A food fight in our future?
Federal regulators deliberate what may become Canadaâ??s first official set of national organic regulations. The question on many minds is, how? BC and Quebec do have provincial regulations, but for the past few years, industry leadersâ??from manufacturers, producers, and sellers to processors, farmers, and resellersâ??have offered time and input to advance the goal of national laws.
Thomas Pawlick, 64, award-winning science journalist, may be climbing the sales chart with his recent The End of Food (Greystone Books, 2006), but on his organic farm south of Tweed, Ontario, it’s all about physical labour and building a future.
“We’re a bit like the pioneers of the 1800s,” he laughs in an interview. “We’re literally clearing the land so we can use it.”
Meanwhile, far from honey bees and sweat towels, another “pioneering” initiative is occurring: federal regulators deliberate what may become Canada’s first official set of national organic regulations. The decisions made during this process will affect not just farmers like Pawlick, but all of Canada’s organic industry. The question on many minds is, how?
As Pawlick can attest after decades of attending international agriculture conferences, organics has shed its “hippie” image. It’s the fastest growing sector in agriculture, with sales up 20 percent a year, according to the Canadian Organic Growers (cog.ca).
In 2004 we had more than 3,670 certified organic farms, with 258 transitioning to organic. Close to 1.2 million acres are farmed organically. The value of production at the farm level is $250 to $350 million and we export about $3 million annually.
One big importer is the United States, where supply can’t meet the booming demand, so manufacturers are turning to foreign sources. This demand is bound to explode with even mainstream supermarkets such as Safeway and SuperValu wanting a piece of the pie and now carrying their own organic brands. Food industry heavyweight Wal-Mart recently announced their intention to boost their organic selection while cutting consumer costs.
Supermarkets in Canada have also bought in; it’s almost impossible to turn down a food aisle and not bump into organic stuff. But unlike the US, we don’t have national regulations. Many imported American products are distinguishable by their US Department of Agriculture (USDA) logo, while we’ve relied on certifying bodies and independent inspectors across the country to keep our organic industry happy and healthy.
On Political Hill
BC and Quebec do have provincial regulations, but for the past few years, industry leaders–from manufacturers, producers, and sellers to processors, farmers, and resellers–have offered time and input to advance the goal of national laws.
“Initially, there was a need for export access, mostly to the European Union,” says Paddy Doherty, Canadian Organic Initiative Coordinator of the Certified Organic Associations of BC (certifiedorganic.bc.ca), who has been involved with the initiative since 2003.
“Subsequently, the more important need is for consumer assurance and protection.”
“We want mandatory regulation that would retain the aspects of the systems operating already. We want the government to produce a legal overlay, to provide surveillance,” adds Doherty.
Surveillance is nothing new to Pawlick, whose book is an expos?n how profit-driven food and agricultural industrialists have reduced the nutritional value of food.
Organic production, he argues, is one solution to slow this crisis and strengthen the traditional rights of food growers. He’s cautiously optimistic about the pending legislation. “I think we need standards,” he says. “It’s too easy for people to claim to be organic when they’re not.”
“I’m also in favour of looking very closely at the regulations and making sure they don’t put undue burden on small operations. And if they do, we should alter those.”
Federal officials declined to be interviewed for this article because, at the time, the national regulations were being drafted with the Department of Justice, and thus, confidential. Eventually (no official timeline), they will be prepublished in the Canada Gazette Part 1, and open for public comment.
Although the process has been challenging, “people in the organic sector are generally satisfied with the way things are going,” says Doherty.
South of the Border
In the United States, though national organic regulations came into effect in October 2002, remaining “satisfied” is becoming increasingly more difficult.
“Consumers have been able to stay mobilized and fight attempts to degrade organic standards,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA, organicconsumers.org). “But we’re facing a more serious problem now because the industry has become so large–$15 billion dollars or so a year. Corporate players have entered the [marketplace].”
A grassroots organization, the OCA has around 35,000 paying members and an e-subscriber list of 400,000 people, including over 10,000 Canadians. For eight years, their “Save Our Standards” campaign has attempted to maintain the integrity of US organics.
In 2003, for instance, an amendment to a bill allowed poultry farmers to use conventionally grown feed if organic feed was twice as expensive, and still call their product organic. The OCA and consumers were able to reverse this amendment six months later.
More recently, in October 2005, Congress overturned a previous court ruling that barred the use of synthetic ingredients such as food additives and processing aids in processed organic foods. The new amendment re-allows the use of nonorganic ingredients in organically labelled foods if the organic alternative is considered “commercially unavailable.”
Cummins, of OCA, says the amendment weakens traditional preparation methods and opens a door to giant food processors to use industrial techniques without having them reviewed.
On the other hand, the Organic Trade Association (OTA, ota.com), a US membership-based business association representing small and large food producers, supports the amendment. “The issue is whether processed products could use a list of benign synthetic ingredients already approved by the National Organic Standards Board,” Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the OTA, told Consumer Reports. “And we do not believe standards will be weakened at all.”
Watching Our Plates
Can we expect a similar situation in Canada? “I’d just warn Canadians that bigger players are going to deal with any variables in the law,” says Cummins. “Even once you have national standards, vigilance is the watch word.”
The Organic Trade Association announced last July that they are creating an OTA Canada to support their north-of-the-border members. Canadian liaison Stephanie Wells was unavailable for comment. Phone call attempts to set up an interview with Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager for Nature’s Path Foods and new appointee to the OTA Board of Directors, went unreturned.
“There is discourse between big and small organic producers,” says Doherty of the Canadian Organics Initiative. “It’s not a bad thing. It keeps us honest, active, and vibrant. So long as it doesn’t become toxic.”
“There is concern about potential influence and having the standards become less stringent,” he admits, “but we’ve been revising them and they’re getting more stringent.”
Good news, in Pawlick’s opinion. He plans to apply for organic certification once his farm is off the ground. At the moment, only 20 to 25 acres have been cleared.
He’s walking the talk, enjoying a lifestyle where communities share food locally and socialize at neighborhood bookstores and coffee houses. With fingers crossed we can hope that our upcoming national organic regulations reflect the same progressive, respectful attitude of his book, where he writes, “Food is international, universal, but at the same time ought to be intensely local and individual, like the human beings who produce it.”
Become a Label Expert
To make shopping easier, here’s the scoop on American labels.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guarantees that 100 percent of the
ingredients in these products are organically produced. Watch for the green and white logo and/or a certifying agent’s logo.
Ninety-five percent of the ingredients are organic. The other five percent can be nonorganic and are approved on the USDA’s National List, which governs the ingredients, other substances, and methods that may or may not be included without compromising the organic designation. The USDA logo, and that of a certifying agent, may be on this label.
Made with Organic Ingredients
At least 70 percent of ingredients are organic, and three of these must be noted somewhere on the packaging. The remaining percentage of nonorganic ingredients is approved on the USDA’s National List. These products don’t boast the USDA logo.
What is Organic Food?
You’ve read “organic,” so what does it actually mean? Well, organic food is grown using a holistic production system that encourages safety and health to plants, animals, and people. Its overlying goal is long-term sustainability and harmoniousness with the environment. Synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, veterinary drugs, as well as genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge are forbidden.
Canada is currently developing national organic regulations to give enforceable strength to the organic standard that has been in effect since 1999. Across the country, certifying bodies and independent inspectors have helped maintain this agricultural system, so that when you buy “certified organic,” you know you’re getting a tomato or cucumber of integrity.