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organic standards

Certification Coordinator Welcomes New Online System With Open Arms!

in 2020/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2020/Tools & Techniques

Corinne Impey

When it comes to growing, organic certification, and supporting local operators, Cara Nunn could be considered an expert. She has also seen many changes over her 20-year career in the organic industry.

Cara is the Certification Coordinator for the North Okanagan Organics Association (NOOA) and the Similkameen Okanagan Organic Producers Association (SOOPA).

“My interest in growing began at a very young age as a child raised on a market garden in the Lake District of the Okanagan,” says Cara, who has a professional background in biogeography and experience working as a Managing Agrologist in the ginseng industry.

Cara started working with NOOA in 1997 and later expanded her work to include SOOPA. Now, nearly 23 years later, Cara continues to support organic growers and operators. Most recently, Cara has been helping her operators with the switch to iCertify, COABC’s newly launched online organic certification and renewal system. At the same time, she has been learning new skills and processes related to the administration of the online program.

“The system has come together better than I could have asked for,” says Cara. Having participated in the initial system development as well as many system demos, feedback gathering sessions, and testing, Cara played an active role in the project. “I really appreciate the input we had in developing the questions and format,” she says.

“The system is very robust and extremely capable,” says Cara. She acknowledges that at times, it can be a bit daunting, but “the iCertify Technical Advisor has been invaluable in getting answers and finding how to navigate the system.”

Regardless of any challenges related to learning a new system, she says the move to online certification is important. “I see the biggest benefit being an integrated location for all operator information: files, emails, communications, uploads, reports. Everything—chronological and orderly!”

“Record management has been heading this way for decades,” says Cara. “And the benefits go beyond the certification bodies.”

“The ability to provide details about our industry to government and funding bodies will provide a stronger voice for organics. It is also important for ourselves to have an integrated, clear system to verify integrity of organics to our own members and within our industry.”

Looking ahead, Cara is anticipating the launch of a new feature in iCertify: a database of approved inputs that will become available this summer. This database will be managed under the COABC umbrella of certification bodies and will be accessible to COABC members.

“To be able to offer an ongoing list of approved inputs and products throughout the community and have it accessible to our producers will keep the knowledge flowing,” says Cara. “It will also streamline the time involved in verifying products that may have already been looked at by another certification body.”

“Pooling resources and building community is a strength of the BC Certified Organic Program that I am happy to support.”


Funding for this project has been provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The program is delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC.

Feature image: Cara Nunn building her new greenhouse. Credit: Maia Nunn

Footnotes from the Field: Fairness in Organic Agriculture

in 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2020

Anne Macey

Originally published in The Canadian Organic Grower, Spring 2018, and updated by the author in May 2020, with thanks.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has established its Principles of Organic Agriculture. Within those, IFOAM includes a Principle of Fairness, which states “Organic agriculture should be built on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.” The IFOAM text elaborates further, saying this principle “emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties—farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders, and consumers.”

Many of us have always thought of organic agriculture as a food system that includes social values, yet nothing in our standards speaks to social issues. The focus is very much on agronomic practices and permitted substances. Animal welfare is addressed, but when it comes to people and relationships, North Americans have resisted any suggestion that social justice standards are needed. The argument is that those kinds of standards are written for the global South where exploitation of the work force and poor working conditions are more common. The US and Canada have labour laws to protect farm workers.

I am not so sure, and in any case, fairness in the food system is about much more than treatment of farm workers. Fairness and basic rights include fair trade, fair pricing for the farmer, and fair access to land and seeds. It means fair wages for workers, decent farmworker housing, and more. I agree that incorporating social issues into standards could be problematic, but it is time we had a serious discussion about whether they are needed—and, if not, whether there is an alternative approach. How we can create trust and demonstrate that organic farmers respect their workers as much as the critters in the soil? How can we ensure farmers get a fair price for the quality food they produce?

Colleagues in the US (Michael Sligh, Elizabeth Henderson, and others) worked on these issues with the Agricultural Justice Project (see sidebar on Social Standards in Food Production), developing social stewardship standards for fair and just treatment of people who work in organic and sustainable agriculture. These standards currently fall into the realm of “beyond organic” with the stated purpose:

  • To allow everyone involved in organic and sustainable production and processing a quality of life that meets their basic needs and allows an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment.
  • To progress toward an entire production, processing and distribution chain that is both socially just and ecologically responsible.1

Here in Canada, two things got me thinking more about the need to introduce something on the topic of fairness in the Canadian Standard. The first was hearing about the poor housing with no potable water for migrant workers on a fruit farm in the Okanagan (not an organic farm), despite laws being in place to protect those workers.

The second is the debate about farm interns and apprentice rights on organic farms. With high labour requirements, many organic farms depend on WWOOFers and other short-term interns for their work force. But sometimes the relationship sours and the workers end up feeling exploited. While many farmers commit to providing a rich and rewarding experience for their interns, in other cases conditions are less than ideal. An intern’s expectation will likely include learning what it takes to become a farmer, not just how to weed carrots.

Maybe we don’t need to spell out lots of specific requirements in the standards, but we could at least make some principled statements about the need for organic agriculture to provide fair working and living conditions for farmers and their workers, whatever their status. For years this type of approach was used in the livestock standards, without the need to spell out exactly what was needed for compliance. We only articulated more specific rules when consumers became unsure about the ability of organic agriculture to address animal welfare issues and started looking for other labels. We could also include statements about fair prices and financial returns for farmers or buyers’ rights to a good quality product.

Unfortunately, since writing this article not much has changed. To bring the discussion to the table, I made some proposals for the 2018 standards revision process. The Organic Technical Committee set up a task force on the topic but no agreement was reached, although it might end up as an informative appendix to facilitate the review in 2025. In the meantime, following a discussion at the 2020 COABC conference we wondered if COABC should conduct a pilot project which, if successful, could be brought forward to the 2025 standards review. Perhaps a first step might be for organic operators to have a “letter of agreement” or similar in the first language of their employees and interns committing the operator to uphold the principles of social fairness regardless of any other formal labour contract that might exist.

The conversation continues.


Social Standards in Food Production

Domestic Fair Trade: The Agricultural Justice Project is a member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association along with a wide range of farmworker and farmer groups, retailers, processors and NGOs from across North America. These groups are united in their mission to promote and protect the integrity of domestic fair trade.

Farmer Direct Co-op, a 100% farmer-owned, organic co-op based in Saskatchewan, was a leader in domestic fair trade, as the first business in North America to earn that certification. Its membership includes more than 60 family farms producing organic small grains and pulse crops in the Prairie region.

Domestic fair-trade certification is based on a set of 16 principles, encompassing health, justice, and sustainability:

  • Family scale farming
  • Capacity building for producers and workers
  • Democratic and participatory ownership and control
  • Rights of labor
  • Equality and opportunity
  • Direct trade
  • Fair and stable pricing
  • Shared risk & affordable credit
  • Long-term trade relationships
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Appropriate technology
  • Indigenous Peoples’ rights
  • Transparency & accountability
  • Education & advocacy
  • Responsible certification and marketing
  • Animal welfare

Source: Domestic Fair Trade Association

Aquaculture: The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) includes social requirements in its standards certifying responsibly farmed seafood. “ASC certification imposes strict requirements based on the core principles of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), these include prohibiting the use of child labour or any form of forced labour. All ASC certified farms are safe and equitable working environments where employees earn a decent wage and have regulated working hours. Regular consultation with surrounding communities about potential social impacts from the farm and proper processing of complaints are also required by certified farms.”

Source: Aquaculture Stewardship Council


Anne Macey is a long-time advocate for organic agriculture at local, provincial, national and international levels. She has served on the CGSB technical committee on organic agriculture, the ECOA Animal Welfare Task Force, the COABC Accreditation Board and on the Accreditation Committee for the International Organic Accreditation Service, as well as her local COG chapter. She is a writer/editor of COG’s Organic Livestock Handbook, a retired sheep farmer, and a past president of COG.

References:
1. Agricultural Justice Project. 2012. Social Stewardship Standards in Organic and Sustainable Agriculture: Standards Document. agriculturaljusticeproject.org/media/uploads/2016/08/02/AJP_Standards_Document_9412.pdf

First Generation Farmers Find Ease with iCertify Renewal

in Grow Organic/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Spring 2020/Tools & Techniques

Amy Lobb & Calum Oliver, Makoha Farm

Corinne Impey

Makoha Farm is owned and operated by Amy and Calum, who began their farming journey in 2019 on 0.6 acres of leased land on Cordova Bay Ridge in Saanich, BC.At Makoha Farm, they want their love of good food to come across in what they grow: providing tasty, healthy, and top-quality produce. They grow a diversity of vegetable crops and have quickly fallen in love with growing flowers for cut arrangements.

Currently at the start of their second year of farming, Mahoka Farm is part of Haliburton Community Organic Farm, a certified organic incubator farm in Saanich, BC.

As they geared up for their 2020 organic renewal with Islands Organic Producers Association earlier this year, they were looking forward to trying iCertify, COABC’s new online organic certification system.

Amy with a harvest of leeks. Credit: Kristina Coleman

“iCertify was quite simple to use when it came time to do our renewal,” says Amy. “The webinar preview and in-person training sessions were helpful and informative and made the process undaunting. To be honest, I feel that even if I hadn’t done the initial training before starting my renewal I wouldn’t have had any issues.” In particular, Amy found the clear and simple layout easy to follow.

“Also, having the percentage complete bars for each section is a nice touch visually, quickly letting you know if you missed something or giving you peace of mind that you’re almost done.”

Amy looks forward to future renewals where the process will be even more streamlined now that everything lives in iCertify. “It will be interesting to see how everything goes during next year’s renewal,” says Amy. “It should save us time in the future, only needing to update information that may have changed for our operation and uploading our annual forms.”

Time saved doing administration work means more time spent focused on farming. For 2020, Makoha has launched their first flower CSA subscription, which includes a small veggie box add-on option.

“We can’t wait to share this with the community. As the season begins in this world of uncertainty, we’re also happy to be able to still provide the local community with food for their homes. No matter what happens, we will be here growing food and offering it to the public.”


Funding for this project has been provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The program is delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC.

Feature image: Amy and Calum of Makoha Farm. Credit: Amy Lobb

Footnotes from the Field: Improving Poultry Rations

in 2020/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Livestock/Organic Standards/Spring 2020

Improving Poultry Rations to Accommodate Natural Behaviours & Strengthen Supply Chains

Marjorie Harris

COR Section 6.4: Livestock feed
6.4.3 – Specific livestock rations shall take the following into account:
j) poultry and pigs shall be given vegetable matter other than grain;
k) poultry shall be fed daily…


Why did the chicken cross the road? To eat organic greens of course!

It is well understood that a very important natural behaviour of a healthy and happy hen’s lifestyle is to scratch and peck vegetation and dirt.

The COR standard 6.4.3 (j) states that poultry shall be given vegetable matter other than grain and (k) states they be fed daily.

While the wording and use of language of this standard has led to many confused looks and interpretations by the industry, the intent of this standard is to support the natural behaviours of poultry. It also begs the question, what kind of vegetable matter for poultry?

Thankfully, at the Roundtable Q & A session held at this years’ COABC conference, Anne Macey shared information to help clarify the standards pertaining to poultry nutrition and natural behaviours and how they relate to outdoor access, pasture, and vegetables.

Anne suggested an appropriate interpretation for the term ‘vegetable matter,’ would be ‘green matter,’ and that the simplest solution is to hang sufficient alfalfa/grass hay mesh bags/baskets in the barns for the birds to peck.

The reasons why the hanging hay bag/basket is the simplest and potentially the only current solution for providing green matter on a daily basis in today’s organic poultry industry are discussed here, including the supply chain disruption for organic alfalfa pellets.

Pasture constitutes one possible source of green matter. However, there are several limitations that affect the amount of time green matter can be consumed on pasture, such as weather conditions, season, and vegetation cover. Pasture vegetation can quickly be degraded to dirt by flocks eagerly scratching and pecking.

Requirements for outdoor access, and access to rotational pasture, contained in 6.7.1 (a & j); 6.13.1 (c (2)) are sometimes mistakenly thought to meet the green matter provision. Anne Macey pointed out that these standards also present many limitations for accessing green matter on a daily basis.

Outdoor access during inclement weather can be achieved using winter gardens that typically have sand or sawdust for scratch and no vegetation. Pullets can be kept indoors during vaccination programs and never see the light of day and then be placed directly into layer barns and continue to be kept indoors until peak egg production around 26 weeks of age. The COR standard 6.13.1 (f) only speaks to laying flocks having access to outdoors as little as one-third of laying life. The standards pertaining to outdoor access, and access to pasture, are clearly insufficient to account for the daily green matter provisions of 6.4.3 (j & k).

The overarching standard COR 6.4.3, ‘Specific livestock rations shall take the following into account,’ is interpreted in (j) to refer to the natural behaviours exhibited by the animal while feeding.

The next step is to determine what kinds of green matter would be suitable for use in the various types of poultry operations: ducks, turkeys, broilers, pullets, and layer hens. This is where the application of the standards becomes more complex.

The first thing to consider is that rearing a small flock of less than 200 birds and rearing a large flock of 200 to 10,000 or more birds employ entirely different animal husbandry barn setups, with each method presenting its own set of challenges.

Small flocks are typically part of a mixed farm production unit and poultry will benefit from on-farm garden and orchard waste throughout the growing season. Small scale farms that overwinter poultry can provide a wide range of green matter from hay to sprouted fodder. Large flocks regulated under the egg marketing boards are the main production units of the farm and are raised under tight biosecurity regulations in comparison to small scale farms.

Livestock feed suppliers across Canada are governed by the Feed Act regulations which adds one more wrinkle to how green matter can be supplied in feed. BC feed producers produce a ‘coarse mash’ complete nutrition feed. In contrast, the Ontario poultry feed industry has switched over to a completely ‘pelleted’ complete nutrition feed.

Leanne Cooley, MSc., Poultry Scientist, working in the Ontario poultry industry, described how green matter is provided both as a feed ingredient, and as hay for natural behaviour. Dehydrated alfalfa is mostly indigestible by poultry and when it is included in the pelleted feed certain enzymes must be included to assist in the digestion of alfalfa. According to Cooley, “Insoluble grit is provided either as, or in combination, in free choice feeders and/or in the hens feed to assist in forage digestion and prevent birds developing impacted crops. Hay (second or third cut preferred), alfalfa, or hay-alfalfa blend may be done hanging in mesh bags or baskets, or scattered as litter. I see both. Warning —do not use straw!”

Hanging alfalfa or grass hay in mesh bags or baskets is a good method for accommodating the birds’ need to fulfill natural behaviors for scratching and pecking on a daily basis. When alfalfa/grass hay is made available to the birds early in life it can help to reduce and prevent the poultry pecking behavior that results in bird cannibalism.

Hanging the hay in bags or baskets will also keep the hay clean and out of any moving parts of larger egg layer operations. Pullet and broiler operations typically provide the hay as litter which doubles as scratch.

Organic alfalfa pellets are also a good, clean, sterilized source for ‘green matter.’ Unfortunately, there has been a supply chain shortage and currently there are no organic alfalfa pellets available from Western Canadian producers. The supply chain has suffered in the past few years due to an inappropriately applied ‘commercial availability’ clause in the PSL Can-CGSB 32-311 Table 4.2. This clause, without proper scrutiny, has become a loophole allowing crop producers to use no-spray and non-gmo alfalfa meal and pellets at lower cost. This left only livestock producers in place to purchase organic alfalfa pellets, and not able to create enough demand on the supply chain to keep it healthy in Western Canada. The Ontario supply chain is strong with Ontario Dehy Inc. supplying the Ontario poultry farmers with organic alfalfa pellets.

Western Alfalfa Milling Company (WAMCO) is a pioneer in the industry and grows and processes alfalfa near Norquay, Saskatchewan. WAMCO is certified organic to produce organic alfalfa meals, pellets, and hays. However, due to the misapplication of the commercial availability clause noted above the greater demand was for conventional alfalfa pellets as green fertilizer and mulch. WAMCO had to make a ‘supply and demand’ business decision this year to downsize alfalfa pellet production in 2020 from 60,000 tons a year to just 6,500 tons a year, with a focus on the conventional green fertilizer market. WMACO sales representative, April Guertin, shared some industry history, noting that 20 years ago there were 48 alfalfa pellet producers in Canada, shrinking down to only 3 producers in 2019, with only Ontario Dehy Inc. and WAMCO being certified organic. WAMCO gave assurance that if requests for organic alfalfa pellets were placed now at the beginning of the 2020 growing season, then WAMCO could certainly fill the orders for poultry and crop producers.

In summary, the intention behind COR 6.4.3 (j & k) is that poultry shall be given rations of green matter with respect to meeting their natural behavior needs for pecking and scratching daily. Options that would work for both small and large scale producers include alfalfa/grass hays hanging in bags or baskets and as litter and alfalfa pellets. Livestock producers need to be aware of keeping supply chains viable, strong, and competitive by ordering product ahead of the growing season. Crop producers can also buy into the organic supply chain, avoiding the misappropriate uses of the ‘commercial availability’ clauses for green fertilizer and mulches, further strengthening supply chains for the entire organic industry.


Marjorie Harris, IOI VO and concerned organophyte.

Biodynamic Farm Story: Unfinished Conversations

in 2020/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2020

Anna Helmer

At the recent COABC conference I enjoyed an unfinished conversation with a peerless organic industry leader about how certain words traditionally associated with our alternative/organic farming movement are being co-opted by mainstream agriculture. Case in point: General Mills using the word “regenerative” to describe some decidedly non-organic, chemically supported farming practices. Some consumers don’t give a hoot one way or another of course, but a certain segment really wants to do the right thing and have previously associated the word “regenerative” with good farming. Using that word is an obvious ruse intended to reassure a large conscientious consumer group: General Mills wants to keep their business.

The galling thing, as far as being an organic farmer goes, is that we might feel “regenerative” is our word. For starters, we used it first; furthermore, we practice it; bottom line, we believe in it. We are using it to heal the earth. General Mills is using it to sell more sugar-cereal. It’s quite irritating.

And what are we to do about it? Cue the unfinished conversation.

Well, we can keep talking about it, amongst ourselves and in our marketplaces. Preaching to the choir ensures that everyone is on the same page, singing the same song. Very important that, but pretty much paves the way if not to rebellion, then certainly outbursts of inappropriate and/or unwelcome individuality, complicating the issue.

Private enterprise has thusly spawned several certifiers, with standards ranging from whimsical to fanatical, offering farms a chance to formalize their relationship with the word. This will remind the older set of the early years of the organic business and send shivers down a few spines.

The next obvious thing is to fight for it at the government level. Get some public policy developed around it. Some standards. We could be fighting for the use of that word like we have for “organic”.

Basically, the fight for “organic” is far from over and it’s not yet clear who is winning, despite all the hard campaigning. I think you can still have the word “organic” in your farm name even without certification. We are very lucky to have people fighting for this word and they do not need the burden of another word. Allow them to focus.

It is possible, left to their own devices whilst organic gets sorted, that these big companies will publicly stumble over the banana peels they will find littering the road to “regenerative” and all the rest of those words: “natural,” “whole grain,” “plant-based,” and of course “sustainable.” A lot of consumers are not stupid and will recognize marketing when they see it; and having done so, won’t buy it. Our fingers are crossed.

It’s a difficult conversation to complete, isn’t it?

Complete it I will, however, by simply moving on to another topic. And this one is affecting me very directly.

Any produce market vendor who understands retail will tell you that the surest way to sell something is to whack it into a plastic bag and put a price sticker on it. Just today at market, one of my staff spent the entire four hours making tidy little plastic bags of potatoes. Probably about 70% of sales today came from $6 bags of Sieglinde potatoes.

These are the bags the Vancouver Farmers’ Market management wants to ban. I have been moaning about this coming ban to anyone who would listen (and some who would not) for months now. And I will just stop you there as you come up with suggestions on how to replace them. You can’t replace them. It’s plastic: it doesn’t break down and there is no replacement.

Plastic is amazing. It has changed our lives in dramatic and important and lasting ways.

Unless I hear a little more celebration of plastic, I am not going down without a fight.


Anna Helmer farms in Pemberton where there are a surprising number of rules, policies, and standards for such a population of keenly individualistic farmers.

 

Standards Review: Behind the Scenes

in 2020/Livestock/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Winter 2020

Tristan Banwell

How did I come to be involved in the 2020 Review of the Canadian Organic Standards from my organic outpost near little old Lillooet? Well, Anne Macey talked me into it, of course. By email. She’s very charming and persuasive, even in text.

I am glad she did recruit me, because I now realize how important the process is. I have also become very familiar with the livestock standards, and I have heard the perspectives of producers from many regions of Canada and all scales of production. It was eye-opening and rewarding (and time-consuming!). I have a deep appreciation and respect for the people at the Organic Federation of Canada who made this process happen. A lot of hard work and organizing goes into this process, and a lot depends on us, the volunteers on the Working Groups.

It’s my turn to talk you into getting involved, or at least convince you to read Rebecca Kneen’s article all the way through so that you know what is going on.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, I volunteered on the Livestock Working Group, and sat on smaller groups called Task Forces for Poultry, Swine, and Ruminants. Many of the participants are producers, some large and some small. Others are inspectors, consultants, agronomists, veterinarians, or employees of various organizations, like the SPCA (or COABC!). I was surprised to find there are also industry group representatives participating on behalf of their constituents, such as the Chicken Farmers of Canada and Egg Farmers of Canada.

Each of the Livestock Task Force groups included 8 to 20 individuals, while the Livestock Working Group was comprised of 40 to 60 people. Meetings were two to three hours long by teleconference, with participation on Google Drive for document review and collaborative editing. The Working Group met monthly from September 2018 to April 2019, and again in the winter of 2019/20 to complete the process. Task Forces met an average of three times.

New Task Forces cropped up within the Livestock Working Group to deal with petitions related to Apiculture, Bison, and Rabbits. Members of our working group were also recruited to advise the Genetically Engineered (GE) Task Force, and invited to join the Social Fairness Task Force. Sometimes a petition for another Working Group would come across to Livestock for comment, or seeking the answer to a specific question. But primarily, we got down to work reviewing petitions for changes to the Standards with regard to swine, ruminants, and poultry.

Often, especially when a petition was unrealistic to implement or perceived to weaken the Standards, the groups could quickly reach consensus with a recommendation. I came to appreciate the flexibility of the Standards to apply in so many different contexts, while ensuring a basic set of principles is respected. It is easier to understand the complexity of the Standards when you realize that they are built and revised one particular circumstance at a time.

We also navigated many controversial conversations. What one participant may view as strengthening the Standards may be seen by another as a meaningless change leading to unnecessary expense. Dedicated volunteers gathered and shared research to support their positions and worked over wording repeatedly to solve disagreements. Consensus was sometimes difficult to reach, sometimes impossible. At times, a voting block would solidify and no proposal offered could progress. This was frustrating, but the system is designed to move discussions forward regardless: if a Task Force cannot make a recommendation, the topic goes back to the Livestock Working Group for further consideration. If that still does not help, it’s back to the Technical Committee.

After suggested changes go out for public review over the summer, the comments come back to the Working Groups. We must address all comments. In the case of Poultry, so many comments came back that the conveners further divided the Poultry Task Force into a small and nimble committee that could make recommendations that then returned to the larger group. In the end, our recommended changes to the Canadian Organic Standard will go up to the Technical Committee, who can then accept, revise, or reject the changes. This group will consider not only the recommendation but also the context, and if a topic was highly controversial or many negative comments are received, they should take that into consideration.

I am interested to see how our hard work influences the Canadian Organic Standard, and I know that when the process comes around again, I will step up and put in the time to make my voice heard. I hope that you will too.


Tristan Banwell is a founding director of both the BC Small-Scale Meat Producers Association and the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society, and represents NOOA on the COABC Board. In his spare time, he manages Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet, operating a Class D abattoir and direct marketing organic beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. farmer@spraycreek.ca

Organic Standards: The Process and the Principles

in 2020/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Winter 2020

Rebecca Kneen, BC board representative to the Organic Federation of Canada

Once upon a time, we in BC wrote our own organic standards. Those of us with the inclination got together regularly to figure out the problems and decide how best to address them while staying true to our principles. Every year, at the COABC conference, we’d debate all the proposed changes to the standards. Some of us will never forget the epic eight-hour discussions we had about treated posts, and the many-year discussions on poultry standards!

It was a tremendous group effort, and a huge amount of thought and work went into it—and it created the bonds which still hold COABC together. 

In 2009, after long discussion throughout the organic community, we collectively decided that a national organic standard was necessary. More and more products labelled as “organic” were coming into Canada, with no verification as to their actual quality or how it would compare to our own standards. Even within Canada, most provinces lacked their own certification regulations. The goal was to create a robust, thoughtful, and ethical standard which could be used to improve the quality and scope of organic production within Canada, and a measurement to accept or reject incoming goods as equivalent organic quality. The BC and Quebec standards formed the basis of the current rules—and the system has been evolving ever since, as techniques, resources, and markets have changed.

Most of us are concerned about the standards themselves—the rules about what, how much, how often. We refer to them when we are looking at such things as a new process, crop input, sanitizer or cleaner, or when we are designing a new livestock barn. We check them right after our annual inspection, when the Verification Officer (VO) references a particular section and we need to understand it. Sometimes we read the Q&A when the E-News comes out and we realize that there might be something that affects our farm. What we mostly DON’T do is think about how these standards are created and who’s involved—unless we think a new decision is wrong. In order to understand why certain decisions are made, we need to understand the structure, membership, and pressures in the organic system.

So, who is it that is looking after the standards? What pressures do they operate under, who’s the boss, and how do we make sure that our standards embody the ethics and values that created the organic idea in the first place? This is where we get to play the acronym game.

The Canada Organic Regime (COR) is the system of organic certification. It has two parts: enforcement and regulation. The entire system is part of the “Safe Food for Canadians” act, and is enforced by (in descending order): the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the Conformity Verification Bodies (CVB) like COABC’s Accreditation Board, and finally Certifying Bodies (members of COABC such as NOOA, FVOPA or the for-profit CBs such as Eco-Cert). The regulations apply to any product that moves between provinces or internationally that carries the COR logo.

The Canadian Organic Standards themselves are owned by the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) which makes the rules about how frequently the standards must be updated and the process used. The CFIA establishes organic equivalency agreements with other countries (Japan, USA, EU, Switzerland, Costa Rica). The Standards are owned by a government agency but reviewed every five years in collaboration with the organic industry. CGSB staff are not knowledgeable about organic agriculture; they only verify the review process and have nothing to do with the content.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road for most of us: the standards writing and review process. The top level of this process is the Standards Interpretation Committee (SIC). 

The CFIA created the SIC to resolve conflicts between CBs and producers. The SIC is made up of appointed members from across the organic sector and is managed by the Organic Federation of Canada (OFC). You will have seen the many lists of questions put to the SIC: the answers published on the OFC website are legally enforceable. CBs and producers have to comply with SIC decisions, as per the CFIA Operating Manual. The OFC ensures that SIC members have the required expertise and deep knowledge of a variety of areas of organic agriculture and processing, and provides guidance to the SIC.

The CGSB appoints its own Technical Committee, also made up of industry experts, but in this case,  they are selected by the CGSB not by the OFC. This committee has the power to modify the standards, whereas the SIC can only clarify the meaning of the standards. The Technical Committee analyzes recommendations from the SIC and the OFC Working Groups or the public when an amendment or a full review of the standards is launched.

The OFC working groups are made up of volunteers from across the country with expertise in specific areas. There are working groups for livestock, specific crops, and so on. Petitions for changes to the standards are received by the OFC, then brought to the various working groups for discussion, research, and recommendation. The working groups have up to 20 members, all participating in the entire process of reviewing questions and petitions for changes. They are able to do their own research and to share information widely. This is not a secret process!

In previous standards reviews, proposals have been received on a huge range of issues. As an example of how the working group works, one proposal received in the last round requested that the use of non-organic manure be prohibited, another that manure from non-organic sources including confined livestock or stock kept in the dark be permitted. In the first case, the proposal was rejected because there is a large deficit in the supply of organic manure, and such a restriction would create a huge barrier to organic production. In the second case, the proposal was also rejected on the grounds that the petition would weaken the standards and erode public confidence.

There are many areas where this process can be influenced in any direction. The membership of the working groups, technical committee, and SIC itself can be manipulated (intentionally or not). How questions are grouped for presentation to the working groups, and which resources are used will influence the outcome. 

The OFC is serious about upholding organic values and principles. In soliciting members for the working groups, we aim for skilful, balanced representation with people whose interests go beyond short-term financial gain. We try to balance technical expertise with breadth of experience, large and small producers, cross-country representation, and commitment to organic principles. 

There is a lot of pressure on all parts of the organic industry to allow more money to be made, to loosen regulations so that they are “more accessible”, and to allow foreign influence on our standards. The recent move by the USA to push for Canada to include hydroponics in the organic standards is one example. In this case, the OFC, Canada Organic Growers (COG) and the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA) collectively repudiated this move (see the excerpted letter in this issue of the BCOG). We’re also seeing livestock standards pressured to allow more confinement and less outdoor access, and crop standards pushed to allow indoor growing without natural sunlight.

The three national industry groups (OFC, COG, and COTA) are working together to find more ways to inextricably embed our principles into the entire regulation and the processes for amendment. 

What this really needs is support from our membership: from you. We need more people to volunteer for the working groups and the CGSB Technical Committees. We need you to put your expertise and ethics to work for the whole community. You don’t need to be a world-renowned expert, you just need to want to work, learn and do a lot of reading and talking. Most of all, you need to want to support the community that supports you. 

Contact Nicole at the Organic Federation of Canada to find out how to volunteer for any of these committees: nicole.boudreau@organicfederation.ca

Read more:

Organic Federation of Canada

Canadian Organic Growers

Canada Organic Trade Association


Rebecca’s parents led her down the sheep track to food sovereignty and food systems analysis through their Ram’s Horn magazine and Brewster’s many books. She farms and brews in Secwepemc Territory at Left Fields/Crannóg Ales and is COABC’s representative to the Organic Federation of Canada.


Re: Official position of the Canadian Organic sector on Hydroponics being considered in organic 

Excerpts from the full letter:

“We stand united and unequivocally reject the allowance of hydroponics by the Canada Organic Regime (COR) for sale in Canada and for export to other trading partners. The very notion of being asked to articulate why hydroponics is banned from COR is similar to being asked why we would ban synthetic pesticides, genetically engineered seeds and have built humane treatment of animals into the organic standards.

The global definition of organic (despite the USA’s National Organic Program recent ruling permitting hydroponics) prohibits hydroponics. In fact, there is a court hearing challenging the NOP’s permittance of hydroponics currently in the US court system as the USDA’s allowance of hydroponics is a fundamental shift away from the global norms of what is defined as organic. We fully support and stand behind the organic sector in the USA who is challenging the NOP/USDA for allowing this egregious act. 

The organic sector is a $5.4 billion market in Canada, with over a billion in export sales worldwide. The USA’s NOP hydroponic products are banned from all export sales due to not meeting international standards. We stand united in that we do not want any US hydroponically produced products entering Canada and lowering the public trust that we have worked to establish in Canada. We also do not accept or support the Canadian Horticulture Canada (CHC) and the Ontario Greenhouse Growers position that there is a trade harmonization concern. 

Our Canadian organic standards and US-Canada Equivalency Arrangement is absolutely clear that operators must adhere to Canadian standards and respect the details of the equivalency arrangement. The system has been set up banning hydroponics since 2009, calling out critical variances in our US- Canada Equivalency arrangement. It is of utmost concern if the Government of Canada wishes to alter the established organic standards and trade arrangement details that the organic sector has been functioning under (and strongly support). Amending the Canadian organic standard (or other mechanisms available to government) to permit organics to be produced through hydroponic methods would not only damage the trust and reputation of the Canadian organic label, but also override the research and decision reached by the Organic Agriculture Technical Committee. Any changes to current practises made without the consensus of the Technical Committee would be a breach of the consensual principles embedded in the policies and procedures of the Canadian General Standard Board. 

Our concern is that we risk retaining our respected global position in the organic marketplace and that significant trading partners, such as EU, Japan, Switzerland, would need to alter the equivalency arrangements we have with these markets should hydroponics in the organic system be permitted under any circumstances in Canada. With the court case ongoing in the USA, we certainly feel it would be detrimental to our sector to allow CHC’s argument of not being able to access the US market opportunity as a worthwhile argument to alter the standards/trade arrangement or create any policies which would change the current practise of banning all hydroponics under the COR. We support the horticulture sector accessing the US market with their conventionally grown produce but we diametrically oppose their position of trying to drag the Canadian organic sectors reputation down to the US’s “lowest common denominator” which is globally rejected and may be overturned through a court process. There is no other country in the world that permits hydroponics in their organic programs and it would be a fatal error to move in this direction for the sake of an opportunistic market opportunity.”

More reading: 

foodsafetynews.com/2019/02/organic-industry-is-not-giving-hydroponic-growers-a-warm-embrace

centerforfoodsafety.org/files/1_16_19_cfs-hydroponics-petition_final_11376.pdf 

Aquaponics and the Organic Movement

in Crop Production/Organic Standards/Summer 2017

Gabe Cipes


Editor’s note: Aquaponics is a hotly debated topic in the organic sector. As the BC Organic Grower strives to make space for open discussion on all things organic, these pages provide an excellent forum to examine aquaponics in an organic context.


The fate and state of the world now depends on innovation in many forms to be supported and embraced where they are appropriate—that includes recognizing the organic nature of aquaponics.

The organic movement is based on a set of principles: health, ecology, fairness, and care for future generations and the environment. Following these principles, aquaponics is a method to produce a vast plethora of aquatic animals, fruits, and vegetables using a small fraction (~5%) of the water and on only a fraction of the land it takes to produce terrestrial crops. The soil is a recirculating, closed loop, self-sustaining, aquatic rhizosphere. The bi-product is a high value nutrient and biologically rich soil amendment.

The Soil is the Water

Within the system, we feed the aquatic animals, such as fish, crayfish, shrimp, turtles, or alligators, and they populate all surface areas of the system with their gut biomes and provide nutrients. A diverse host of bacteria, protozoa, worms, fungi, and microbes convert solid waste and ammonia into nitrites and then into nitrates. The plant archaeon in the system perform phytoremediation for the water before it returns to the animals by absorbing the nitrates and nutrients transformed by the microorganisms. The plants release their own microbiology through their roots. Their secretions mix with the secretions of the other microorganisms to create humic acid (humus!). Carbonic acid is created through the cycle of death within the system. Mineralization and aeration are integrated through biological and mechanical zones. Thus, the living soil ecology is born in the water. The soil is the water.

Aquaponics is not soil-less agriculture. In fact, it brings us more in touch with the essentials of organic soil biology in a not so much controlled, but created and containable environment. The same impetus to create a self-sustaining, bio-diverse ecological balance by feeding the soil biome as is indicated in the organic and Demeter standards is practiced in aquaponics.

Aquaponics is not an easy or simple method of agriculture. It can involve highly mechanized functions and be energy intensive, although there are passive solutions available. Creating a system requires a high degree of biological, mechanical, and regenerative knowledge as well as careful insight. Just as with any method of farming there can be a broad spectrum of health in practice. Creating and stabilizing this natural food producing ecosystem organically can be a life long journey for an individual or a collaborative team effort involving many different skill sets.

Photo Credit: Gabe Cipes

Aquaponics vs Hydproponics

It is critical to draw the distinction between hydroponics and aquaponics and not lump the two together as soil-less agriculture even though they may look alike in certain regards. Hydroponic growing removes the crucial soil factor and replaces it with soluble nutrient solutions force fed directly to the plants. Hydroponics can in no way duplicate either the complex benefits of soil or the beneficial environmental impact as aquaponics can.

Hydroponics was unfortunately accepted as organic by the USDA standards due to corporate lobbying and bureaucracy. In their 2010 objection to the organic certification of soil-free farming in the US, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) wrote “The abundance of organisms in healthy, organically maintained soils form a biological network, an amazing and diverse ecology that is ‘the secret,’ the foundation of the success of organic farming accomplished without the need for synthetic insecticides, nematicides, fumigants, etc…” (NOSB 2010) The “secret” to aquaponics is the same. Hydroponics is not certifiable in Canada, while aquaponics is certifiable under the Organic Aquaculture Standards CAN/CGSB- 32.312-2012. [Editor’s note: None of the Certifying Bodies (CBs) accredited by COABC are currently certifying aquaponics.]

An Ancient Practice

Millennia ago some of the most powerful nations in history utilized similar agricultural practices: the Chinampas, floating gardens of the American Aztecs, the rice paddies of ancient China, and ancient Greek descriptions of the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world. They all relied upon fish and aquatic animals to fertilize their agricultural systems.

It is possible to grow crops this way because aquatic animals such as fish, crustaceans, and many other aquatic creatures do not carry the same potential pathogens in their manure as terrestrial animals do. The difference in application is the time and processing of the manure when comparing terrestrial manure to aquatic manure, which is pretty much immediately available as long as the system is colonized by the gut biota of the animals living in it. It can take two to six months to establish a living system. Multi-trophic remediation (involving aquatic plants and crustaceans) is encouraged in organic aquaculture.

The contemporary mastery of this method of agriculture in Canada has yet to be realized. The potential to grow fresh fish and vegetables all year long on a commercial scale is enormous. Large scale systems could economically compete with conventionally grown imported crops for the bulk foods market, supplying restaurant chains and big box stores without competing with high end niche organic markets or polluting the environment. It is accessible to all demographic and geographic variables. Due to its productivity and ability to provide both animal and vegetable products together in a compact space it can empower people to overcome hunger and starvation in remote areas.

Farming fish and crops this way allows our natural watersheds and natural soil ecologies to heal and regenerate. The vast majority of our planet is covered by oceans, which are under extreme stress today. One of the major sources of stress is over fishing (Rogers 2014). Aquaponics or variations thereof are the most sustainable methods of producing high quality and environmentally friendly fish.

Photo credit: Emmanual Eslava

Closing the Loop

The primary input of an Aquaponic system is the feed for the fish. Organic feed for salmonids, coregonids, tilapia, koi, sturgeon, cat fish, perch, and other commonly used species is commercially available upon demand in BC through at least three major pet food distributors, namely: Ewos, Taplow, and Skretting. Major strides have been made recently in designing low cost sustainable organic formulas for fish feed, with the inclusion of insect larvae, yeasts, invasive species of shrimp, algae/phytoplankton/kelp, organic grains, and tailings from the fishing industry. It is possible to close the loop on the need for aquatic fish protein and oils if organic aquaculture and aquaponic farmers work together to provide different species of tailings for formulas to be used within the organic industry. The goal is to be independent from relying on depleting oceanic sources of aquatic proteins.

There are many aquaponics operations currently certified organic in BC. You can learn more about the organic standards for aquaponics by reading the 32.312 Organic Aquaculture standard. You will see that the crop standards are pretty much identical to the 32.310 Terrestrial standard. Most operations, especially in BC, are contained structures to maintain bio-safety and bio-security. It is becoming increasingly vital to maintain organic integrity by avoiding contaminants in our environment.

In regards to pests or disease, crop pests would either be contained mechanically or be subdued by an introduced species to balance the disease or infestation. Beneficial fungi, insects, plants, and animals are introduced and form symbiotic relationships. Antibiotics and hormones are also prohibited in organic aquaculture and stocking density needs to be kept low to prevent lice or other diseases. The prohibited and allowed substances align with 32.310 in regards to all materials and devices.

As this technology and its applications develop, so too will the organic standards. They will evolve and adapt through consensus of multiple organizational bodies to include better ecological practices. I hope to be involved in that conversation for many years to come. The standards are a base for the development of this method in Canada and should inspire best practices for the burgeoning organic aquaponics industry.

Organic Aquaculture Standards:
www.scc.ca/en/standardsdb/ standards/26378


Gabe Cipes is a Permaculture designer and Biodynamicist practicing out of Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna, BC. Gabe keeps bees, chickens, creates the nine biodynamic preparations, and over sees the culinary gardens, forest gardens, and insectary habitats on the largest certified Demeter/Organic vineyard in Western Canada. Gabe serves on the board of COABC, the Biodynamic Associations of BC (BDASBC), and Demeter Canada as well as the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council (COFPC) and the Organic Okanagan Committee. Gabe has been collaborating with a team of entrepreneurs, aquaculture specialists, scientists, engineers, and biologists to develop organic and biodynamic managed commercial aquaponics facilities. The compa- ny’s mandate is to help supplant some of the conventional ravages facing the world with the highest quality, nutri- ent rich, and harmonious fish and produce, allowing our planet and populations to heal.

References
National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). (2010). Formal recom- mendation by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to the
National Organic Program (NOP). https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/ default/ les/media/NOP%20Final%20Rec%20Production%20Stan dards%20for%20Terrestrial%20Plants.pdf
Rogers, A.D. (2014). State of the Oceans Report 2013. Internation- al Programme on the State of the Ocean. http://coastal-futures.net/ archives/220
Savidov, N. (2005). Evaluation of Aquaponics Technology in Alberta, Canada. Aquaponics Journal 2nd Quarter: Issue 27, pp. 20-25.

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