a group of more than 100 representatives from across the organic community including consumers, tradespeople, technicians and representatives from both government and industry. The committee is appointed by The Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB), a federal body charged with overseeing the development of all types of federal standards.


Photo by: Bob Corson

A national advocacy group known as the Canadian Organic Growers received federal funding to oversee the process and ensure continued consultation between government and industry. Amendments to the Standard are being provided by ballot to the members of the Standards Committee and approval must be achieved by consensus. “Consensus” refers to “substantial agreement,” not necessarily unanimity, but the process includes an effort to resolve all objections.

The Standards Committee’s current revision phase includes meetings in August and November. Laura Telford, executive director of COG is generally pleased with how the process is rolling out, challenges and all. “I was worried that the big interests would want to ram things through, and the ‘purists’ in the room would hold things up,” Telford said from her Ottawa office.

Details that matter

Telford explains that there is always a big discussion about “trade expedience” versus “organic values.” One example is that the current Standard allows toxic chemicals to be used as wood preservatives. Prairie farmers rely on fence posts to keep cattle in and predators out.


Photo by: Bob Corson

"Consensus is difficult to achieve and takes time; just when you think you have moved forward on an issue, new concerns arise."

-- Laura Telford
Executive Director
Canada Organic Growers

“We are talking a lot of fence posts in the prairies,” said Telford. “It would take a great deal of expense to source alternate materials for new fence posts or to find new methods of fencing, but most of the prairie farmers at the August meeting said that they do not want those chemicals in their fence posts,” adding that if the bar is not set high now, there will not be a push for alternatives.

However, in the recent November round of meetings, some livestock farmers remained concerned that alternative fence posts, such as those made out of cedar, are not yet commercially available locally and would be extremely expensive to source elsewhere.

“Consensus is difficult to achieve and takes time; just when you think you have moved forward on an issue, new concerns arise,” said Telford. The next round of meetings is scheduled for April 2008.

Brian Baker, research director of the U.S.-based Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI), has “observer” or “information only” status on the Standards Committee. Baker served on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement’s (IFOAM) Standards Committee to develop criteria and evaluation processes for amendment of the European organic regulatory agency’s substances list, and he worked with the National Organic Standards Board in the United States. The 15-member body represents the U.S. organic community—from farmers to processors—and makes non-binding recommendations to update and revise U.S. organic policy.

Baker says it’s up to the group process to prove if the existing Canada National Standard is contradictory to Regulations and, if so, to implement changes by the December 14, 2008 deadline. He commended the process of working through consensus, affirming that “Canada does not have autocratic and unrepresented stakeholders.”

Canada-U.S. comparison

Most sources agree the main difference in organic standards between the United States and its neighbour to the north are particulars in the lists of permitted substances. These include:

Chilean nitrate is not permitted as a soil amendment in Canada but is conditionally permitted in the United States, where it is used to boost nitrogen uptake. The United States and Chile are the only two countries in the world that allow its use. Chilean nitrate is mined from the deserts of Chile, and its extraction requires environmental degradation generally considered antithetical to the spirit of organic farming. There are petitions against its use in the National Organic Program (U.S.). Click here for more info. “Chilean nitrate is seen as quick fix and is not considered to build organic fertility in the long run,” Telford said.

Antibiotics in organic dairy. Canada has a ”last resort” clause for veterinarians to use antibiotics, and the milk must be withdrawn from supply for 14 days or twice as long as the medication’s withdrawal period, whichever is longer. At the November meetings, the livestock working group in the Standards Committee to Organic Agriculture examined a proposal to extend the 14 days, which will be put forward at the next meeting in April 2008.

“This is being driven by consumer concerns that 14 days is not enough,” Telford said. Baker said that the zero tolerance of antibiotics policy in the United States works well for big dairies that operate conventional and organic herds but can be punitive to the small farmer with a closed herd. Animals treated with antibiotics in the United States are required to be removed from the organic herd.

Synthetic and natural permitted substances. One issue causing debate in both Canada and the United States is the use of the terms “synthetic” and “natural” substances and their regulation. There are some synthetics on Canada’s Permitted Substances List, but synthetics are prohibited in the Standard. “There is general recognition that this needs to be reconciled,” Telford said.

For example, pheromones occur in nature, but the pheromones used in all agriculture, including organic agriculture, are synthetic. Since the meeting in November a new proposal is on the table that will prohibit synthetics in general; exceptions will be allowed and measured against a list of criteria based on outcomes such as whether the substance will degrade the environment or soil.

Some at the table have expressed concern that allowing synthetics will break down the integrity of the organic system, but Telford said: “If we make the criteria strong enough for getting on the Permitted Substances List, then the integrity of our organic system will be maintained.”

Canada and international trade

The National Organic Standard is based on the European Union model, but Canada is seeking to trade with both the United States and the European Union. The Canadian Standards are designed to be seamless with those of the European Union and are similar but not exactly reciprocal. Equivalency agreements are being sought with other major trading partners.

The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is currently assessing the Canadian system, according to Michael Saumur. Currently, the USDA accredits certifying bodies in Canada for export to the United States. “This takes a lot of resources. If we can get an equivalency determination process in place, the USDA could delegate this to the CFIA,” he said.

Saumur said the new Regulations will help Canada harmonize with international markets. Companies that already export organic products to the European Union should have no interruption of trade during the phase-in period or over the next 12 months. Canada is also the first country in the world to track trade data on organic products, providing information about imported products that could have been grown in Canada. Saumur said that the list is not yet complete, calling the undertaking an expensive and extensive process.

Trade within Canada

Canada is a federation of 10 provinces and three territories. Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (akin to the American Constitution), the new federal regulations apply to import, export and inter-provincial trade (trade between provinces) of organic products, but not to intra-provincial trade (trade within a province).

Products with only ingredients from that province and intended for sale only within that province are bound under provincial jurisdiction. Saumur said that each province needs to develop its own process for implementing the Regulations in cooperation with the national regulatory body. Quebec and British Columbia already have such processes in place, and other provinces are considering following suit. Telford is worried that in the absence of provincial regulation, consumers might be duped at farmers' markets by vendors making claims that products are organic when they are not certified.

Saumur said that under the Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act and the Food and Drug Act, fraudulent claims can be policed. If a vendor claims its products are organic and they are not, he said, such a claim could be deemed misleading advertising. “Producers who want to make and sell products only within one province can use the Canada Organic label, but they must comply with the National Regulations,” Saumur explained.

In the United States, the same federal organic regulations apply to all products, intrastate commerce included. “The standards for a tomato in Vermont are the same as for a tomato in Seattle,” says Joan Schaffer, spokesperson for the USDA’s organic program.

Whatever issues remain, the many stakeholders involved in the negotiations have good reason to keep at the task of creating a unified organic system. Global demand for organic products is growing exponentially, and Canada’s organic industry needs the Canadian Regulations and Standards in place and working to continue exporting organic crops and products.

“Ultimately," says Paddy Doherty, "both the consumer and industry will benefit,” said Doherty.