Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.
When you pick up a bag labelled organic potato chips, don’t you ever think “what exactly does organic mean”? Is it a guarantee that all the ingredients in this chip bag are genetically modified organism (GMO)- and pesticide-free, better for me and for the environment? How do we know our dollars are going to fund organic farmers and practices if we don’t know the definition of what passes for organic in this country?
If only Canada had an organic certification logo like America’s USDA or Germany’s Bio-Siegel to let us know in no uncertain terms which food products are free of chemicals and GMOs and, indeed, organic.
Well, we do have standardized organic certification in Canada. There’s even a handy logo to advertise it. But most have no idea it exists—and that’s a big problem for Canadian organic agriculture promotion.
According to the Canadian Government’s Organic Production System Standards (OPSS) [PDF], organic food cannot be aided by genetic engineering, growth regulators, sewage sludge, or any synthetic pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. When you buy something claiming to be organic, this is what you should be buying.
In June 2009, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture passed the Organic Products Regulation, standardizing organic certification and creating the logo. What does the logo mean? If a product carries the logo, it’s got to be at least 95% organic. (According to OPSS, it’s difficult to claim something is 100% organic as non-organic soil and water substance residues can find their way into organic production.) If it’s 70–94% organic, it can claim X% of the product is organic, but can’t carry the logo. If it’s below 70% organic, it can identify the organic ingredients on the ingredients list but can’t claim it’s organic on the label and can’t use the logo. Sounds simple enough.
Torontoist decided to engage in a little practical test to see how available Canadian Certified Organic (CCO) products were to the average Torontonian. Dipping into our local Fresh and Wild, we asked if someone could point us in the direction of products branded with the Canadian Organic logo. After being passed around to three managers, one finally presented us with a jar of salsa stamped with a USDA Organic logo.
“Actually, we’re looking for the Canadian Organic logo?” Blank stare. “Um, with a maple leaf coming over rolling hills?” The blank stare morphs into a confused, mildly judgmental stare before a “We don’t have that.” Torontoist ventures: “Do you know what we mean, though?” Manager, chuckling: “Absolutely not.”
We hadn’t heard of it either until Your Food, Your Choice, hosted by the Canadian Organic Growers in February.
Dr. Andreas Boecker, associate professor with the Department of Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, thinks our lack of logo awareness has everything to do with brand power.
“People are willing to pay a higher price for Coke [than a no-name brand], because they associate a higher value with it that is largely determined by the brand value,” says Boecker. Canadian consumers might well choose CCO foods over USDA Organic if they were aware that their choice could help out Canadian farmers.
This logo is a brand. And since it’s been created by the Government of Canada, Canadians own this brand. And it would appear that our PR team is shit.
So how do we spread the word to Canadians that this choice is out there? We ask for transparency. We ask restaurants to identify CCO ingredients right on their menus and post the logo in their windows. We ask farmers’ markets to promote their CCO status with obvious signage. We ask grocers to advertise the fact that this logo exists and to fill their shelves with CCO food. And that they direct us to the stuff when we ask for it.
Having organic standardization is of little use if it remains largely unknown to the Canadian public. We need a groundswell to get this logo known and used. Educate yourself here. Ask your grocer if they carry CCO products the next time you do your weekly shop. Hopefully, if you ask enough times, the blank stare will turn into “Sure do, right over here.”