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Help is on the way for understanding organic food

A truce is holding in the age-old war between organic and non-organic food production.

For a long time, the two sides were at odds, often using emotion versus fact to try winning consumers. The rhetoric was downright nasty and misleading, pitting farmer against farmer and making relations uneasy between neighbours at farmers’ markets.

Consumers were scared into thinking that if food wasn’t organic, grown without the benefit of technology, there was something wrong with it. On the flip side, they were told organic food was not healthier than the food they were used to buying, and not worth the significant price difference.

Then came the local food movement, turning consumers heads towards foods’ origins rather than the methods used to produce it. Organic and conventional production both still had diehard fans and promoters, but suddenly it didn’t matter as much, as long as it was local. The animosity further dissipated as it became clear there was room for everyone in the marketplace.

However, that didn’t mean all the questions about either organic or conventional production had been answered for consumers seeking to make evidence-based decisions about food purchases. An that’s accelerated since the pandemic, with food security being a bigger part of our lives than ever.

On the organic side, one of the biggest questions is what constitutes “organic.” How can the term and the sector have credibility with consumers if unscrupulous producers use it as a marketing tactic rather than a production commitment?

The creation of organic certification some 10 years ago helped address this matter. Producers can call themselves organic if they want to – and explain to consumers their interpretation of the term – but if they can lay claim to being a certified organic farmer, it means they adhere to consistent standards agreed on by the sector.

Organic producers have their own advocacy group, the Organic Council of Ontario, representing more than 1,300 certified organic operators. It’s led the way in taking a measured, non-confrontational approach to promoting and expanding this growing part of the food industry.

A 2017 survey by the council of 580 organic and non-organic farmers showed the top three priorities for sector growth was general extension services, transition supports, and navigation of the Canadian Organic Regime, the arm of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency responsible for organic regulations.

As a next step, last week the council announced it was developing what it calls the Organic Resource Hub. This will be an online platform intended to provide comprehensive information about Ontario organic production and marketing. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are supporting its development. 

As the council explains, for decades, practical, economic, and scientific knowledge about organic production systems has been collected and dispersed by various institutions. But as a whole, this information has never been centrally available, either on a provincial or national level.

That can create confusion among producers who are trying to capitalize on organic production’s popularity, and among consumers genuinely looking to deeper.

The hub will be publicly available, so anyone can access information. Much of it will be operator-facing, focussed on matters such as managing certain pests, choosing a certifying body and international organic equivalency arrangements.

And for consumers, another portion of the hub will be about the Canadian Organic Standards, the latest research on the impact of organic, and so on.

“Most significantly for consumers, the hub will include a new and improved version of our organic directory so they can find organic businesses near them,” says the project coordinator Rebecca Minielly. “We’re improving search functionality so consumers can easily identify businesses that offer delivery, CSAs, or other services.”

The hub will be tested this winter and then launched in March.

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