America leaves Canada in its organic dust

Commentary, Agriculture, Mischa Popoff

It was bound to happen. After more than ten years and a couple hundred billion dollars in revenues, the American organic food sector will finally begin testing products to ensure they’re genuine and safe. But, there are no plans to do anything like this in Canada.

Nevertheless, an ever-growing number of Canadian consumers buy certified-organic food, confident that an objective process ensures the authenticity and safety of the food sold bearing this most-lucrative of labelling claims. After all, organic food is “certified” by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), both of which are highly respected the world over. So it must be genuine and safe, right?

The sad fact of the matter is that the CFIA and USDA essentially act as tax-funded marketing wings for the organic industry and little more, and allow their labels to be used by any producer anywhere in the world as long as all the paperwork is in order and the fees are paid.

This is about to change in the US where Miles V. McEvoy − the Obama Administration’s Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) – will finally  require the more than 100 for-profit and not-for-profit certifying agencies that oversee the organic sector on behalf of the USDA to begin the occasional testing of organic products. And this, given our close trading ties, puts Canadian authorities in a bind.

Will the CFIA continue to run a glorified, promotional honour system of record keeping and record checking? Or will they finally start using science to ensure synthetic nitrates, phosphates, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics and growth hormones are not in organic food sold in Canada?

Of course, it must be pointed out that the USDA will not require any field testing, and will only require testing on products after harvest, by which time artificial substances will have mostly dissipated and been rendered less detectable.

By way of illustration, Roundup, one of the most commonly used herbicides in industrial agriculture (which is prohibited on organic farms), dissipates in less than 28 days. Rest assured, the highly educated people at the CFIA and USDA along with those running the many organic certifying agencies under the CFIA’s and USDA’s watch, are all well aware of this fact.

They’re also well aware that until someone starts testing to ensure that animal manure is being fully composted, we’ll continue to see cases where people fall ill and even die after consuming unsafe certified-organic food that contains un-composted fecal matter.

The current testing mandate began in 1998 when the American Consumers Union (ACU) performed random tests on a cross-section of organic food and discovered that one-quarter of the food contained prohibited substances. This prompted the ACU to urge the USDA to include a clause about testing organic food in the American organic program.
Fast forward to the present and a report on the USDA’s 2010–2011 pilot study on organic pesticide testing reveals that 43% of samples contained prohibited pesticides. And, again, this was on tests taken on end-product in which there was ample time for prohibited substances to dissipate. Things are not getting better; evidence seems to indicate they are getting worse.

In Canada meanwhile, the CFIA ran similar tests in secret and obtained even worse results! A whopping 45.8% of samples contained prohibited pesticides, and so troubling where these results that authorities tried to suppress them, forcing reporters to use Access to Information to even see them. But, alas, Canada still shows no signs of following America to testing of organic food, which common sense would dictate is long overdue.

Bureaucracy and hype will continue to rule the day in the Great White North, and consumers will continue to be beguiled by unsubstantiated claims made by producers, no matter where these producers are located around the globe. In fact, it turns out that roughly 80% of the organic food certified by the CFIA isn’t even produced in Canada. And it’s all brought to the store shelf, replete with inflated prices, with paperwork and nothing more.

The course finally being taken by our American neighbours puts to rest the unfounded objections by urban organic activists that testing organic crops and livestock is a waste of time. It’s time for the government of Canada to ensure objectively that organic products are genuine and safe. Failing that, the CFIA should get out of the organic industry altogether and leave verification in the capable hands of federally-accredited labs that can test scientifically to ensure no one’s cheating.