An Organic Regulation for Canada?
The U.S. organic community haggled for a decade about an organic standard, and we’re living with the results, for better and worse. Our Canadian counterparts are now in the thick of this same process. Paddy Doherty is one of those who has been pushing aggressively for uniform organic standards in Canada. Here he shares his perspective on the history, the issues and the players.

By Paddy Doherty
Posted January 14, 2004

Who’s Who in Canadian Organics

(Listing here is in the in the order they are mentioned in the acompanying story.)

AAFC: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is the government Ministry (department) responsible for agriculture in Canada.

CFIA: Canadian Food Inspection Agency is a bureau of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada - responsible for all food inspection issues under federal jurisdiction.

Canadian Organic Unity Project: An ad hoc body formed in 1992 to develop an organic regulatory system for Canada. The COAB eventually replaced COUP.

COAB: The Canadian Organic Advisory Board (now defunct): an incorporated society (1993) whose task was to develop a national organic standard and represent the Canadian organic community on matters of national interest. The COABC lost national support when the Canadian organic community became divided over the sensitive issue of the delivery of certification.

Guelph Organic Conference: Originally begun as an initiative of agricultural students in the University of Guelph Ontario, the Guelph conference is the national venue for the Canadian organic movement. The conference has been running continuously for 23 years.

Organic Regulatory Committee: An ad hoc committee, ORC was formed by a meeting of the leaders of the organic movement in Canada during the 2003 Guelph Organic Conference. Since Canada lacks a national organisation for the organic sector, the ORC representatives report to their own membership (members represent different sectors of the organic community) and to the organic community as a whole.

Organic Crop Improvement Association: An international organic certification body, the OCIA continues to play an important role in certification and organisation, particularly in Western Canada.

Canadian Agricultural Products Act: "An Act to regulate 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".

NOP: The USDA National Organic Program has had a profound impact on the Canadian organic scene. Most Canadian certification bodies now operate to NOP protocol.

Organic Trade Association: The OTA was started in Canada and retains a Canadian office, but has less membership and less influence in Canada that it does in the US.

NOSB: A 15-member board appointed by the USDA. "The board's main mission is to assist the Secretary in developing standards for substances to be used in organic production. The NOSB also advises the Secretary on other aspects of implementing the national organic program." Recommendations of the NOSB are not binding on the USDA.

Table Filiére: The organic council for Quebec includes all players in the organic movement. The inclusiveness and the democratic nature of the Table Filiére provide a model for other provincial organic bodies.

CODEX: "The Codex Alimentarius Commission implements the Joint FAO/WHO (Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Health Organisation) Food Standards Programme, the purpose of which is to protect the health of consumers and to ensure fair practices in the food trade. The Codex Alimentarius (Latin, meaning Food Law or Code) is a collection of internationally adopted food standards presented in a uniform manner. "

IFOAM: The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements provides an increasingly important leadership role in the development and harmonisation of organic standards and regulations throughout the world. Canada will be looking to the IFOAM for guidance as we move into the regulatory process. – P.D.

The Problem

The problem is that we are confusing the consumer with a myriad of labels and organic designations. Successive independent Canadian marketing studies have shown that the even organic consumers cannot differentiate between organic, certified organic, and “natural.” Who can blame them?
Michel Saumur keeps mentioning “the problem.” “What is the problem?” he asks in his appealing French-Canadian accent. Saumur, jolly affable and dapper, works at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. He's also an organic farmer, with a small flock of Rideau Arcott sheep on his farm in the Gatineau region of Quebec. He talks about his sheep, amusing listeners with stories about Henry, the ram.

How is it that among the legion of unknown, faceless, uncaring (even hostile) bureaucrats in the CFIA, the organic community has found a friend in this jolly shepherd?

Saumur finally gets through to me about “the problem.” Of course: There has to be a problem before the government will even consider enacting legislation. Governments everywhere are de-regulating -- trying to eliminate regulation, not trying to create it. Right or wrong, this is the present culture in government and if we want government to respond to our needs, we have to produce a “problem.”

And the problem? The problem is that we are confusing the consumer with a myriad of labels and organic designations. Successive independent Canadian marketing studies have shown that the even organic consumers cannot differentiate between organic, certified organic, and “natural.” Who can blame them? One designation and one understanding of what organic means across the country may dispel the confusion.

The present voluntary system does not adequately protect the consumers from fraud. Though the CFIA will inspect suspected cases of misleading labelling, (and prosecute where warranted) there is no overall regulation for the organic designation across the country.

Although Canadian organic food (from apples to cereals to maple syrup) is sold all over the world, organic brokers have had to develop costly and complicated methods to assure trade access. Though the organic sector should be congratulated for its ingenuity in securing foreign markets, much of this trade access is ad hoc and may disappear at the whim of another jurisdiction.

So we play along with the government – identifying the problem. This part has been easy; the hard part comes when we discuss the details. As we deliberate, we wonder how far do we go. Can we maintain our organic principles within a mandatory program? We want the Canadian government to enact a regulation, but we want it on our terms - how naïve can we get?

The History

The first attempt to develop a Canadian organic regulation began in 1991 with the Canadian Organic Unity Project and was continued by the Canadian Organic Advisory Board in 1995 and again in 2000. Much energy has been expended by good people with a vision for the organic movement in Canada.

Canada is an exporting nation ... 1500 organic farmers in Saskatchewan alone, cannot survive without trade access. The EU will not recognise provincial programs, nor are they interested in recognising a voluntary organic system. Here is our incentive.

So, why hasn't there been success? Let's face it, the fundamental problem was that we couldn't reach agreement. Of course, there were personalities; there still are, but they are what make the organic movement. No, the fundamental problem was that the incentive to come together for the good of the movement did not outweigh personal interests. People are not going to agree to something that does not meet their needs.

What is different now? The deadline (December 31, 2005) for inclusion in the EU 'third country' list draws near. Canada is an exporting nation; our principles may embrace local production for local consumption, but 1500 organic farmers (many have large grain farms) in Saskatchewan alone, cannot survive without trade access. The EU will not recognise provincial programs, nor are they interested in recognising a voluntary organic system. Here is our incentive.

At the Guelph Organic Conference in 2003, the Canadian organic community came together to appoint an 18-member representative committee. The mandate given to this Organic Regulatory Committee was to "develop and ensure implementation of mandatory standard and system in Canada that meets the needs of the majority of stakeholders."

The People

Diverse, would be the mildest description of the make-up of the Organic Regulatory Committee. The ORC includes, (among others) a commercial potato farmer from Prince Edward Island, the president of the Organic Crop Improvement Association, a representative from the ninth largest grocer in the world, passionate small-farm advocates from across Canada, as well as an agent for the world's largest organic grain broker. Some are pragmatists, some are idealists, but all are unified in a desire to promote the organic movement in Canada.

This passionate idealism excites and draws people to the organic movement. Government bureaucrats will candidly admit they enjoy working with the organic sector because though the organic community is diverse, vacillating, and awkward, they are fun. Michel Saumur tells us plainly that there is little interest for an organic regulation within the corridors of the CFIA, yet he is willing to fight on our behalf, and to bring willing and unwilling bureaucrats along with him. It must be the challenge.

The Model

A regulation under the Canadian Agricultural Products Act will describe the law for use of the 'organic' designation in Canada. At this point, the ORC and governments have conspired to produce Version II, the bare bones of a regulatory system. The regulation will be administered by the CFIA, with the assistance of an 'Advisory Body' - a government/organic sector partnership that will look after the Standards and related criteria. Accreditation will be determined by the competent authority (CFIA) and the current certification bodies will perform certification.

Being one of the last into the regulatory game, we have the opportunity to learn from other jurisdictions. Our colleagues in the US have provided information about positive results from the NOP:

  • The NOP seal receives unanimous endorsement from the organic sector and from consumers. After a year of implementation, it seems the seal is doing what it was meant to do.
  • Despite some setbacks (the chicken feed fiasco, which turned out alright in the end, thanks to the Organic Trade Association, among others) most organic players in the US feel that things are definitely better than before implementation.

They have also been candid about the negative elements of the NOP:

  • The National Organic Standards Board lacks the influence that was originally envisaged. Recommendations from the NOSB are not binding on the NOP; at this point, the status of those recommendations remains unknown.
  • The NOP does not always consult with the sector, but acts on its own.
  • Many small producers feel that the program has been enacted to serve corporate interests - more about that later.

There is a growing feeling in the Canadian organic movement that we are best served by sticking close to international models for organic regulation. One step on this road has been a radical change in the approach to the Canada Organic Standard. Initiated by the Table Filiére (Quebec), the current draft is now being broken into a CODEX-based Standard (principles and immutable elements), with an accompanying guidance document and a Permitted Substances List.

This change will facilitate the development of a Regulation, as well as international recognition and equivalency. As many standards setters have discovered, the more detail we provide in our standard, (to close loopholes and enable supervision) the more difficult and unreasonable the document becomes. We have learned that a National Standard has to be amenable to regional variations - it is more important to provide outcomes in terms of principles than to provide prescriptive detail.

Farmer's Concerns

"What will it cost me?" is the first question. Then, "Is this right?" becomes the more important issue. We became organic farmers because we believed that organic farming is better for the environment. We are (most of us) environmentalists and we believe that organic farming is the best way to practice, on the ground, what we preach. "Are we helping to save the world, or are we assisting some large corporation to secure a market niche?"

George Zebroff is one of those rare men who grow more radical with age. An organic farmer of over thirty years in the Okanagan region of British Columbia Canada; George is opinionated, he's intractable, but his views do represent the feelings of many organic farmers in Canada.

"In the past several years", George writes, "it has been shocking to realize that opportunist farmers and bureaucrats were taking over and embracing for their revised version of organic agriculture the same commercialized, large-scale industrialized model of farming which we had opposed thirty years ago. Genuine organic growers are being forced to consider being and providing an organic alternative not only to conventional farming but to the revisionist version of ‘organics’, too. How did we all get into such a mess?"

"With production designed according to the needs of the large-scale monoculturist organic producer, and with many small-scale genuine organic farmers still supportive, still believing that a little organic is better than none at all, the work of the opportunist is not complete. Bureaucratization of the certification procedures gradually put the grassroots upside down with the roots being fed from the top. Currently we are to endure an attempt to establish a national program by which all organic producers would be obliged to be members in order to call their products organic and/or certified organic; all this to facilitate export for the large so-called organic producers --- so much for local, seasonal, bioregional, etc. --- not only for us, but for the local organic marketers in the country receiving the exports."

It is obvious that smaller farmers feel they are being marginalized, but it is not true that this is always the case.

Though his statements are intentionally provocative, George's words resound throughout the organic movement, in Canada, the US, and abroad. Organic magazines and listervs are filled with the sentiment that the principles of organic agriculture are being betrayed through the process of regulation. Several of Michael Pollan's opinion pieces articulate this issue, as does Elliot Coleman, who speaks plainly and has little use for the recent commercialisation of the organic model. It is obvious that smaller farmers feel they are being marginalized, but it is not true that this is always the case.

Many small farmers were and are involved in the organic regulatory process. Many are concerned about the amount of fraud and misrepresentation in the market - from Farmers' Market cheating to mislabelling in supermarkets. Farmers do want some assurance that others will not be able to capitalise on the efforts of legitimately certified producers.

Gunnar Rungren, IFOAM President, has been walking the line between enabling the growth of organic production and retaining the principles of organic farming for years. In 2002 he wrote:

"The same farmer that sells her organic products in the open market for the highest possible price and thereby supplies mainly wealthy people often living far away, may very well have another vision of how she really wants to be, such as a living farm closely involved with a similarly vibrant local community.

"We need to promote and develop different aspects of organic agriculture simultaneously. Organic agriculture is much more than just markets and standards. IFOAM should also continue to encourage large-scale conversion to organic agriculture as well as large-scale marketing. This liberates more land from agro-chemicals and gives more people access to organic food. It is, however, equally important that we cultivate and support the other aspects of organic. Such aspects can be local or direct marketing; reviving the concept of the farm as an organism; landscape management; integration of social aspects in organics and many more traditional concepts that IFOAM's members are busy developing."

The paradox of trying to increase production (to save the world) while keeping production small-scale (to save the world) cannot be resolved. We can continue to debate this issue; look for alternatives to the conventional food distribution system - encourage and provide incentives for local production/consumption systems, and in the end, if we don’t like the Regulation the Canadian government proposes, we do not have to accept it.

We would be naïve to think that we could have a government-regulated system that is ultimately controlled by organic farmers. However, that is the ideal, and we will strive towards it. We can learn from the NOP that direct involvement in administration of a regulatory program is essential.

One of many missing pieces is a national organisation representing the Canadian organic community. The organic movement can never be taken seriously (by governments, media, and national farm organisations) until it can speak with one voice. The next few months may see some movement in that direction, while the regulatory initiative provides momentum for the organic sector. In any event, it is likely the Canadian organic community will never be the same, but it will be up to all of us to determine what it becomes.