||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. Michel 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?
He 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.
|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 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 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
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 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
- The NOP does not always consult with the sector, but acts on
- 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
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
"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
|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 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.
|The paradox of trying to increase production
(to save the world) while keeping production small-scale (to
save the world) cannot be resolved...and in the end, if we don’t
like the Regulation the Canadian government proposes, we do
not have to accept it.
"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.