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.
||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?
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
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 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."
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.
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
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.
"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
"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
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.