Looking at the future of organic regulation

Female Farmer with Digital Tablet in Vegetable Garden Photo: Thinkstock

By John Greig
OrganicBiz staff

One of the largest frustrations for a certified organic farmer is seeing someone sell produce as organic without having gone through the rigours and costs of certification.

Certified growers say it happens frequently in Ontario. There are national standards that restrict how the word “organic” can be used in marketing, but enforcement is difficult.

Bill Redelmeier, of Southbrook Vineyards, an organic winery at Niagara-On-The-Lake, bought some produce from a farm with ‘organic’ in its name at a farmer’s market.

It’s very frustrating to navigate as a small farmer. – Seb Ramirez

“I asked who his certifying body was and he said ‘we’re not certified, that’s just our name.’”

Redelmeier asked people within the organic sector what he could do about it and they told him nothing.

He was part of a panel on the future of organic regulations at the Organic Council of Ontario’s recent annual meeting.

Carolyn Young, who works for the council, said misrepresentation as organic is one of the major complaints her organization has dealt with this year. It’s not just at farmer’s markets. She used the example of Real Food For Real Kids, a Toronto catering company with concerns about the use of ‘organic’ by other catering companies.

CFIA could prosecute some of these companies, but Young says they just don’t have the resources to take them to court. She suggested some sort of ticketing regime could work better.

The challenge of convincing small farmers to certify and the fact that growth in organic farming lags significantly behind demand growth, means some are rethinking levels of standards adherence and what it means to be ‘organic.’

Zocalo Organics, a small farm near Hillsburgh, Ontario, has recently dropped its organic certification and Seb Ramirez, one of the owners, mused as a member of the panel, that they might now be one of those cases who need to change their name.

Ramirez, who runs the farm with Bethany Klapwyk, dropped their organic certification after the frustration of not being able to use some new highly efficient small-farm planting technology that qualifies for organic certification in other areas but was being held up by their certifier.

“It’s very frustrating to navigate as a small farmer,” he says.

Thorston Arnold, one of the drivers behind Eat Local Grey Bruce, and who runs the Persephone Market Garden with his wife, also argued for more flexibility in organic regulations. He’s a proponent of Organic 3.0, an international movement to decrease the need for third-party certification in order to increase supplies and make organic food available to more people. Strict organic standards stifle innovation, he says.

“The more we sit on our standards and draw a big fat black line, the more difficult it is to inspire the conventional producer,” he says. He says he’s in favour of some regulations to combat fraud.

Similarly, Tony McQuail, a long-time organic farmer from near Lucknow talked about previous work he has done to create more ways to get small farmers into the organic system.

He argues for a princples-based standard, one that aims to increase, for example, nutrient density in food or soil organic matter, but wouldn’t be as easy to regulate with precise standards.

“We deal with an incredibly complex system. The more complex and diversified your operation is, the more challenging it is to work through your certification,” he says. A large organic grain farmer growing a few crops has less work to do for certification than a market gardener with growing many varieties of vegetables.

There could also be two levels of certification, one for small farms that self-declare their organic status, and then have their farm listed on a publicly accessible website and another for larger farms or companies who want to sell across provincial or international borders.

Dave Lockman, certification manager for the eastern regional office for ProCert, took the brunt of some of the criticism of strict stands. He said he understands the concerns about operators claiming to be organic who are not.

He says Ontario organic regulations would help. Quebec has provincial organic regulations, and the U.S. has national regulations. They have a few cases for fraudulent products, but not many, he says. Pick the best of the systems elsewhere and create the mechanism to stop those who claim to be organic, but are not.

The Organic Council of Ontario has stepped up its lobbying and networking with the provincial legislature, with the goal of clarifying organic regulations in the province.