Consumers are being led down the garden path when it comes to organic food product certification, advocates of organic farming say.
Organic food is big business and local growers are concerned organic certification is being taken advantage of by large wholesalers.
Rosheen Holland, who owns Good Earth Garden, a 0.8-hectare organic vegetable farm on Gabriola Island, says provincial and newly formed federal certification doesn’t go far enough to determine what is and isn’t organic.
“We need to have organic food checked in a lab and tested like other food,” she said.
“Some items being sold as organic are of much lower nutritional quality. Large organic wholesalers don’t use minerals to grow food because it’s too expensive.”
Holland says the vegetables she and her husband grow are rich in minerals, have strong nutritional value and are grown as naturally as possible.
“Our vegetables keep for three weeks in the fridge,” she said. “People are amazed by that. It shows there is good cellular structure.”
The problem, says Sandra Mark of Edible Strategies, a Vancouver Island-based organization that works to educate the public on food security, is organic food is self-audited by growers, leaving the door open for deception.
“We’ve convinced everybody that organic food is good and then all the big guns come in and claim to be organic,” she said.
“We need to apply the word ‘local’ to organic food.”
Organic farming promotes the sustainable health and productivity of the ecosystem – soil, plants, animals and people.
Organic foods are farmed in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible way, focusing on soil regeneration, water conservation and animal welfare. Organic foods include fruits and vegetables, as well as milk, cheese, butter and processed foods like cereal, pasta and corn chips.
Free range products, contrary to popular belief, are not necessarily organic. Another common misconception is that organic certified products are pesticide-free – they’re not, as pesticides are virtually everywhere. Organic also excludes genetic modification.
“B.C. has some of the strictest organic regulations in the country,” said Brad Reid, vice-president of the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia. “Which pertains to how a product is grown. As far as quality goes, I can’t really comment. Obviously, when a product like, say, broccoli, is trucked from Mexico, fossil fuels are burned to get it here and it won’t be as fresh as a local product.”
Mark said she believes any certifications by provincial or federal governments have been established so other countries accept our organic exports, more so than to protect consumers here.
“We need people to be confident that there is a certification process in place,” said Casey Mitchell, co-owner of Island Natural, an organic retailer in Nanaimo. “People have health concerns and preferences, and we want our product to be as clean as possible so we go through a certified organic distributor in Vancouver.”
In 2006, the federal Ministry of Agriculture announced a certification program that would be phased-in until the end of 2008. In July 2007, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency unveiled a new Canada Organic logo – a maple leaf rising above two hilltops – which can only be used on food certified as meeting Canadian standards for organic production.
But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which oversees organic certification, relies on honour-based self-auditing and doesn’t test food for quality.
Currently, only B.C. and Quebec have provincial standards regulating organic food. In B.C., the Certified Organic Association of B.C. provides guidelines for organic growers,
For large wholesalers to obtain federal certification – most farm-gate retailers find certification too administrative and sometimes expensive – their products require natural fertilizers, at least 95 per cent organic ingredients and animals raised in conditions that “mimic nature”.
Reid said he would like to see certification made more accessible to smaller organic producers to “create an even playing field.”
He also said consumers, especially newer consumers looking to buy organic, need to educate themselves on organic products.
“If you want to buy a raspberry pie that is filled with organic raspberries, you need to check to see what other ingredients are in there. It may be advertised as 85 per cent organic, but the consumer needs to do some homework.”
With organic sales now in the billions of dollars, there is strong competition in the marketplace and small organics growers feel the large wholesalers that provide major grocery stores with product are cheating.
Mark hopes that competition, and a variance in organic food quality, doesn’t lead to a “dilution” of the organic label.
“Food should be able to go from the farm to the plate in a day,” she said.