What is Organic Farming?

Organic agriculture is a holistic production system designed to optimize productivity and encourage diversity in the agroecosystem, including soil microorganisms, plants and animals.  The basis behind organic farming is to produce products which are made without the use of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and genetic engineering (GMOs).  Organic products are required to meet strict standards and careful records must be kept about every phase of organic production including everything from the source of the seeds to the way products are placed on store shelves.  The following is a brief backgrounder on organic farming.  For more detailed information please refer to the links at the bottom of the page.

History of Organics in Canada

The Canadian organic sector has been developing national organic standards since the 1990’s with the first standards published in 1999. However, since these standards were voluntary up until June 2009, not all certifying bodies and provinces chose to use the same standards.  Canada enacted the federal Organic Products Regulations (OPR) in June 2009.  The OPR legally require all organic products in Canada to be certified according to the Canadian Organic Standards (COS) if they are traded across provincial or international borders or use the Canada Organic Logo. This includes having the certification carried out by a certifying body that is accredited by a conformity verification body recognized by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).  These standards were most recently updated in 2011.

Basics of Organic Production

Organic certification is a rigorous process that requires producers to adhere to a strict set of standards.  It can take up to three years to certify part or all of your operation to organic, or if you can attest that no prohibited substances have been used on the land in the last three years, it will take a minimum of 12 months.
Organic standards are based on the following general principles:
  • Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health
  • Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil
  • Maintain biological diversity within the system
  • Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise
  • Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock
  • Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing, and handling methods in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production
  • Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems
  • No synthetic chemicals including pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics
  • No genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s)
  • No irradiation or sewage sludge
  • No synthetic processing substances, aids and ingredients, and food additives including sulphites, nitrates and nitrites
A major focus of organic farming is to cultivate soil fertility.  This can be done by rotating crops to balance nutrients in the soil, composting and using “green” manures to add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.  Many of these practices also serve to discourage pests, keep weeds down and prevent drought and soil erosion.

Labelling

According to the Organic Products Regulations (OPR), farmers who wish to market their products as organic and trade across provincial or international borders and/or bear the Canada Organic Logo must be certified as organic with an accredited certifying body according to the regulations.
Product labels can be confusing, particularly since new ones seem to pop up every day.   The safest choice is to purchase products with the Canada Organic Logo or the USDA Organic Logo on them since these products are certified organic.  Products bearing a “Made with Organic” on their label must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.  When it comes to organic produce, look for five-digit PLU (price look-up) codes that begin with the number 9.
Canada Organic Logo                                             USDA Orgnaic Logo

GMOs

Genetically modified products are not required by law to be labeled, so they can be difficult to identify. However there is a list of product ingredients which are often genetically modified. If you see any of the following ingredients on the labels of products you consume, and the ingredient is not labeled as non-GMO or organic, it is likely genetically modified.

  • Corn syrup, starch, oil, meal, gluten
  • Soy lecithin, protein, flour, isolate and isoflavone
  • Sugar (unless it is made from cane)
  • Vegetable oil
  • Cottonseed oil

Natural vs Organic

It’s important to remember that products labelled as “natural” are not the same as those labelled as organic. There are no rules governing the use of the “natural” label, making it difficult to know how ingredients in natural products were grown and processed.  If you choose to buy natural products be sure to check the label carefully to see that it meets your expectations.
An excellent paper was released by the Canadian Organic Trade Association detailing the differences between organic and “natural”.  You can find it here.