Natural Foods Merchandiser

OTA urges U.S. to reach agreement with Canada on organics

Almost all of the organic groceries and produce sold at retail locations in Canada come from the United States, according to a 2007 annual report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.

That seems like a pretty good reason for the USDA to begin negotiations with Canadian officials to establish trade equivalency agreements for organic products between the two countries, said officials with the U.S.-based Organic Trade Association. The OTA delivered a letter to USDA officials in August urging the agency to begin work on an agreement with Canada as that country moves forward in standardizing its organic regulations.

"If [an agreement] doesn't work out, everything—everything—for sale as food in Canada will have to meet the Canadian standard, including how it is grown, processed, etc., and will have to be certified by an accredited certifying body recognized by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency," said Matthew Holmes, managing director of OTA's Canadian office.

The Canadian Organic Regulations became official Dec. 21, 2006, though they won't be fully in effect until December 2008. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will enforce the regulations and oversee the use of the "Canada Organic" logo.

Holmes said it's not too early to begin work on a trade agreement, even though Canada will not fully implement its new regulations for more than a year. "The negotiations will likely take some time, particularly as the countries have distinct standards to recognize their unique growing conditions," he said, "so it is best that the governments begin discussions as soon as possible."

"We have talked to Canada ever since they've been in the process of finalizing their standards about a possible equivalence discussion," said Kelly Strzelecki, USDA FAS agricultural economist. Strzelecki said the United States is waiting for Canada to request trade equivalence, which she said should happen sooner rather than later. "We agree with OTA that we don't want trade to be disrupted."

Currently, Canada accepts USDA's National Organic Program standards. Strzelecki said she did not expect too many hiccups when negotiations do occur, especially since many of Canada's rules are modeled on those in the United States. "Our countries are similar … [and] there is a lot of trade happening between [them]. I would hope that there's not too many barriers to reaching equivalence."

To evaluate equivalency, the U.S. NOP conducts a side-by-side comparison of the two systems to identify similarities and differences. In the end, equivalence may exist for some products but not for others, OTA officials noted.

The market for organic goods in Canada and the United States is growing between 15 percent and 20 percent annually, according to the USDA FAS report. Currently, about 80 percent of organic produce and 90 percent of organic grocery products in Canada are U.S. imports.

A tale of two organic standards

Are the Canada Organic Standard and the U.S. National Organic Program similar? Yes, but there are some major differences, according to Matthew Holmes, managing director of the Organic Trade Association's Canadian office. He said a full analysis has not been done because the Canadian regulations are still in transition, but he did note a few key points of distinction:

  1. The NOP allows the use of Chilean nitrate as a fertilizer, while Canada prohibits it.
  2. The NOP prohibits any antibiotic use in animals. The Canada standards allow the use of antibiotics in dairy animals, with specific limitations.
  3. Unlike the United States, Canada does not allow organic and nonorganic production of the same crops—for instance, carrots—at the same time on the same farm. A Canadian farmer can grow different crops in a "split" (conventional/organic) operation, but only while the farm is completing its conversion to organic.? Nonorganic fields can be converted one at a time.


Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 16

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