— Pamela Roth
After consulting with stakeholders earlier this year, the B.C. government will soon require anyone producing and selling organic products within the province to require certification.
Beginning in 2018, producers, processors and handlers of organic food and beverage products including farm gate sales, farmers markets and retail stores, will require provincial or national documentation verifying their products have accredited organic certification.
The move ensures consumers that products stating they are organic are in fact what they say they are. The demand for organic products is also growing rapidly in B.C., forcing the government to adjust its requirements for businesses producing and processing food products as organic.
Former James Bay residents, Joseph Westra and Sadie Redden moved to Cobble Hill last September to run their own organic farm, primarily producing mixed vegetables and some fruit.
The couple sells their produce at the Esquimalt Farmers Market and applauds the government’s move to stamp out bogus organic claims being made by farmers who don’t have third-party certification.
At the market this year, Westra learned one farmer labelled as organic was actually only in transition, and it’s not the first time Westra has come across cases like this.
“I’m fairly certain that they were misleading their product. It’s a bummer for us because it’s an extra expense and we’re jumping through all the hoops to make sure that our product is organic,” said Westra. “A lot of people who say we grow organically throw the organic label on their food and say they read the requirements once and they mostly follow it, so they tell people they are organic. But it’s not the same thing.”
In order to be a certified organic farmer, there are a number of protocols to follow.
According to Westra, seeds, fertilizers, compost and building material such as fence posts have certain requirements. Farmers also have to document everything and must dedicate a quarter of their field to relax and regenerate every year.
Westra doesn’t believe the public is up to date on what’s actually involved in organic agriculture, and believes they would be shocked to learn what’s required to grow organically.
“It’s pretty comprehensive,” he said. “Ultimately, I don’t really think the consumer cares that much if it’s certified or not. While we were selling at the market, nobody asked to see our certification papers. They just ask if it’s organic and that’s the story I’ve heard from others as well.”
Dr. John Volpe, a professor of marine ecology and food systems at the University of Victoria, questions the extent of how products under organic labels differ from conventional products, noting many industry standards already exceed organic standards.
The organic label conjures in consumer’s minds a level of production purity that doesn’t exist, he explained. The biggest problem is with who’s doing the certification.
“The standard setters are not the ones that are the certifiers. There’s no quality control on that end,” said Volpe, who hasn’t seen any proof that organic is necessarily better for your health, but noted certain products might be loser in terms of allergens or impurities for particular individuals.
“Organic is really about a production system that has a lighter footprint on the planet as opposed to health benefits to the consumer. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand, but not always.”
Earlier this year, the ministry of agriculture began consulting with the organic sector about developing an approach to strengthen the awareness and reputation of B.C.’s organic foods locally and across Canada. Nearly 80 per cent of certified organic growers supported the move to require certification.
The government will work with the Certified Organic Associations of B.C. (COABC) to provide assistance to help interested farmers and growers transition to organic certification. The government also has plans to develop an enforcement program that will be implemented in 2018.