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Organic assurance

Manitoba legislation will require producers to be certified according to national standards

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It's farm fresh, pesticide-free, and, you've been assured, all natural. But is it organic?

New legislation in the works in Manitoba will put restrictions on which producers can call their wares organic, matching a standard that's already in place across Canada.

Under the Organic Agricultural Products Act, only those who have organic certification will be able to promote themselves as organic. Certification is an annual process in which farms or producers agree to follow a particular set of organic standards, and are inspected to ensure they're meeting those standards.

"What the act means is, if you're marketing organic products within the province of Manitoba, you need to be certified," said Melanie Rivard, an administrative co-ordinator with the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba (OPAM), a local certification body.

"You cannot use the term organic in any of its forms to describe your food if you're not certified."

Manitoba's organics act was passed in 2007 but has yet to be proclaimed, although a provincial organics expert said it's hoped that will happen this fall. There are currently no restrictions on use of the word "organic" in Manitoba, although producers plying their goods elsewhere in the country have had to comply with national standards since 2011.

"It's going to create a domino effect across Canada," said Laura Telford, organic marketing specialist for the province, of the new act. Telford said a couple of other provinces have their own organic rules, but Manitoba will be the first to mirror the Canadian standard and, as such, will be watched closely by the rest of the country.

"It takes the federal regime for organic and extends it into the province," said Telford. "So that would mean that all organic food is treated the same, no matter whether it's produced by a market gardener in Manitoba or imported from another province or another country."

The act will only cover the word "organic." Terms such as natural or pesticide-free? They're not going to be governed by any official rules. That may be a benefit for green-minded producers who can't afford or aren't interested in certification, but Rivard said it can be frustrating for certified producers when consumers aren't aware of the difference between various terms.

"If somebody's claiming organic, it's because they've put a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of effort into ensuring it meets the standards," she said. "There are no standards for natural."

Anyone who breaks the new rules repeatedly will risk a fine, and those setting up shop at farmers markets will likely have to display their certification if they'd like to promote themselves as organic, Rivard said.

Growth in the organics industry is still going strong, as far as shoppers are concerned. South of the border, the industry saw sales reach $31.5 billion last year, growth of 9.5 per cent, the Organic Trade Association says.

A recent high-profile Stanford study that found organic veggies no more nutritional than conventionally grown produce didn't faze advocates: Rivard says the idea of organics as nutritionally superior is a misconception -- "a carrot's a carrot" -- and argues the real benefits, such as no pesticide use, seem to be overlooked.

But Manitoba's pending regulation change comes at a time when organic farming numbers are dropping in the province. The latest report from Statistics Canada showed an increase in the number across Canada from 2006 to 2011, but a drop in Manitoba, to around 180 certified organic operators.

The usual challenges for beginner farmers can be compounded for organic newcomers, who can't sell crops under the organic label until a three-year transition period is over.

"What I can tell you is it's been shrinking quite a lot," said Telford of the local market. The organic grain market crashed during the recession and has yet to fully recover, she said, estimating a loss of 15 per cent per year of producers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"I don't know if the bleeding has stopped."

OPAM's client roster -- about 100 farms -- has shrunk every year for the past three years, said Rivard.

Telford said the good news is that prices for organics seem to be recovering and those who were able to survive the recession will benefit.

Small farms are among those most likely to be affected by Manitoba's pending regulations. Organic certification must be renewed annually and can cost in the range of $600 to $2,000, said Kate Storey, president of the Manitoba Organic Alliance and a certified organic cattle and grain farmer.

"If you're a small market gardener, that cost is enough to put you out of business."

Storey argues third-party certification is less essential for the sort of small farmers who rely on the face-to-face dealings of farmers markets, where customers are free to ask questions in person.

Advocates such as Rivard want to see more support for beginner organic farmers, such as a rebate program to defray early costs. It's an idea supported by Main Street Farmers Market organizer Jasmine Tara, who said she'd like to see more help for the sort of farmers who sell their wares at her market.

"We should be supporting the people going organic, as well," she said. "There should be a program in place for that."

lindsey.wiebe@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 J16

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