What Does it Mean to be Organic?

Certified Organic Producers Cooperative asks government to regulate use of ‘organic’

It’s not easy being green, as Kermit the Frog knows well. And for those farming organically, the same could easily be said. While the challenges associated with organic farming are diverse, an overarching issue that continues to crop up in PEI and across Canada concerns the use of the term ‘organic’ in the first place. To address this, the PEI Certified Organic Producers Co-operative (COPC) is asking the provincial government to develop regulations under the Natural Products Marketing Act that would limit use of the term ‘organic’ to Certified Organic Island producers.
Use of the term ‘organic’ and its many derivatives, including the phrases ‘using organic methods’ or ‘organically-farmed’, has been protected by the Organic Products Regulations since 2009. These regulations state that “any agricultural product that is labelled organic (including for human consumption, livestock feed and seeds) is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Producers of these products must be prepared to demonstrate that organic claims are truthful and not misleading,” and that the “products must be certified organic according to the Canadian Organic Standards.”

“The CFIA only regulates organic products that cross provincial or international borders; each province is responsible for regulating products that stay within their provincial borders,” said Amy Smith, current chair of the PEI COPC, explaining the challenge facing many Island producers competing in the local marketspace.

As a result the term ‘organic’ is being used by certified organic producers on the Island, as well as some producers that are not certified and are practicing a broad range of farming practices that may not be compliant with the Canadian Organic Standards. So, while PEI consumers can generally be assured that organic tomatoes imported from Ontario and stamped with the Canadian Organic logo meet the standards enforced by the CFIA, they cannot count on the same reassurance that the ‘organic’ Island-grown tomatoes they purchase at a local farmers’ market or from a community supported agriculture program meet these standards. The best way to know for sure is to look for the Canadian Organic logo, or ask the farmer whether they are ‘certified’.

In a crowded market space, where consumers are constantly bombarded with advertisements, packaging, labels, and mouthpieces making myriad claims about their products, it’s not realistic to expect them to have the depth of knowledge or time necessary to navigate the validity of these claims And certain practices which may seem innocuous to a farmer unfamiliar with organic standards, such as growing produce in old rubber tires or applying raw manure to vegetable beds in the spring, may actually pose a health risk to the consumer and are non-compliant with the standards.

This consumer confusion, potential risk of unsafe farming practices, and the loss of a competitive advantage by certified organic producers are some of the major concerns the PEI COPC hopes to address with the introduction of provincial regulations. To date, five provinces have established provincial regulations: British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Quebec.

Becoming a certified organic producer requires significant time and effort. At the beginning of each season, the farmer must prepare a thorough Organic Systems Plan outlining their farming practices, including how they will manage weeds, disease, and insects. “We have to provide certificates and ingredient lists of all inputs used on our farm to our Certifying Body (CB) for approval before we can use them,” Smith said, including the cleaning detergents and potting soil, along with the test results for our wash water and an organic seed search verifying that we looked for organic seed from a minimum of 3 companies.”

Next, an audit and inspection of the farm takes place during the growing season. The inspector examines the on-site farming practices and audits the farmer’s records, including seed invoices, harvest records, and sales sheets. This way the inspector can identify any discrepancies that may indicate a farmer is, for example, selling someone else’s non-certified produce at their market booth under the certified organic label.

“The value and the challenge of becoming certified organic are really one and the same,” Smith said. “It’s a rigorous certification process. Any changes we make in our farming practices during the season have to be reviewed and approved first. It can be time-consuming, but it also makes one look more closely at the ingredients and processes they are using and really consider the implications for the health of their customers and the farm.”

Smith and two other representatives of the COPC presented a briefing to the Standing Committee on Agriculture & Fisheries on March 17, 2017. Whether the provincial government will develop the regulations proposed remains to be seen. In the meantime, the responsibility lies with consumers to become informed and with the producers to market their products appropriately. Smith emphasizes that they don’t want to dissuade any farmers from practicing more ecologically-friendly farming methods. She encourages those that don’t want to go through the certification process to educate their customers by describing their specific farming practices (e.g. don’t use pesticides) rather than using the word ‘organic’.

 What is Organic?

“Organic” is an environmentally- and animal-friendly way of producing and processing food.

  Organic involves a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging, and  shipping that:

  • Promotes healthy soil, plants and animal
  • Assures transparency through detailed records and annual on-site inspection
  • Prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms, synthetic chemical inputs (i.e. pesticides & antibiotics), and the use of sewage sludge
  • Furthermore, when you see the organic label, it is your legal guarantee that organic always means the same thing from farm to farm and store to store.                                                  Source: ACORN (Atlantic Canada Organic Regional Network)

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication's inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon's either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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