Originally published July 29, 2017 on Winnipeg Free Press
In the grand scheme of things, Canada’s organic industry is tiny, representing only about four per cent of an agriculture and food sector that generates about $108 billion annually.
But there aren’t many sub-straits of agriculture that can boast double-digit growth in annual sales, with no sign of slowing down.
A recent report released by the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA) says the sector was worth $4.7 billion to the Canadian economy in 2015, up from $3.5 billion in 2013. That represents more than $1 billion in growth in just two years.
“Over 55 per cent of Canadian consumers purchase organic products on a weekly basis, and over 80 per cent of these consumers have maintained or increased their organic purchases in the last year,” the report released in early July says.
Not only is the sector thriving economically, it is also a key promoter of environmental sustainability and innovation, both of which are cited as key policy priorities by the federal government.
That’s a good news story by any definition. But the COTA report says the sector could be doing even better if not for some serious gaps in regulation, policy and extension support.
While farmers individually tend to rail against regulation as costly and time consuming, collectively they recognize that it’s a key pillar to growth in any industry — but especially for one that bases its success on public trust.
Consumers who buy organic products are usually paying a premium to get them. They are prepared to do that because they believe products produced organically are better for them and for the environment. The sector wants regulations to ensure that people buying these products get what they’re paying for — not knockoffs that haven’t been produced according to organic principles.
The federal government came in with a regulatory framework in 2009 that sets minimum standards for food, livestock feed or seed products that make an organic claim on their label and which are being sold between provinces or imported. Those rules are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
However, there is a hodge-podge of provincial regulatory regimes across the country.
The report gives high marks to Manitoba, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which have all adopted the national standards. That means no one can sell a product as “organic” in this province, unless they have gone through the certification process.
Manitoba scored second highest in the country for its overall support for the organic sector. Manitoba Agriculture has one staff member devoted to supporting the sector’s development, it offers crop insurance tailored specifically to the different pricing paradigms for organic crops, and it has one of the most comprehensive data banks of organic buyers, suppliers and processors.
Quebec has brought in its own regulations, and is seen as leading the country with organic production support, market support and data collection.
But Ontario, despite being the largest organic market in Canada, is among the provinces with no regulations. Uncertified vendors there can freely sell their products as organic.
“This leaves significant gaps as provinces and territories without regulations cannot enforce or regulate intra-provincial/territorial organic claims,” the report says.
COTA makes three recommendations it views as key to further growth of organic agriculture in Canada.
At a minimum, it wants all provinces to adhere to the national standards.
“Without a regulation, there is the potential for false or misleading claims, which compromises the integrity of the Canada organic brand,” it says.
It wants governments to invest in expanding and improving the data collected specifically on the organic sector, because it is a distinct area of production within agriculture. “Increased data collection and associated research capacities will lead to better decision making and planning within the organic sector,” it says
Finally, it wants more organic-specific programs and policies that range between helping farmers transition into the business, to furthering market development activities.
It’s not a long wish list. But it’s an important one for a sector that’s gaining ground.