Going organic: Growing demand, tougher regulations

Organic food is a booming business in Canada, with sales reportedly rising by 20 per cent a year for most of this decade. The market has grown so quickly that major supermarket chains are having difficulty keeping up with the demand. By the end of this year, new rules will be in place on what standards a product has to meet to be labelled organic.

But is it better for you?

Jim Wright, owner of Nature's Best Market in Regina, Sask., stocks the produce section made up of entirely organic products ((Troy Fleece/Canadian Press))

Organic food is a booming business in Canada, with sales reportedly rising by 20 per cent a year for most of this decade. The market has grown so quickly that major supermarket chains are having difficulty keeping up with demand.

Stroll a produce aisle in any major supermarket and you will find fresh organic produce prominently displayed next to conventionally farmed produce.

A report released by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada in May 2007, estimated that Canadians spent at least $1 billion on certified organic produce in 2006. That doesn't include food that was sold as organic but had not been certified by any of the more than three dozen associations that certify food as organic in Canada.

Of those $1 billion in sales, $412 million was sold through major supermarkets. That's up 28 per cent from 2005.

Natural food stores accounted for almost a third of organic food sales while smaller grocery stores, warehouse clubs, drug stores and other specialty stores sold about $175 million in organic food in 2006.

Farmers' markets accounted for about five per cent of certified organic food sales.

Consumers looking for organically grown food now need only to check for the Canada Organic label, a maple leaf rising above two hilltops.

Previously, Canadian organics were accredited by an assortment of authorities, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the old "certified organic" label meant producers followed voluntary guidelines — farmers only had to show evidence, for example, that chemicals weren't being used on their products. No formal certification process existed. This voluntary effort started about 25 years ago.

In July 2007, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency unveiled the new Canada Organic logo, which can only be used on food certified as meeting Canadian standards for organic production, such as using natural fertilizers and raising animals in conditions that mimic nature.
In December 2006, the federal government announced a unified regulation plan, after the European Union threatened to ban Canadian produce. The Organic Products Regulations were expected to come into full force Dec. 14, 2008, but were postponed to make further revisions. The changes included outlining how to recognize a certification body by conforming to a specific standard (ISO 65).

National standards were put in place by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on June 30, 2009, stating that only food products comprised of 95 per cent organic content can be certified as organic or have the variation of the word "organic" anywhere on the product or its packaging. This rule applies to fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat and processed food. The product must also have been grown using natural fertilizers, and animals must be raised in as natural an environment as possible, the federal watchdog says.

The rules say that for a product to be called organic, it must "come from a farm system employing management practices that seek to nurture ecosystems in order to achieve sustainable productivity; and that provide weed, pest and disease control through a diverse mix of mutually dependent life forms, recycling of plant and animal residues, crop selection and rotation, water management, tillage and cultivation."

The Canadian General Standards Board has published a substantial list of substances or techniques that are forbidden in either the production or handling stages, if a product is to earn the Canada Organic label. They include:

  • All materials and products produced from genetic engineering. 
  • Synthetic pesticides, wood preservatives or other pesticides, except as specified in CAN/CGSB-32.31.
  • Fertilizer or composted plant and animal material that contains a prohibited substance. 
  • Sewage sludge used as a soil amendment. 
  • Synthetic growth regulators. 
  • Synthetic allopathic veterinary drugs, including antibiotics and parasiticides, except as specified in this standard. 
  • Synthetic processing substances, aids and ingredients, and food additives and processing aids including sulphates, nitrates and nitrites, except as specified in CAN/CGSB-32.311. 
  • Ionizing radiation and forms of irradiation on products destined for food.
  • Equipment, packaging materials and storage containers or bins that contain a synthetic fungicide, preservative or fumigant.

Consumers looking for organically grown food can look for the Canada Organic label. The label itself is voluntary, but in order to get it or put any organic claim to the produce, farmers will have to apply for certification. In writing farmers must provide:

  • The name of the agricultural product.
  • The substances used in its production.
  • The manner in which those substances are used.

The certification process will take different lengths of time depending whether the food product is processed. For example, an apple is a primary product. If an orchard aims to become fully organic, the producer has to prove he or she has been using an organic plan for several years, whereas a processor's transition to organic can be brief. A simple act of switching the substances used to wash out a plant may be all that's needed.

With the new regulations in place, there will only be one standard available for determining whether a product is organic, a practice that has led CFIA spokesperson Stephane O'Neil to anticipate there will be more organic products available now.

"We've created one single definition now for organic products in Canada. Everyone will be able to know what an organic product means in Canada … We believe now there will be certainty, say, in the marketplace. There'll be more adoption," he added.

Canada's biggest organic cash crop is wheat, half of which is exported to Europe. Most of the rest goes to the United States, which has had government regulations on organic farming for several years. The EU has also adopted tougher regulations on organic imports. After 2006, only countries on a list of those meeting EU guidelines have been allowed to sell their products in Europe. Canada was not on that list. The updated Canadian regulations were designed to allow access to the European market. It was feared that losing the European market could have cost Canada's organic farmers half a billion dollars over the next decade.

The EU and Canada are working on an agreement to allow products certified organic in each jurisdiction into each other's markets. This would be similar to an agreement that the U.S. and Canada reached in June 2009, when Canada's organic standards came into effect.

The deal between the U.S. and Canada allows foods approved under the U.S. National Organic Program to keep the organic label when they reach Canadian stores without having to be approved by the Canada Organic Product Regulation. In return, Canadian produce will keep organic labels in the U.S. once certified in Canada. The agreement took effect on June 30, 2009.

'Natural' and 'free-range' not necessarily organic

If you thought that organic meant pesticide-free, you might be surprised to find that's not necessarily true.

Pesticides are so pervasive in the air and in our environment that no crop can be declared totally free of synthetic chemicals. As well, regulations allow some natural pesticides to help manage pest problems.

If you buy poultry that's labelled as free-range, you cannot assume that it is also organic. The same holds true for the word "natural." There are currently no standards on the use of the word "natural" when labelling agricultural products.

But is it better for you?

Statistics Canada says there were 3,555 farms producing certified organic produce in 2006, an increase of 60 per cent since 2001. A third of those farms are in Saskatchewan.

More than 530,000 hectares of land are dedicated to growing organic food, the largest crop being wheat.

The Certified Organics Report released in May 2007 by the Nielsen Company found that more than half of Canadian households purchased organically grown food in 2006, saying they were primarily driven by concerns over pesticides in non-organic foods.

But is it healthier?

The jury's out on that one. A report issued on March 18, 2008, concluded that organic plant-based foods taste better and provide an "average 25 per cent nutrition premium."

The report was based on a review of 97 studies comparing the nutritional quality of organic and conventional foods published since 2003. The report was published by The Organic Center.

A University of Alberta study published in June 2007, found that organic fruit and vegetables may be better for you, but might not better for the planet. The study concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by getting organic food to your table from distant farms outweighs the potential health benefits to you.

The authors recommend consumers buy locally grown food at local farmers' markets or grocery stores as much as possible.

Another study — released in July 2009 — concluded that when it comes to organic produce, there is little difference in nutritional value and no evidence of added health benefits.

The study, by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It reviewed 50 years of research into the health and nutritional benefits of organic foods. The study concluded that while there were small differences in nutritional benefits of organic produce, they weren't enough to be of any public health relevance. Overall, there were no differences in most nutrients found in organically or conventionally grown crops, including vitamin C, calcium and iron.

The researchers noted that more study is needed.