Ontario Scores Low on Organic Report Card

The Canadian Organic Trade Association has just released its State of Organics: Federal-Provincial-Territorial Performance Report 2021, which summarizes the current state of support for the organic sector from all levels of government. This year’s data shows that while Ontario consumers have shown enthusiasm for the organic industry – as discussed in OCO’s Ontario Organic Market Report 2021 – the province lacks significant  support for the growth of organic agriculture.

Ontario has the largest organic market in Canada, which includes buyers belonging to a wide range of demographic and income levels. Despite this large customer base, Ontario lacks provincial organic sector regulations and lags behind other provinces in most regulatory aspects (with the exception of crop insurance).

COTA’s research was conducted through interviews with federal, provincial and territorial (FPT) organic leaders over a six-month period to gain insight into organic programs, supports and circumstances. Their analysis covered four major areas central to the development and maintenance of a strong organic sector: Regulation & Enforcement, Production Supports, Market Supports, and Data Collection. They assigned scores out of ten for each category and translated those scores to a corresponding five-star scale.

Overall, Ontario’s score is relatively low considering the size of Ontario’s market, population and overall demand for organic products. Ontario only achieved a score higher than one star in a single category.  Let’s examine how Ontario did in each section and see if there are opportunities for improvement.

So How Does Ontario Fare?

Regulation & Enforcement

Ontario scored low across the board, including in regulation and enforcement. Ontario has yet to enact a provincial regulation for organic products, despite its large organic consumer base. This means that products that are marketed as organic do not have to adhere to the (federal) Canadian Organic Standards unless they are being exported out of the province. Comparatively, Quebec’s organic industry is regulated by the Conseil des appellations réservées et des terms valorisants (CARTV), an independent public authority funded in part by the Québec Ministry of Agriculture and through accreditation fees charged to certification bodies.

Enforcement is a necessary extension of regulation that ensures compliance and promotes consumer trust in the organic label. This will not, however, be possible until Ontario implements strong provincial organic standards that mirror the scope and nature of the federal COS.

At OCO, support for provincial organic regulation is central to our advocacy work. Under the previous provincial government, Bill 153 was introduced (and later reintroduced as Bill 54) to provide regulations for organic products in Ontario and we are still actively working to see that bill come to fruition. If you’d like to learn more about the work we’ve been doing for more regulation in Ontario, check out our blog post on  OCO’s 2022 Budget Recommendations to Ontario Government.

Production Supports

Organic farming requires a significant amount of work from farmers, and the first three to five years of transitioning can be challenging ones. In order to certify organic according to the Canadian Organic Standards, a producer’s land must be free of chemical inputs for at least three years. This puts the farmer in a difficult position since they are no longer able to use the inputs that have previously relied on to boost yields but are not yet able to access premium prices by marketing their products as organic.

Financial and educational supports for farmers during the early stages of their transition are critical for growing organic production. Quebec is a provincial leader on this front with a robust portfolio of supports for organic farmers, especially young and new farmers. As a result of these measures, Quebec has already exceeded its goals of doubling its organic acreage from 2015 levels a remarkable five years ahead of the schedule. The goal was to reach 98,000 hectares by 2025 but now that Quebec has 108,158 hectares, the provincial government has reset the target to 121,000 hectares in its 2019-2023 Strategic Plan.

In Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) divides its organic portfolio among several staff members. Since the retirement of the organic sector specialist over five years ago, there has been no replacement specifically dedicated to the support of the organic sector.

There are several supports available to Ontario farmers interested in pursuing organic transition and certification. For more information, you can visit our page on Farmer Training & Transition Support.

Crop Insurance

Farmers always face a degree of  risk and uncertainty, as the success of their business comes down to environmental factors outside their control. As climate change heightens this unpredictability, it is important that farmers can access appropriate crop insurance to support their livelihoods should they lose a crop. 

Agricorp offers specialized organic crop insurance plans for crops like soybeans, corn, winter spelt, winter wheat, fresh market carrots and fresh market cabbage. While these are encouraging, there is room for improvement: these organic plans are based on conventional prices and only estimate organic premiums. The COTA study also found that only 30-50 percent of eligible organic producers regularly participate in crop insurance programs, although there is some indication that this may be increasing.

Market Supports

As consumers become more interested in environmentally friendly and healthy foods, support for organic products continues to grow. Consumer polls for 2020 show that 74 percent of Canadian grocery shoppers purchase organic groceries weekly.

In 2011, OMAFRA’s Foodland Ontario program introduced a marketing strategy for Ontario organic products including voluntary use of the Foodland Ontario Organic logo. While initial uptake was rapid, growth has slowed since 2017. The continued expansion of the Foodland Ontario Organic logo program would provide support for organic farmers looking to gain prominence in the market.

Ontario Food Exports, a division of OMAFRA, is designed to help support food, beverage and agricultural companies with export activities. Some organic operators in Ontario have been able to take advantage of their programs.

Data Collection

Reliable and accurate data is critical for the success of organic farmers in Canada, as it offers a valuable tool for decision-making and strategic planning. Being able to provide accurate and reliable data to organic farmers has been a continual issue for the Canadian organic sector.  

The federal government has acknowledged that there is no single, reliable source of organic data in Canada. This absence is painfully apparent when compared to Canada’s largest organic trading partners. The United States and the EU have devoted a significant amount of funding to this collection of data, and Canada lags far behind in comparison.  

On a provincial level, Quebec maintains a strong, centralized database of all certified organic operators in the province, including a list of all operation types, their products, location, business name and organic acreage. Ontario, by comparison, has a history of limited funding for organic data collection and analysis. Recently, however, OCO has successfully obtained funding through CAP’s matching-funds program to develop an organic data strategy to bring better resources to organic producers within the province. OCO has taken advantage of these limited funds to develop our own Organic Directory and Data Portal.  However, with limited funds and no official accreditation oversight, OCO’s capacity to maintain and improve these resources is limited.

Final Thoughts

The Ontario government has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to supporting and promoting the growth of the organic sector. Although there has been an increase in both organic production and consumption in Ontario over the past few years, this success has been achieved in the absence of sufficient policy support from the province.

COTA’s State of the Market report concludes with a suite of recommendations designed to support organic farmers, including the creation of a Canada Organic Program, Organic Standards Development, the collection of accurate and reliable organic data, establishing a National Organic Transition Program, market development and processing/distribution infrastructure, risk management tools and access to land, credit and capital, workplace safety and availability and training programs.

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