Canada’s organic free-for-all

You’re reaching for a bag of apples at the grocery store and you notice a smaller bag at more than double the price labeled “Canada Organic.” Should you pay more for less in the interests of feeding your family purer, more nutritious food?

Try to imagine being the only team at the Olympics that doesn't have to have its athletes tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Sound absurd? Welcome to the Canadian organic sector.

Canada is the only G20 nation that fails to include testing in its organic regulations. Testing is only mentioned once, in passing, in the preamble, where it is stipulated that Canada’s organic standard “does not purport to address all the safety aspects associated with its use.” This thereby absolves the CFIA of any culpability should someone try to test organic product only to have a test tube blow up in his face.

Not that anyone will ever bother doing so mind you, given that the rest of this regulation relies completely on record-keeping and record-checking. You know, the same system that failed to keep Bernie Madoff in check.

The American standard is clear on organic testing. If pesticide residues are found, the certifying agent “must promptly report such data.” And if levels “are greater than 5 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's tolerance for the specific residue detected,” then the product in question is rejected. In other words, American organic food must be at least 95 percent more pure than conventional food.

And still, Canadian officials are managing to sign agreements with American officials to have Canadian organic product accepted into the American market based only on paperwork. Same with Europe.

The most recent of these agreements is with Switzerland. It throws the gates of organic free-trade wide open in spite of the fact that the Swiss require field testing and we don’t. How could the antiseptically efficient Swiss have missed the fact that our authorities rely only on paperwork?

What’s more, the Swiss stipulate that “There should be no detectable residues of [chemically-synthesized crop protection products] on the organic produce,” while the Canadian standard goes out of its way to avoid making any such declaration, averring that “this standard cannot assure that organic products are entirely free of residues of prohibited substances and other contaminants.”

Still wondering if you should by the smaller bag of apples?

Certainly we can accept that organic products can never be “entirely free of residues.” But why doesn’t the CFIA mirror the American standard which guarantees a sizable and quantifiable reduction in prohibited substances of 95 percent or more?

Our trading partners all take steps to prevent fraud in their organic sectors. Canada by contrast invites it. And since we allow any farmer, processor, broker-trader, or certifying agency located anywhere in the world to become certified under our organic standard, we now stand poised to act as the back-door to the world’s most lucrative markets for organic food.

Foreign businesses already provide the lion’s share of the product being certified by the CFIA as “Canada Organic.” With these trade agreements in place, businesses that supply the Swiss, EU and American markets can now become certified under Canada’s standard and thereby avoid being subjected to a test to prove their organic integrity. And for some strange reason no one sees a problem with this.

Surely someone should ask Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz about this. Whatever his response, watch as “organic” businesses the world over win gold by using and abusing Canada’s bureaucratic organic standard.

So please, put down that small bag and buy the regular apples. They’re not only cheaper and every bit as pure and nutritious, but there’s actually a better chance they’re Canadian!

Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector. He’s a Policy Advisor for The Heartland Institute, a Research Associate for The Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and is the author of Is it Organic? which you can preview at www.isitorganic.ca.

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