The fact that the Canadian Organic Standards were ever created probably seemed miraculous to those who fought for them.
Paddy Doherty, current co-chair of the Canadian Organic Value Chain Roundtable, says the process took determination and patience.
“It took the federal committee five years to get the federal standards pushed through – and during that time there were five different ministers…. We had to establish relationships with all of them.”
The process was not necessarily built on complete consensus at first.
“If we had waited for everyone to agree, it would not have happened.” Doherty says.
Now that the organic standards are in place, there are few who would deny their importance in ensuring integrity and promoting consumer confidence, even if their implementation and enforcement aren’t always perfect.
But almost ten years after the Organic Products Regulations (OPR) came into force, the standards still don’t apply within many provinces, even though the original intent was that they would apply across the country. “The CFIA had initially promised us they were setting up a system of Memorandums of Understanding with the Provinces, which would allow regulation of organic within provinces. However, this never came about; either for legal or political reasons, I was never told, ” Doherty explains.
Without provincial regulation in place, organic claims on food products traded only within provincial borders do not require certification unless they bear the Canada Organic Logo. This makes it nearly impossible to address fraudulent or inaccurate organic food claims. If, for example, a processor claims a food product is organic but chooses not to certify, the CFIA would have to investigate to ascertain the claim’s validity, if the claim was false or misleading—and they simply have no capacity to do this. As of 2018, five provinces (BC, MB, NB, NS, and QC) have created regulations and established enforcement systems to address this issue. Advocates in Alberta, PEI and Ontario are currently pushing for the same.
The lack of regulation is particularly challenging in Ontario. In Canada’s largest organic market (over $1.4 billion in organic food, feed and seed sales), one study found that up to 43% of farms in Ontario making organic claims are not certified. The presence of large urban populations (over 6 million in the Greater Toronto Area) in relative proximity to productive agricultural lands has led to a proliferation of direct marketers, farmers’ markets and other direct delivery programs—a boon to local agriculture and young farmers. A recent study of Community Supported Agriculture programs across Canada showed that nearly half (44%) were located in Ontario. Of those surveyed, only one third were certified organic. The rest followed some, but not necessarily all, organic production practices. Another study found that only 10% of the 33% of farms making organic claims at farmers’ markets in Ontario were certified.
But the issue isn’t just with farms. Lulu Cohen-Farnell of Real Food for Real Kids has been competing against caterers making organic claims on their website and menus that she says can’t possibly be true, given their pricing. And the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) regularly hears from consumers who find organic products without certification at the retail level.
For this reason, the Organic Council of Ontario has been pushing for change. In 2016, OCO met with the Minister’s office, the Assistant Deputy Minister, and at least 5-7 different directors, managers and staff at OMAFRA to ask for regulation. But it wasn’t until OCO hosted its first lobby day in September 2016 that they began to gain traction on the issue.
After meeting with New Democrat MPP Peter Tabuns, OCO and Tabuns worked to develop a Private Member’s Bill based on similar organic legislation in Manitoba. Bill 153, the Ontario Organic Products Act, was introduced by Tabuns in September 2017 and co-sponsored by PC MPP Sylvia Jones. The bill passed second reading on November 23rd, with debate from all parties.
Private Member’s Bills often die at the committee level. With elections fast approaching in Ontario, the window of opportunity for change is slim. But recent government consultations offer some hope. The day Bill 153 was introduced, the Liberal government announced they would host “listening sessions” with the organic sector in the following weeks. In December 2017, ministry staff held three sets of consultations with organic stakeholders across the province to determine the opportunities and barriers facing the sector.
OCO is hopeful that the consultations will yield results. If a regulation is implemented, Ontario will need some way to support and incentivize uncertified farmers to take the leap. OCO is consulting with the sector on small-scale certification supports over the coming months to ensure that regulation increases the number of certified farms instead of hindering certification.
If a regulation isn’t implemented, OCO is planning to make organic an election issue.
Carolyn Young is the Executive Director of the Organic Council of Ontario. Prior to joining OCO, Carolyn worked as the Director of Sustain Ontario, the alliance for healthy food and farming. She has worked on farms and farming issues in four provinces in addition to visiting farms across Canada and abroad as an Independent Organic Inspector.
The Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) is the Voice for Organics in Ontario. We are the only full value chain association operating at the provincial level. We represent over 1000 certified organic operators, as well as the businesses, organizations, and individuals that bring food from farm to plate. We work to incite sector growth, support research, improve training, increase data collection, encourage market development, protect the integrity of organic claims, and inform the public of the benefits and requirements of organic agriculture.
For more information:
To find out more about Bill 153 and OCO’s #ActONorganic campaign: www.organiccouncil.ca/regulation
To find out more about OCO’s small-scale survey and focus groups, go to: www.organiccouncil.ca/small-scale-survey