ORGANIC EXPLAINED: Urban Hippie looks at what “organic” really means
Eating & Drinking

ORGANIC EXPLAINED: Urban Hippie looks at what “organic” really means

Urban Hippie by Jen Lahey is published every second Tuesday Follow Jen on Twitter ‏@Jen_Lahey.

Eating organically grown produce and products is all the rage these days, and the UH got wondering: what exactly does ‘organic’ mean in Canada? When you bite into that delicious apple, or seek out a piece of local, organic chicken, what kind of work has gone into growing it in order for it to have earned the almighty label of ‘organic’?

According to the website of Centre for Systems Integration (CSI), one of Ottawa’s organic certifying bodies, “organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

In order to be certified as ‘organic’, a grower or food producer has to follow a set of guidelines outlined in a Canadian regulation that came into effect on June 24, 2009.  According to CSI’s site, getting certified against the regulations involves “annual on-site inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping, and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the standards.”

The regulations themselves are quite detailed (as would be expected), but the UH decided to delve into it a bit and see what kind of things it takes to qualify as ‘organic.’ Here’s just a few notes from the regulations:

  • To begin with, producers have to follow the stipulations for at least 12 months prior to the first harvest of products in order to be certified organic.
  • When it comes to soil fertility, organic producers rely on techniques such as crop rotation, and incorporating plant and animal matter that is also organic.
  • What about weeds and pests, which conventional farmers blast away with pesticides and other organic no-no’s? According to the regulations, “[p]est, disease and weed control shall be centred on organic management practices aimed at enhancing crop health and reducing losses caused by weeds, disease and pests. Organic management practices include cultural practices (e.g. rotations, establishment of a balanced ecosystem, and use of resistant varieties) and mechanical techniques (e.g. sanitation measures, cultivation, traps, mulches and grazing).” But what about when that’s not enough? The regulations have an answer for that: in those cases, a “biological or botanical substance” can be applied, along with other approved substances.
  • What about livestock? For starters, chickens considered organic have to originate from stock that have been given no medications, except for vaccines. Animals used for milk production have to have been “under continuous organic management for at least one year,” while animal used for meat “shall have been under continuous organic management from the beginning of the last third of the gestation period.”
  • As far as what the animals are fed, the organic producer is not allowed to give livestock any of the following: “feed medications or veterinary drugs, including hormones and prophylactic antibiotics, to promote growth; approved feed supplements or additives used in amounts above those required for adequate nutrition and health maintenance for the species at its specific stage of life,” (my read: no feeding to promote faster growth than is natural, a norm in conventional animal farming), “feed that contains mammalian or avian slaughter by-products, feed that contains synthetic preservation agents; feed that contains synthetic appetite-enhancers or synthetic flavour-enhancers; feed that includes formulas containing manure or other animal waste or synthetic colouring-agents. Animals must have fresh water available,” and force feeding ducks and geese (the standard way of producing foie gras) is prohibited. Sounds good to us!
  • When it comes to how animals are housed, the living conditions are much, much sunnier for organically raised animals than for conventional ones. The regulation stipulates, amongst many other things, that animals must have “access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, rotational pasture, exercise areas, fresh air and natural daylight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment; access to fresh water and high-quality feed in accordance with the needs of the animal; sufficient space and freedom to lie down in full lateral recumbency, stand up, stretch their limbs and turn freely, and express normal patterns of behaviour.”
  • That last bit about being able to move around and express normal patterns of behavior is pretty significant considering the conditions that the vast majority of conventional animals are raised in (hint: nothing close to the ones described above.) Minimum space allotments for each animal are outlined as well, and they’re much, much roomier than those allotted for conventional animals raised for food. (As an example, a source at the Chicken Farmers of Canada said that chickens raised for meat, or ‘broilers’ are required to have a certain amount of space, which is 31 kilos per square metre, or about 14 birds per square metre. Organically raised chickens allows only 21 kilos of birds in that 1 square metre of space, or about 9 birds, if the organic birds are as large as the conventional ones, which they may not be, given the feeding standards.)

Of course, these are just a few highlights. For the full text of the regulation, check out the Public Works and Government Services site.