Canada’s Organic Coming of Age

Stephanie Wells

Once upon a time, anyone could call their product “organic”. Consumers were beginning to take an interest in organic foods and other products, part of a growing desire to take better care of the Earth. Farmers were studying the teachings of Steiner, Fukuoka, Howard, Rodale, Leopold, etc.—a long list of brilliant agricultural practitioners. But there were no laws or guidelines regarding organic farming. Who knew what organic farm produce really was? Crops grown with partially organic fertilizers? Or grown without pesticides and herbicides? There were no clear criteria and the term “organic” was applied indiscriminately.

In the late 1990s, I worked in communications for what had become a large, international organic certification agency. This agency had been started in the mid-1980s by a handful of Canadian and US organic farmers. They had realized that anyone could claim their crops or finished, shelf-ready products were organic. They decided there was a serious need for organic standards and a system of certifying farming and processing operations as compliant with good standards.

Other certification organizations were getting star ted, and each had its own standards, which were usually updated regularly to be made clearer and perhaps more robust. With consumer demand growing, the certification competition became fierce. A

ll the while, global groups were nailing down what organic really meant. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) held its first assembly in 1992. In July 1999, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, run under the United Nations’ FAO and WHO, produced the first “Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labeling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods,” setting criteria for organic food production—as well as systems for audit and certification by third-party agencies.

The certifier I worked for had established headquarters in the US. And that’s where I joined the management team in September 1999, just months before the f inal rule establishing the National Organic Program (NOP) came into force. The NOP was launched to protect the integrity of the United States organic seal. My organization needed to comply and it needed to be accredited by the USDA, as well as by IFOAM.

Our staff had many questions, and the answers were often hard to find in the new NOP rules. Whenever I contacted the USDA with questions, they suggested I contact the Organic Trade Association. I did so, found answers, and became friends with—and very dependent on—the OTA regulations experts.

When I returned to Canada, there was intense buzz in the organic sector about the need for regulation in Canada. The US had its NOP, the member states of the EU each had differing organic rules (and some countries had differing regional standards), Japan had launched its organic rules and legislation. It looked as if Canada would soon not be able to sell into those markets without organic regulations of its own.

At the 2001 Guelph Organic Conference, I found Katherine DiMatteo, the founding executive director of OTA. Huddled in a coat room, we discussed how OTA had been founded by both Canadians and Americans, but its work was pretty much limited to the US. I told her Canada would likely be establishing a federal organic program, and we sure needed to have some OTA experience and expertise to help us pave the way. A few weeks later, she asked me to represent OTA in Canada on a part-time basis and see if a full Canadian organization could be established. At first, I worked from home, but soon was sharing office space with Laura Telford at COG in Ottawa.

And so the work began in earnest. We were organic supporters and organizers from COG, OTA, provincial groups where they existed, regional groups, consumer groups, organic businesses, inspectors and certifiers putting their shoulders into the effort—and we immediately hit snags.

Our Biggest Challenges:

Who would be in charge? For starters, it’s the provinces who have jurisdiction over agriculture, not the federal government. Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency could only oversee products that crossed provincial or international borders. That said, Quebec already had its own organic rules and regulations.

So where would our rules and regulations fit best? At first, it looked as if Agriculture Canada would take on the organic portfolio. Eventually, it was decided — because the government felt the organic program would be about enforcement—the CFIA enforcers would work with the sector. We had to build relationships with four or five senior bureaucrats, as the project was moved from one department to another — or a bureaucrat was relocated or retired. We traipsed all over the country to meet with them: Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver and many other towns.

Who writes the organic standards? The US federal government re-wrote their standards—and received some 280,000 angry letters, more mail than any legislation in US history. It wasn’t a great idea for the government to try allowing GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation in organic production. The Canadian sector insisted on writing its own standards.

Who would own the standards? After years of our certifiers owning their own standards prior to regulation, we were surprised to learn that the CGSB would own the COS, but it ultimately made sense.

What would it cost to have a copy of the COS? I indignantly paid well over $100 for my first copy. Lengthy negotiations convinced government that producers, consumers and buyers—in Canada and abroad—needed free access to the COS, and this would be a constructive support for the sector.

Who would pay for the ongoing maintenance of the COS? We naively assumed government would happily foot the bills because it was a fast-growing industry, creating jobs, good for the environment—and other countries covered the costs for their organic sectors. But it was a fee-for-service situation, so the organic sector had to raise the funds!

Now, as we go to print, Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay has announced that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada will fund the review of the COS. COG applauds the government for stepping up—and thanks all the provincial and national organic associations, agriculture commodity groups and individuals who campaigned to make this happen!

Who could certify—and who would accredit the certifiers? Someone had to ensure the inspection and audit systems were being managed correctly, but we did not want the federal government to take over certification or accreditation, as they had no experience with organic production or the audit systems already in place. We wanted to work with the existing certifiers, many of which were already accredited by IFOAM’s International Organic Accreditation Services (IOAS), which has accredited organic certifiers since 1993, and with the accreditors in BC (Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia) and QC (Committee on Accreditation for Evaluation of Quality). We were able to convince government that those were the logical—and experienced—choices for accrediting the existing certifiers.

Who would negotiate organic equivalency agreements with other countries? Canada would have to work with representatives from other countries to conduct serious side-by-side comparisons of their standards and our own. This was highly detailed, complicated work, as every country’s standards were approached and organized differently and placed emphasis on different details. Every discrepancy, called a “critical variance”, was identified and discussed to determine whether both countries’ organic standards met an equivalent level of compliance that was key to the integrity of both programs.

What about the scope of the COS? Housed at the CFIA, our regulation was limited to food and animal feed, because that’s their limited scope. I was forever reminding the government representatives of the day that my organization represented businesses making organic cosmetics, textiles, pet foods, and so on. One of them would usually roar, “Canadian FOOD Inspection Agency!” At one point, the government wanted to forbid any non-food imports that made the organic claim. The Canadian organic sector still wants to expand the scope of the organic regulations, but it is a real dilemma, when different government silos are responsible for different types of products. Would we need to start the process all over again with Health Canada in order to see cosmetics or medicinal products certified organic?

The litany of challenges and sometimes wild surprises and distractions faced by Canada’s organic sector could fill an entire book. But we worked through many challenges and our Canada Organic seal is widely recognized and trusted by consumers here and globally. We have seen the system tested and seen producers and processors decertified. Soon all the provinces will be aligned with the federal organic framework, and perhaps one day more than food and animal feed will carry Canada Organic seal.

Stephanie Wells farmed for ten years in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, worked on community and energy trade newspapers, ran a small news agency in Southern Africa, managed an organic certification organization for a couple of years, and put tons of energy into helping to make both the Canadian organic system and the Canada Organic Trade Association realities.