The growth of the international organic marketplace has seen a push towards the harmonisation of national standards. Perhaps uniquely among organic exporters, Canada had arrived at a voluntary standard. Will this be enough for a world of food buyers increasingly sensitive to food, health and safety issues? Arthur Hanks seeks answers.

Canada’s organic sector has emerged as one of the bright stars of Canadian agriculture. And slowly, government is becoming more responsive to this emerging industry.

Lyle Vanclief, Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister

Lyle Vanclief, Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister, said in a recent news conference: “There is excellent market potential all over the world for organic products. Canada’s organic sector produces top-notch products and is primed to seize emerging opportunities.”

Coast to coast, Canada boasts approximately 2,000 certified organic farmers cultivating over 165,000 hectares, and about 150 processors and handlers. Though organics only constitutes 2% of the country’s production it’s a high-valued share, with farm cash receipts topping C$500m (US$329m) per year. The sector is experiencing robust growth of 20% per year. Based on existing trends, organic production is expected to reach 10% of the country’s production by 2010.

Canada’s agricultural sector has always been dependent on foreign markets, and the country is currently the world’s third largest food exporter. Organics is no exception. Most of the country’s organic production is field crops such as cereals, oilseeds and legumes.

“The Canadian Organic standard was created by the industry […] the industry fought for control of this process.”

The growth of the world market has pushed forward the need for equivalency and harmonisation agreements with other countries, particularly with the US, Europe and Japan. The need for international agreement has helped move Canada towards a national organic standard.

Perhaps uniquely among the world community, Canada’s national standard, announced in 1999, is a voluntary one. As the Canadian Organic Advisory Board’s (COAB) Bob MacDonald points out, national standards are usually created by government.

“The Canadian Organic standard was created by the industry, ” says MacDonald. “The industry fought for control of this process. “

No ‘dumbing down’

The standard is not a dumbed down document. It prohibits use of ionising radiation in the preservation of food and the use of GMOs, while encouraging the maximum rotation of crops and promotion of biodiversity. Companies that work with the national standard will be allowed to use a corporate trademark (Canada Organic-Biologique Canada) on their products.

Two different national standards bodies are involved. The federal agency Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) helped to develop and currently maintains the organic standards and the Crown Corporation Standards Council of Canada (SCC) is the agency fingered to accredit certifying bodies in Canada. SCC has achieved ISO 61 status and has adopted the ISO 65 model.

The ISO 65 management system is viewed as being equivalent with the European EN45011 standard. The USA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is a variation of the ISO 65 Standard. iFoam, a European based agency that co-ordinates organic groups, has also married itself to the ISO 65 protocols. The Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) has also recently indicated that it will accept ISO 65 accreditation issued by a competent authority.

The national standards are also in sync with Codex Alimentarius, the United Nations food standards commission.

Creating a national standard was a difficult political exercise: there are at least 45 certifying bodies (CB) active in Canada. The provinces of Quebec and British Columbia also have their own provincial organic standards. While this grassroots diversity is an ideological strength, it is also been the breeding ground for a long and yet unresolved debate on what kind of standards are needed.

Should standards be voluntary?

“A regulatory system should be developed that would combine self-administration with regulation enforced by Ag Canada.”

The major criticism is that the standards are voluntary: nice to have but not enough. Some feel that the offloading of enforcement back to industry weakens the intent and a regulatory system is what is needed to keep foreign markets open in the future.

“There no power associated with a voluntary standard,” says Wally Hamm of Pro-Cert Organic Systems, a certifier based out of Saskatchewan. “Compliance is not required so this is a major issue.”

Certifiers such as Hamm are not confident that foreign markets will accept Canada’s/SCC standard. As a failsafe, his CB is going through the steps of ISO 65 accreditation with three different agencies, including the SCC, the Conseil d’accréditation biologigue de Quebec and the USDA.

“When you are dealing with an immature industry [like the organic sector], you have to deal with multiple equivalencies until standards are in place. ” says Hamm.

Hamm and other certifiers have formed a national committee on standards independent of COAB. From their point of view, a regulatory system should be developed that would combine self-administration with regulation enforced by Ag Canada. There are also questions about COAB’s representation of the sector, and charges of mismanagement of funds and actions outside of its bylaws that would put CBs out of business. (COAB was the first group to apply to the SCC for ISO 65 accreditation).

However, the federal agriculture ministry is resisting getting involved as a regulatory body. Outside of the Food and Labelling Act, administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, (CFIA), the role of government in organic agriculture is limited. A government-driven attempt to create standards collapsed in 1995 and there is a marked lack of funding for organic research and transition strategies. Support is being shown in other ways, however. Ag Canada has recently announced an organic accreditation assistance program that would subsidise Canadian CBs in becoming accredited under the SCC.

How involved does industry want government to get?

“Grassroots diversity is an ideological strength but has been the breeding ground for a long and yet unresolved debate on what kind of standards are needed.”

A binding regulatory system may not be the solution many are seeking. The USDA’s NOP has been criticised by the Independent Organic Inspector’s Association (IOIA) on the setting of “ceilings” for standards (which Canada does not have) and provisions for taking land in and out of organic production. The IOIA is also wary of new distinctions between inspection/auditing and consultation as laid out in the ISO 65 requirements. In Canada, the role of the Canadian Wheat Board – a government supported agency – as an organic grains marketer has also come under fire recently by Western Canadian Organic producers. How involved does industry want government to get?

COAB’s MacDonald points out that parallel, non organic audit standards are under also under development by different government bodies (that is to say, “pesticide free”) and standards such as HACCP can also be applied to food production. He sees organic production as increasingly being faced with competition like this, not just another country’s organic production. Promoting organics as sustainable also has to remain a priority, as well as dealing with the problems of GMO contamination in the separate stream of organics.

And the national standards? They are an evolutionary step towards regulation. “You only rise towards the level of market demand, ” he says.

The sense is that the wrong standards will not help the Canadian industry. But the way forward is not clear. But meeting the demands of the market will allow the Canadian industry to make their commitments and allow organic producers and businesses to enjoy the harvest of their work with a sustainable agriculture.

By Arthur Hanks, correspondent

Standards Council of Canada:
Independent Organic Inspector’s Association
Canadian Organic Advisory Board
Canadian Food Inspection Agency Organic Labelling Rules (section 4.2.9)
National Standard for Organic Agriculture (Abstract)

For more information on organic foods and their future prospects visit:

The International Market for Organic Food