What is organic? Here are 8 things you need know












arrow [Photo © Oliver Sachgau]

You can’t just slap a sticker on an apple and declare it organic. Most people know that. But the actual rules on organic produce are convoluted. It turns out, organic doesn’t always mean organic. Here are the basic questions, and answers, to everything you need to know to understand organic food.

1. What kind of regulation is there on organic food in Canada?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for the federal certification of organic food. Federally, the laws that govern organic certification, regulation and distribution are the Organic Products Regulations, which came into effect on June 30, 2009.

The government had previously established voluntary federal standards in 1999, but certifying agencies could still decide on their own definition of organic. Even though most agencies had similar requirements, small differences among their rules led to more than 25 different logos promising organic quality, according to a 2004 government review of organic farming.

The current standard only applies to food that carries the Canada Organic logo, or that is transported from one province to the other. For food grown and sold within a province and not carrying the logo, there are varying provincial standards. Out of the provinces, Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia currently have their own certifications systems, which apply when a producer wants to sell inside a province, or receive their provincial organic certification. If the producer wants the Canada Organic logo on their products, the national rules apply.

Any farm that wants to be certified organic has to submit an application with one of Canada’s accredited certifying agencies.

Sebastien Houle is the operating director of Ecocert, one such agency. Ecocert certifies both federally and for the province of Quebec, and beyond accreditation, has no government ties. He said the difference between provincial and federal regulations are usually very small.

“It’s not a big difference … there are some [differences in] about growing crops in the beginning of a season in greenhouses. The soil, the height of the pot, there are standards for Quebec that is a little bit more stringent than Canada,” Houle said.

2. What are the standards for organic food?

Under the Organic Products Regulations, farms that want their food to carry the Canada Organic logo must now adhere to a strict standard of how they grow their crops, the quality of land they grow them on, how these crops are fertilized and maintained, and even how pots that contain organic plants are sanitized.

The Organic Production System – Permitted Substances List details all of the substances that are allowed in organic farming. If a substance is not on the list, it can’t be used. These forbidden substances include synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, sewage sludge, or any genetically modified materials. The use of antibiotics is also heavily regulated, and only allowed in very specific cases, like if an animal becomes very sick.

The Permitted Substances List also includes detailed rules about how allowed substances can be used. For example, compost made from animal manure must reach a temperature of at least 55 C for four consecutive days, and can’t contain more than a specified amount of human pathogens.

For multi-ingredient products, at least 95 per cent of the ingredients must be organic in order to carry the Canada Organic logo. If between 70 and 95 per cent of the ingredients are organic, the label can say “contains x% organic ingredients,” but is not allowed to have the Canada Organic logo.

3. What about produce from other countries?

Food imported from other countries must be certified under an equivalency arrangement with that country in order to carry the Canada Organic logo. The product must be certified by an agency accredited in the country, and recognized in Canada.

Currently, Canada has equivalency arrangements with the United States, the European Union, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Japan.

In 2014, Canada also started negotiating an equivalency agreement with South Korea, which is ongoing, according to Tammy Jarbeau, a CFIA spokesperson.

4. What does a farm need to do in order to get certified?

The preparation for certification can sometimes happen months, or even years, before the first organic crop is grown.

Alex Mackay-Smith, co-owner of Juniper Farm in Wakefield, QC., said the state of the land is a big deciding factor in how much preparation time is needed. His own farm is certified organic, by Ecocert.

“If it’s land where no chemical fertilizer or pesticides have been used for many years, it’s relatively easy, depending on what you’re growing,” Mackay-Smith said.

If the land was previously used for conventional farming and used chemical fertilizers or pesticides, the law dictates a period of time when the land has to basically reset, he said.

“It can be multiple years before you have certification,” he said.

In his case, the farmland had been tested and was situated on ideal ground for organic farming, but had it not been, Mackay-Smith would have had to spend three to four years doing what he called tightly-controlled cover cropping, in order to flush out the chemicals in the soil. The crops that are grown in that time might be grown in the same way organic crops are, but they would not be sold as organic produce.

Then comes the actual certification process, where a farm applies to one of the federally recognized agencies. The cost of the application can vary depending on the certifying agency. Ecocert has special pricing in place for small farms, so that the complete application costs around $430, Houle said. The pricing for a larger farm depends on the size, such as the number of acres of crops, or the amount of livestock.

However, that cost doesn’t include the number of hours farmers have to put into the application process, he said.

“The labour that goes into it, our personal labour, is probably closer to another thousand dollars. But that’s not what they charge us,” he said.

Still, Mackay-Smith said he believes the additional work is worth it.

“I think it’s really good they make sure we’re on top of our rotations and … that we’re really organized so it’s clear,” he said.

“We’re farming from an ethical perspective, so that the choices we make, we would have made whether we were certified or not certified. So in my mind the only additional cost is the [application].”

5. How does the government make sure farms are following the standard?

Certifying agencies regularly conduct inspections to make sure farms are following all the standards. Because of the lengthy requirements, these can be time-consuming for the farmer.

“They come in and say ‘All right, you need to tell me that carrot, where was it picked, what variety is it,’ so they can trace it back right to the spot it was grown on,”

Mackay-Smith said one of the most frustrating parts of the inspections is having to trace back where each product came from. The regulations stipulate farmers must be able to accurately trace their crop from seed to produce, and have supporting paperwork. Keeping track of every variety of crop adds a lot of work, he said.

“We grow 75 varieties of vegetables. Then we get into seed varieties for vegetables. For carrots, we grow six different kinds. So we’re doing 350 different kinds of seeds. Then they come in and say ‘All right, you need to tell me that carrot, where was it picked, what variety is it,’ so they can trace it back right to the spot it was grown on,” he said.

“That takes so much work. For us to do that, and make sure we have the records to do that, is really labour intensive,” he said.

Houle said the response from farmers to some of the regulations is mixed, but it’s still necessary to follow the rules.

“Some people think it’s too much, some people think it’s OK, but we need to have the information to prove that we are meeting the regulation, so there’s no choice in that,” he said.

If a farm is not following the regulations, their certification can be suspended, so they can no longer sell their products as organic. If corrective measures are not taken within 30 days of the suspension, in most cases, the certification can be cancelled.

In 2014, 69 producers had their certification cancelled. In 2013, there were 161 cancellations. The total number of organic farms in 2009 was roughly 3,900.

6. Can farms choose to withdraw their organic status?

Yes, and some do every year.

The CFIA maintains a list of farms that withdraw or have their applications cancelled every year, according to a CFIA spokesperson. In 2014, there were 219 withdrawals, and 310 the year before.

7. What do farms gain in certifying?

The main benefit to a farm in being certified is being backed up by a national authority on the quality of the product.

More importantly, Mackay-Smith said, is consumers trust certified organic products more than non-certified ones.

“I think it raises it to a standard for people that allows them to trust you a bit more,” he said.

However, there is a small but vocal anti-certification movement in the organic business. They believe certified organic produce is overpriced and not substantially better than other produce.

Mackay-Smith said he’s tried selling his crops to restaurants and gotten negative responses because he’s certified.

“There’ll be some suppliers who say ‘All [organic farming] is bull. You’re just paying more for nothing,’” he said.

Personally, Mackay-Smith believes certification is important, as it keeps farmers to a high standard that otherwise would be impossible to prove to a consumer.

“As far as the consumer’s perspective, it is very important that there is a standard … if there isn’t, it’s a really slippery slope in the actions people can take on a farm that will make it not organic,” he said.

8. Is there a price differential when buying organic food?

Yes, but it differs from product to product. Some things, like meat, can be significantly more expensive if they’re organic. Organic ground beef, for example, sells at almost four times the price of non-organic ground beef.

Other produce, such as apples or bananas, are sold at prices closer to their non-organic counterparts. However, in general, the difference between organic and non-organic food is between 20 and 100 per cent.


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