Posted  2 Nov, 2017 
In: Articles

Originally published October, 2017 on The Canadian Organic Grower

By Rochelle Eisen

Should Organic Standards Do More to Protect Natural Ecosystems?

Last winter, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) published an article entitled “Time to update organic regulations to protect native ecosystems”, written by Jo Ann Baumgartner of Wild Farm Alliance.

According to the author, the “National Organic Program’s (NOP) three-year waiting period for land to be free of prohibited substances unintentionally incentivizes producers to convert native ecosystems since this land is instantly ready for organic production.” While the organic standards encourage farmers and landowners to protect and enhance land already under organic certification, she points out that, before certification, “an operator can destroy a wetland, for example, in order to obtain land that is ready for organic production.”

Wild Farm Alliance and other organizations are calling for a rule change in the NOP to prevent conversion of “High Conservation Value Areas” to farmland. Other organic standards already include such rules. For example, the International Federation of Organic Movements (IFOAM) includes the following requirement: “Farming areas installed on land that has been obtained by clearing of High Conservation Value Areas in the preceding 5 years shall not be considered compliant with this standard.”

Is this issue relevant to Canada? We asked COG President Rochelle Eisen for her take on the matter.

TWO CAMPS: A Canadian Perspective on Organic Regulations and Natural Habitats

By Rochelle Eisen

When I read Jo Ann Baumgartner’s “Time to update organic regulations to protect native ecosystems,” it triggered a variety of reactions but once distilled they fell into two distinct camps: “Yes, we’ve got do this”—and then the complete opposite reaction “Not a chance. It would be too complicated. Who gets to decide what needs to be protected? We would need a lot more expertise.” etc.

Fact is, I have seen very little land clearing done in the name of organic farming in Canada, except for a bit up in the Alberta Peace region when I was there inspecting years back. Don’t think me naïve, as of course I recognize that all agricultural land was cleared at some point—I just did not bear witness. More often than not, I have witnessed wetlands being re-established (no point farming those low spots), more riparian fencing installed (got to protect the foreshore) and ongoing habitat protection projects (need to protect native pollinators). The organic farmers I know are proud stewards of their land.

Moreover, there’s one difference between the Canadian Organic Standards and the US National Organic Program. Canada does not allow instantaneous certification for unfarmed land, even with a documented history of 36 months without any application of prohibited substances. New acreage going into organic production must be submitted to certification bodies at least 15 months before a crop can be harvested and sold as organic. So, what is happening south of the border cannot happen here to the same extent. But then…

More flip-flopping:

I read some 1998 Canadian historical statistics (see Habitat Loss by the Numbers). Again I start thinking we need to actively protect high-quality habitats in the standard or maybe even require some habitat rehabilitation which, in some cases, may be as simple as leaving land alone to let it revert back on its own. Even if we only stop 1% further loss, how could we, the organic sector, not want to do this? Have we forgotten the IFOAM principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care?

*Read more below on Habitat Loss by the Numbers 

*Read more of Wildlife Habitat on Canadian Farms below

But a solid counterargument can be found in a 2015 Statistics Canada’s “Study: Agriculture and wildlife: A two-way relationship, 2011” (see Wildlife Habitat on Canadian Farms).

If we don’t count the original loss of native habitat to agriculture, this data makes Canadian farmers, organic or not, look like heroes in terms of ongoing habitat protection. Yet I am sure land continues to be cleared. I have been told that rising prices for non-organic grain, compounded by wetter conditions, is motivating grain farmers to take out climate-modifying, habitat-enriching shelterbelts. Similarly, consolidation of land on the prairies is adding to the rate of shelterbelt removal, solely to allow for bigger and bigger equipment. I don’t think this is primarily a phenomenon of the organic sector. And as long as organic farmers don’t get caught up in that mentality, I come back to: “No, we don’t have to add any ecological protection requirements to the standards,” as we are doing pretty well.

But then the other day…

Not far from home, I noticed that a favourite stand of majestic cottonwood in the middle of an organic field was all of the sudden gone. I use to enjoy watching birds in those trees; I also just liked the look of those giants. It was sad to see the precious spot had been cleared and the field leveled. I heard rumours of possible new owners. I am not even sure if they are going to continue farming organically. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think this site would have ever been classified as “high value” from a conservation perspective, but heck, that isn’t the point.

Maybe this discussion needs to start now with a few questions. Have you drained any wetlands, removed bush, tidied up the deadfalls, or ploughed under any pasture lately? What have you done to improve the wildlife potential of your land?

Before we lose any more critical habitat on Canadian organic farms, the organic sector needs to discuss whether the standards should require increased adoption of agricultural practices that support and enhance wildlife habitat on our farms.

Rochelle Eisen is the president of COG.

To learn more about how non-crop areas such as field margins can enhance farm ecosystems, pick up a copy of the Summer 2017 issue of TCOG here.

Habitat Loss by the Numbers: 

“Conversion of lands to agriculture in the prairies has resulted in the loss of 87% of native shortgrass prairie habitat, 81% of native mixed-grass prairie habitat, almost all the tallgrass prairie habitat and 84% of the native aspen parkland habitat. Unfortunately, increased demands for food production are further accelerating the rate of conversion of lands with moderate agricultural value to farmland. In settled parts of Canada, 90% of wetlands have been drained. This poses a serious threat to biodiversity since these habitats are exceptionally rich in species(CBIN 1998).

Quebec Biodiversity Website. Part 1: Impacts.

Wildlife Habitat on Canadian Farms:

Wildlife Habitat on Canadian Farms

Agricultural land provides important habitat to a variety of wildlife species, with natural land for pasture, woodlands and wetlands having the highest habitat value. Wildlife supplies many ecosystem services to the Canadian agricultural industry, and Canadian farmers can adopt several agricultural practices that enhance wildlife habitat.

  • In 2011, nearly one-third (30.2%) of agricultural land in Canada was wildlife habitat, which represented 19.6 million hectares.
  • Three-quarters of wildlife habitat reported by Canadian farmers was natural land for pasture (75.0%), and the remainder was woodlands and wetlands (25.0%).
  • Two in five farms (40.3%) reported natural land for pasture while one in two farms (49.9%) reported woodlands and wetlands in 2011.”

Study: Agriculture and wildlife: A two-way relationship, 2011. Statistics Canada, 2015.

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