Organic food gets organized


Did you wonder what was in that tomato you bought at the supermarket last week?

Was it grown in Mexico, or California, or somewhere else? Did the water that irrigated the field in which it grew contain toxic residues? If it did, were there traces of those residues in the tomato? And even if the trace levels were declared safe by government regulations, can they still accumulate in your body? Or react with all the other chemicals that you eat, drink, and breathe in daily?

For those who are disquieted by such questions, peace of mind may soon be arriving in the form of a single, national standard for certifying organic foods.


The organic farming community is going to vote on the standard next month, and although there are some technical glitches still to be worked out, the expectation is that the standard will be adopted.


It will mean that consumers will need to look for only a single, organic sticker — a stylized maple leaf — to be assured that what they are about to buy was grown and processed as free as possible from contaminants.


At present, there are 42 organic food certifiers in Canada, each with its own set of standards. And outside of the country there’s the same kind of multiplicity of standards and certifiers. So it’s confusing to consumers. How do you know which certifier to rely on?


The new system will mean that imported, as well as domestic food, will have to adhere to the single, Canadian standard.


Before a sticker will be allowed on an organic food, certifiers will have to confirm that everyone involved in getting the food to your store — seed suppliers, growers, processors, storehouses, distributors, and wholesalers — has abided by the national standard.


And, should they want to, consumers will be able to check on authenticity. Stickers will carry coding that will identify the year in which the food was grown, who grew it, the day and month it was processed, the bin in which it was stored, and the day it was packaged.


In other words, there will be a complete paper trail that will let you know such things as where the farmer bought his seeds, what fertilizers he used, and how clean was his irrigation water. And it will be the same for something grown in Canada, as in the State of Mexico.


If someone puts a sticker on that is unauthorized, it will be a breach of federal laws on labelling, and the Canadian Food Inspection Service will be authorized to take action.


It’ll take about three years to fully implement the system. First of all certifiers will have to be accredited. And then every participant in getting organic food to the market will have to be checked for compliance with the new standards.


« It’s been 11 years in the making,’’ says Larry Lenhardt of Lindsay, whose Organic Crop Producers and Processors in one of four certifiers in Ontario. « Some people have put their lives into this effort.’’


To John Warner, an ecotoxicologist from Rosseau in the Muskokas, who works as an inspector for certifiers in Ontario, as well as providing environmental services through his own firm, organic farming requires a detailed knowledge of plant, insect, and soil biology. That’s because understanding how natural systems work is essential to maintaining a healthy soil and growing high-yield crops.


The paradox, he says, is that organic farming is regarded as something new. « Before the Second World War, everything was organic,’’ he says. « It’s only since the war that we’ve had chemical farming.’’


Across Canada there are about 1,750 organic farms, mostly smaller family farms. And the market share is less than one per cent. But it’s growing at about 20 per cent a year. And even though 20 per cent of a small base is still very small, it’s a significant rate none the less.


I’m one of those who frets about what’s in my tomato. So I find all of this very encouraging. And I’m delighted that the initiative for establishing standards is coming from the people who care most about the purity of their products.

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