Organic agriculture faces regulatory game changer

“The cost to do the most recent review, completed just this year, was over $1 million.” – Ashley St-Hilaire, director of programs and government relations with Canadian Organic Growers. Photo: Supplied

Alex Binkley
OrganicBiz contributor

The growth of Canada’s organic sector could grind to a halt if the federal government drops financial support for the maintenance and regular revision of the Canada Organic Standards.

The Canadian Organic Growers (COG) is warning that the still-small industry would struggle to foot the bill on its own.

The standards are owned by the government and need to be reviewed and revised every five years “to keep them relevant and compliant with our international equivalency agreements,” said Ashley St-Hilaire, director of programs and government relations with COG.

If our government chooses not to fund the next review of the Canadian Organic Standards in 2020, this would likely lead to a collapse of the Canada Organic brand… – Ashley St-Hilaire

“The cost to do the most recent review, completed just this year, was over $1 million, which included $600,000 in fees to the CGSB paid by the Treasury Board, $300,000 from the AgriMarketing program, and $100,000 fundraised by industry,” she told the Commons agriculture committee. “The review process is onerous and time consuming, but it is absolutely necessary.”

However, the association has been told Ottawa will no longer pay for the revisions, she added. The maintenance of the organic standards held in other countries, such as the United States and the European Union, is fully funded by government.

“If our government chooses not to fund the next review of the Canadian Organic Standards in 2020, this would likely lead to a collapse of the Canada Organic brand and would invalidate all our international equivalency agreements,” she said, urging the MPs to ensure the government support continues.

Canada is the fifth-largest organic market in the world, valued at $4.7 billion a year, she said. In 2013 it was worth $3.5 billion.

“Recent consumer studies show that 56 per cent of Canadians buy organics every week and that 80 per cent of these consumers plan to maintain or increase their organic purchases,” she said. “The demand for organics in Canada is increasing at a rate of 16 per cent per year and domestic supply is not keeping pace.”

While less than two per cent of Canadian agriculture, the industry has with government support “established ourselves on the global market and have negotiated organic equivalency agreements with 90 per cent of our major trading partners.”

She said that the industry hopes the government will start collecting trade data on organics separately “so our sector can continue to measure our success and the success of the investments made by government in organics and to understand the challenges and risks our industry faces.”

The industry would also like an expansion of the Organic Products Regulations under the Safe Food for Canadians Act, to include more agriculture products than the current list of food products, animal feed, and seed. The regulations should also cover organic pet food, personal-care products, plants and flowers, textiles and organic marijuana.

Currently imported non-food products are being sold in the Canadian marketplace as organic while domestic organic operators are restricted from certifying these same products with the Canada Organic brand.

The United States has grown its organic certification program and that “has worked well in creating new domestic and export opportunities for organics,” she added.

Her group also wants the government to develop “an environmental goods and services tax credit that rewards and incentivizes environmental stewardship on farms. Metrics measured for a tax credit could include reduced energy use, increases in carbon soil sequestration, and prevention of nitrogen loss. We recommend that a revenue-neutral system for carbon pricing be developed that reinvests revenues from agriculture back into the industry. These revenues could be used to fund an environmental goods and services tax credit.

“We recommend that the government perform a life cycle assessment and energy audit of the entire Canadian agriculture and agri-food system,” she continued. “The assessment would look at each sector in detail, with a focus on embedded energy use on farms, in transport, processing, retail, and in the kitchen of Canadians.”