Friday, 30 November 2012

Getting a Grip on Organic Food

"An extortion racket" isn't what jumps to mind when I think about organic food, but that was the headline in the National Post this week. To be fair it wasn't the Post saying this, but quoting from a report by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.  The report's title?  "Canada's Organic Nightmare."  I appreciate journalism and academic work that's provocative, that makes us think. This certainly meets the first test. What about the second?

Let's start with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. The motto on its website: Ideas for a Better Tomorrow.  It's based in Western Canada, and definitely leans right in its policy prescriptions with reports and publications with titles like Polar Bear Propaganda, Don't Throw Resources Under the Bus, Biodiversity:the Next Environmental Deception, Equalization Hurts All Canadians, Free to Fish,  and any links to broadcast stories go to Sun TV reports. I think I'm seeing a pattern here. I might not want to hang out with these guys but in the spirit of being open minded, let's continue.

Their main gripe against organic food is that there's no actual field testing of organic crops for pathogens or pesticide residues in Canada, just monitoring of the paperwork generated by  what are called "certifiers", the people who visit farms at least once a year and certify the operation as organic. This is from the report:

"Being organic is all about integrity and openness. We are talking about tens of billions of dollars per
annum in certified-organic sales in North America, so how exactly are consumers to feel assured
that everything is reliable in the Canadian organic sector when it is all just based on paperwork?
Bernie Madoff kept up on his paperwork, and look how that turned out. Honour systems pretty much
go out the window when large amounts of money are on the table. Should there not be at least a bit
of scientific scrutiny in this premium-priced food market?"

 I know a couple of certifiers and they are honest and hardworking, just like the organic farmers they visit, and I've written before that the organic farmers I know are the last people that need to be monitored, but  I do think it's very fair criticism to argue that unannounced field testing should be part of the certification process too, and the results should be made public.  If  people leaning to the left (like me) argue that processed GMO food should be properly tested and labeled, then the rules should be the same for organic products. Will pesticide residues be found, and have to be explained? Yes, that's what previous random testing has found, but it will keep bad actors in check, especially suppliers from outside the country who, according to this report, view Canada as easy pickings because of the lack of testing.  The only question is who will pay. Right now certified organic producers already carry the financial burden of the certifcation process, and according to the report, some certifiers get a percentage of gross sales as well, so it would seem reasonable that taxpayers (through the CFIA) would carry the cost.  After all it's consumers who benefit from increased confidence in what they're buying.

Bottom line, I continue to have  confidence in the organic products I buy despite reading this report. I think land use issues, crop rotations, treatment of livestock are as important as any of the other benefits, and certifiers can easily keep track of that.  If I want to be assured of no pesticide residues I'd have to go live on the moon.

Here's another perspective on the importance of maintaining standards, telling the truth, etc.  when it comes to certified organic. It's  from a farmer I very much respect, Sally Bernard, who writes a wonderful blog called For the Love of the Soil.  She and her husband Mark run a certified organic grain and livestock farm on PEI.

Why False Organic Claims Matter

If the product is raised on pasture, locally, by farmers I know, fed feed from a local mill and sold at my farmer's market, what difference does it make if the organic claim is legitimate or not?

A lot.

There are a few key factors involved in this somewhat loaded question and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this particular entry is inspired by some serious (and repeated) false organic claims made by La Ferme Springbrook, based very near to where I grew up.  The Times & Transcript (Moncton, NB daily newspaper) recently featured a piece on the farm, with pictures of their chickens including a claim of certified organic status and even a statement from Paul, the owner, suggesting that he was organic before organic was even a 'thing'.
I've never been to the farm, and when I looked them up online, I was struck by how similar many of their pictures look to ours.  They've got meat birds out on pasture in movable pens similar to ours, and layer hens running around in the grass.  They've got lambs with long tails and some very pretty landscape shots.  It looks like a great little farm, trying to do all the right things.
It has come to my attention before, that at their stand at Dieppe Farmers Market, there are visible organic claims and nothing to substantiate it.  So when I was at a meeting this summer and happened to be sitting across from Paul, I took the opportunity to ask him about his organic claims.  He gave me a quick well-heeled explanation of how they do things 'naturally' and that it really is organic, but they don't have the certificate. 
"So where do you source your grain and feed?"
"Miramichi Feeds.  It's a good mill."
"And would contain a fair bit of soybean and corn I suspect, right?"
"So those would be GMO, right Paul?"
"Well, I don't know about that."
"Ok, well, let me confirm for you, that unless it's organic feed, which I know Miramichi Feeds don't make, that it is with certainty, GMO feed."
stutter, briefly, " It is good, local feed, I have bought from them for years and years. I've never had a problem."
I am still unsure as to whether he really didn't understand the concept of GMO's or whether he was dodging a reality here, but either way, I feel the need to clear up just exactly why this deception doesn't just hurt the organic community, it hurts agriculture and in particular the buy local movement.

1)the cost of grain is without a doubt, the #1 prohibitive reason for people considering livestock, organic or not.  Organic grain continues to be considerably more expensive than conventional and those who make the effort, pay the big bucks and suffer the challenges of supply, sourcing and paperwork have earned the extra level of credibility.  They have taken the extra step in ensuring that the nutrition they are providing for their livestock is confidently, GMO-FREE!  Be it for ethical reasons, scientific reasons, marketing reasons or personal reasons, they have chosen to bear the burden of the extra cost and likely hope to recoup some of that cost by marketing their product as legitimately, truthfully, certified organic.

2)Consumers want to do what's best for them and their families.  If they are making the effort to come to the farmer's market they are already a step ahead, a demographic concerned about the sources of their food and wanting to support a good, local product.  They WANT to believe that friendly looking face behind the counter and to take that trust for granted, by deliberately telling mis-truths hurts every other farmer out there.  I don't have a problem with local, not-organic food.  If you can trust your farmer and you are happy with the product you're buying, at the price you're paying, then please enjoy and consider those producers each time you cook whatever it is you've purchased.  I WANT people to have their own farmer, just like they lay claim to a doctor or a hairdresser.  I WANT there to be a trust between those who grow our food and those who eat it.  But I'm struggling with creating a trust over a product whose label doesn't live up to reality.

3)Not everyone who learns the truth will care.  Many won't.  But some will.  And those who will, will understandably have a difficult time trusting another farmer again.  Be they organic or not.  And not just the farmer, but logo, the standard, the label, ruining it not just for another organic farmer at that market, but for organic food across the country.  CFIA is supposed to be the body responsible for investigating false claims, but with spotty (read:none in most cases) provincial regulations and fewer and fewer resources, it's simply not something that gets done as often as we'd all like.  So it comes down to organic inspectors (who only inspect organic farms) and the individual consumer. It simply isn't a fair way to treat people who are your bread and butter.

There is growing interest over "GMO-free feeds and products", which is to say they are not organic, so don't necessarily hold the other standards of animal welfare, environmental impact, etc. etc., but THAT is a fair claim in my eyes. Once again, the farmer is making the extra effort and paying the extra money to source a product outside of the conventional, GMO system and although they may not be certified, it doesn't matter, because THEY'RE NOT CLAIMING TO BE.

If Paul's ignorance about the significance of GMO's is truly based on just that; ignorance, then I guess it is up to his customers to demand a change.  As far as I am concerned, in this day of national organic standards and a public who is generally aware of what that means, it is absolutely, undoubtedly unacceptable to be feeding a prohibited substance as part of the daily diet of livestock and unabashedly use the certified organic claim.

In one way, I hate being the bearer of news like this, because if even one of Paul's happy customers read this and actually care, then I've just been the carrier of the confusion and mistrust.  I just laid the trail of evidence which leads to someone potentially turning their back on local agriculture at all, and returning to the anonymous grocery store shelves.  Or maybe I've just cleared up some questions and caused someone to think, "Hmmm...well, I guess next time I'll ask for an up to date organic certificate, or ask that farmer about what she feeds her animals and won't take a vague, pretty sounding explanation in response."
Probably not, but if there's even a small chance, then it was worthwhile potentially alienating someone with this entry.  This thing wouldn't be much fun for anyone if I couldn't be honest, would it?



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