Demanding Certified Organic: Why a certification loophole has Ontario importing instead of investing in its local agriculture

The market for organic food is growing in Ontario, but why are fewer farmers becoming certified organic?

hand grabbing tomato at farmers market with organic sign on the table
Certification loophole allows some producers to claim “organic” if only selling within Ontario

For Claire Poulton, who runs the small scale Little Field Farms in Aylmer, Ont., the investment in certification is not worth it.

“The certification isn’t really useful for me because people who buy my produce at the farmers’ market, through the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] program, they know me and they know that I’m organic, I don’t need to spend that money to get a certification,” Poulton says. “I feel like certification is going out of style these days, like I know a lot of other farmers who are doing the same thing, choosing not to be certified.”

The certification process costs about $300 to $700 per year and usually involves an annual inspection to make sure the farm is operating up to federal standards.

While other provinces have certification subsidies in place for farmers transitioning to organic, Ontario does not. The Organic Council of Ontario advocates for the organic industry, and in particular they are focusing on closing the certification loophole. The loophole contributes to a gap between the demand for organic food and the supply available in Ontario.

If you are a farm wishing to trade across the border or between provinces, you require federal organic certification. However, in Ontario if you are selling within the province you do not need official certification. Certified Organic Production Statistics for Canada in 2010 show that producers, like Poulton, growing only for the local market are increasingly dropping certification. The decreasing certification rates contrast the growing acreage being reported as being under organic management, which is up by 6.7 per cent. So while more farmers could be using organic farming practices, it is not recognized with official certification.

Having certification makes a difference when selling to retailers. Carolyn Young, a lead consultant at the Organic Council of Ontario, explains that stores like Whole Foods will not buy goods that are not certified organic because they have a responsibility to their customers and a brand to protect. So while there seems to be a gap in supply, a possible explanation is that there are not enough certified organic farms in Ontario to fulfill a retailer’s demand for certified goods.

For Bob Passmore, who owns Passmore Family Farm in St. Mary’s, says a competitor claiming to be organic is what motivated him to become certified.

“He started selling his beef as organic, and it absolutely wasn’t, he just saw it as an opportunity to increase his prices, but he was using hormone implants and everything else.”

With his certification, Passmore is more credible to larger retailers. Now around 90 per cent of Passmore’s output is sold to retailers. While he has no plans to expand, Passmore has noticed an increase for organic over the years.

“One of the biggest problems we have on this farm is meeting demand,” he says.

In Ontario, the demand for organic has surpassed $1 billion and the market is growing roughly 10 per cent annually according to the Organic Council of Ontario. Across Canada, the Canadian Organic Value Chain Roundtable reported that the sales of organic food and beverages grew from $2 billion in 2008 to nearly $3 billion in 2012. Given those numbers, it means that almost a third of organic foods are purchased in Ontario alone.

However, only 2 per cent of Ontario farmland is organic. This gap in supply means that Ontario has to import organic food, which only adds to its food deficit that measured at $9 billion in 2012. In a Dollars and Sense study looking at opportunities to strength Southern Ontario’s food system, if Ontario production could replace 10 per cent of imports its economy would benefit by nearly an additional quarter of a billion dollars in GDP and 3,400 more jobs. Leveraging Ontario’s agricultural capacity will also reduce the impact transporting imports has on the environment.

Currently, the Organic Council of Ontario is advocating to close the certification loophole so Ontario can better take advantage of its local agriculture.

Carolyn Young explains that having regulation helps the organic industry’s credibility.

“The word organic being trusted and meaning something legitimate in the province benefits everyone who is practicing in that way, because the stronger the organic brand is, the more that you as a farmer who says that you are working in that way will benefit from it.”

While Young acknowledges that certification is not always feasible for small scale or new farms, she says it is important to have measures in place to prevent those that benefit off of the organic premium without the additional cost of operating up to federal organic standards.

“It’s not quite as rigorous when you don’t have to get certified,” she says. “If you’re not getting certified, you’re mostly practicing organic, your costs might be lower, and that spectrum goes all the way to conventional [farming].”

Similar to Passmore’s experience with a neighbouring farm, Young cited other anecdotal evidence about people claiming the organic label fraudulently.

“I think that the majority of farmers who call themselves organic or ecological or pesticide free are doing their best, in the best intention, to be actually organic, but I think that there will still always be cases of fraud and we want to try and work against that to have some sort of teeth or consequences for when you are fraudulent.”

The general principles of organic production are outlined by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and essentially explain organic production as a holistic system designed to work with and improve the environment. One of the core characteristics of organic farming is no synthetic inputs in the farming process, whether it be in the fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, or feed.

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