The following is an organic farmers response to the comments made on this site by Mischa Popoff, criticizing the Canadian Organic Certification System.
By Rob Wallbridge, Songberry Organic Farm
In 2008, organic food represented a $50 billion industry world-wide, with sales of $2 billion in Canada. Organic products account for 3.5% of all food and drink sales in North America, and with a current growth rate of about 8% annually, organic is the fastest growing sector in the food industry. Recently, there has been criticism of the organic certification process by someone claiming “insider” knowledge of the system; unfortunately, these attacks are based on false information and a faulty understanding of what “organic” is all about.
A Holistic Approach
While the most basic definition of organic food focuses on what it excludes (the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides), organic standards are based on seven internationally-recognized principles which include protecting the environment, maintaining soil fertility and biodiversity, recycling materials, relying on renewable resources, respecting animal welfare, and maintaining the quality and integrity of the final product. The standards describe in detail how producers can best attain these goals. The certification process, from applications and record-keeping to inspections and reviews, evaluates this holistic approach.
Suggesting that this multi-faceted system could be replaced with a residue-testing protocol really misses the whole point. Testing can and does play a role in cases of suspected fraud, but even if the logistics and expenses involved with reliably testing for thousands of prohibited substances could be overcome (and that’s a huge “if”), the results would still be a hollow, brittle representation of the richness and complexity of organic production systems.
Consumers understand this, too. Market research clearly shows that people buy organic products for a variety of reasons – ones that include but also go far beyond the inputs used to produce them.
Oversight and Enforcement
In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) oversees all organic foods entering the country or crossing provincial borders. These products must meet either the Canadian Organic Standard or a recognized equivalent. Adherence to the Standard is evaluated by certification bodies, all of which must be accredited by one of five conformity verification bodies recognized by the CFIA. These bodies regularly monitor and audit the certification bodies to ensure that they are enforcing the standards on all of the operations that they certify. This certification process includes plans, applications, and records, in addition to annual on-site inspections. As well, a minimum of 5-10% of certified operations receive a surprise inspection each year. Organic inspectors are trained to spot areas of potential non-compliance and contamination and will collect samples for testing when necessary. The same system applies to operations both within and outside of Canada.
A Democratic Process
Contrary to the conspiracy theories, organic standards are developed in an open, transparent, and democratic process with input from all stakeholders. The Canadian standard is developed and maintained by the Standards Committee on Organic Agriculture under the auspices of the Canadian General Standards Board. This volunteer committee has a total of 110 members drawn from across the organic industry; the 43 voting members are selected to balance the interests of farmers, processors, retailers, regulators, and consumers. In addition, several Working Groups also provide expert input to the committee. The committee makes decisions by consensus. The public is also invited to provide input, and the standard is reviewed at least every 5 years.
Canada’s organic certification system recognizes and reflects the holistic nature of organic production systems and the principles that consumers expect from organic food. Both the government and the organic sector provide strong, consistent oversight, and the Standard itself is controlled by the organic community. At the end of the day, farmers and consumers can rest assured that if it a food is certified organic, it really is organic – in the truest, fullest sense of the word.
Rob Wallbridge operates a certified organic vegetable farm, has worked as an organic inspector, consults on organic production and certification issues, and serves on the Livestock Working Group of the CGSB Standards Committee for Organic Agriculture.