Issue 178

A monthly journal of food system analysis - BACK ISSUE -

Who We Are
Current Issue
Back Issues

The Ram's Horn is supported solely by subscriptions & donations. If you are able to give a higher amount, your gift will subsidize a subscription for someone in need.

Subscription fees are

  • Canada: $20 regular, $50 patron
  • USA: $20US
  • Outside North America: US$26 (airmail delivery)

All cheques payable to
The Ram's Horn.

Contact us
for subscriptions
and information!

The Ram's Horn
S6, C27, RR#1
Sorrento BC
V0E 2W0
phone/fax: 250-675-4866

The Ram's Horn #178, March 2000

Standards and Hidden Agendas

The following was written as a contribution to the discussions that are to take place March 26-27 at theAGM of the Canadian Organic Advisory Board. I thank those with whom I consulted and those whocommented on earlier drafts, but take full responsibility for this analysis and any errors of fact.

Two years ago, a whirlwind of public protest (some 275,000 messages of rebuke) forced the U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) to withdraw its proposed standard for organic agriculture which wasa direct contravention, not to say betrayal, of the unequivocal recommendations of the National OrganicStandards Board (NOSB) which had a legal mandate to make the final recommendations for thestandards that would become law.

The revised standard has now been posted for a mandatory period of 90 days for public comment(everything is available on a dedicated website, http://www.ams.usda. gov/nop. The proposed US standardis explicit in its exclusion of genetic engineering, irradiation, hormones, and sewage sludge from organicagriculture. The USDA remains responsible for seeing the standards through the legislative process,and the Meat Grading and Certification Branch of the USDA is "designated as the competent authorityfor the assessment of organic certification agencies in compliance with the ISO Guide 65."

Canadian experience has parallelled that of the U.S. with the notable exception of any process forpublic comment or involvement.

The organic standards that began to appear about 15 years ago arose, by and large, out of theexperience of regional groups of growers, from the bottom up. As new problems arose and loopholes andomissions were discovered, agreement had to be reached among a growing diversity of farmers as towhat was acceptable under the organic philosophy and label. Remember, too, that throughout most ofthis period, so-called conventional industrial agriculture was led to regard organic farmers asincompetent freaks or, at best, misfit Luddites. This, combined with the total neglect of organicagriculture production and marketing by the provincial and federal governments (except for Quebec),contributed to a defensive attitude among many of the organic pioneers. Swimming upstream all thetime can be tiring!

For most of a decade (1988-1998), Agriculture Canada facilitated and provided on-and-off financialsupport for the development of organic standards in Canada, first through the Canadian Organic UnityProject (COUP) and then through the Canadian Organic Advisory Board (COAB). Most of the energyand skill that went into actually developing the current standard, however, was volunteered bydedicated organic farmers. It was a long hard process to get agreement on what should or should notbe included in the organic standards, a process made even more difficult by the ecological, linguistic andgeographic differences that constitute Canada. It is hard for horticulturalists in the southern interiorof BC to understand the outlook and concerns of grain farmers in Saskatchewan, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, without announcement and without either a parliamentary debate or committeehearings on the subject, the purpose and policies of Agriculture Canada (as well as Health Canada)were being fundamentally rewritten. In keeping with its right-wing, neo- liberal ideology, thegovernment began to systematically and deliberately withdraw from its legislated regulatoryresponsibilities for food and drug safety. The business of government is being redefined to limit itsresponsibility to the establishment of standards acceptable to industry which industry is thenresponsible for policing. The rationale offered is twofold: first, regulation is inefficient and stands in theway of progress, and second, no business would engage in unsafe practices or produce a harmful productthat could damage its standing in the marketplace. The marketplace, in this instance, refers primarilyto the stock market, not the public. Hence the shift in the language of regulation from serving andprotecting the needs of the public to meeting the needs of the regulator's business 'clients.'

Organic farmers who had been deeply involved in the development of their own local organicstandards, seeing themselves as a self-regulating 'industry', saw no grave difficulties with thisperspective, and it was not at all obvious what the federal government was up to. It was thereforerelatively easy for the government to entice the organic farmers and processors working on certificationstandards out of the domain of Agriculture Canada and into the arms of the Canadian GeneralStandards Board (CGSB "an organization within the federal department of Public Works andGovernment Services Canada") with a promise of funding the process of establishing a national organicstandard. Industry Canada (the ministry also responsible for the Canadian [pro-]Biotech Strategy)provided a grant of $200,000 to Agriculture Canada (I've also been told it was $380,000 for two years)with which COAB could hire the CGSB to do the job (at $800 per day). This has made it possible for the politicians and their bureaucrats to avoid the political issue ofQuebec, the legal issue of liability, and the ideological issue of regulating product rather than process.(This is particularly apparent in relation to biotechnology, where Agriculture Canada and the CFIAhave argued all along that they are not responsible for regulating biotechnology as a process, but onlythe products of biotechnology if and when they are deemed unsafe.)

It was never a matter of not having the facility to handle organic standards, because AgricultureCanada could have simply converted the standards and rules developed by the Canadian OrganicAdvisory Board into regulations under the Canadian Agricultural Products (CAP) Act. It could still doso. This would not make the national standard mandatory and alterable only by an act of Parliament. Acts of Parliament establish the legal authority, while the regulations which spell out the specifics of an act are added later by politicians and bureaucrats and can be changed by them as well. The CertifiedOrganic Associations of British Columbia (COABC), for example, can agree to a standards change atits AGM; these changes go to the provincial government and are made legally binding through an OrderIn Council.

To obscure its own manipulation, the government set up a smokescreen of complaints that theorganic growers could not get their act together and come to an agreement everyone could live with. Byturning the process over to the CGSB, agreement would not have to be reached amongst all the organicgrowers, just those appointed by the CGSB itself to sit on the voting committee.

"Approval of the Draft Standard is achieved by consensus, which is defined as substantialagreement by those involved in the preparation of the standard. Consensus implies much more than asimple majority, but it is not necessarily unanimity. In addition, an attempt must be made to resolve allobjections to the Draft Standard. Of the voting members, at least 60% must return their ballots and atleast 50% of all the Committee's voting members must be in favour of the Draft Standard." <>

The argument put forth along with the money was that ISO (International StandardizationOrganization) accreditation would be necessary to conform with international trade rules and that thiscan be achieved only though the sister organization of the CGSB, the Standards Council of Canada.

The International Standardization Organization is, like Codex Alimentarius, a voluntary bodyestablished under the United Nations "to promote the development of standardization and relatedactivities . . . with a view to facilitating the global exchange of goods and services. . . A member body ofISO is the national body most representative of standardization in its country." The member body of ISOin Canada is the Standards Council of Canada. <>

ISO 65 is the "guide" for accreditation of the non-profit organizations which, in turn, certifyorganizations within a country that actually uphold a particular standard, in this case, the standardfor organic certification. In Canada, the Standards Council of Canada is the registry, with a $35,000application fee (which COAB has already paid). The outcome is described on the COAB website thisway:

"Certified inspection agencies or third party inspectors that have met the minimum criteria of COAB .. .will provide inspection/evaluation reports on behalf of COAB. These reports are submitted to a newbranch of COAB, the Certification Secretariat . . .comprised of a panel of qualified experts that areindependent of the COAB. . . COAB will offer certification to any enterprise who [sic] meets thecertification criteria of the national standard. . . COAB will not delegate the function of issuingcertificates to independent agencies. For other certification bodies [such as any of those currently operating inCanada], using the COAB system will allow for a two-seal product label."

COAB would, obviously, have to become a substantial, and expensive, centralized organization,which would seem to contradict a fundamental characteristics of organic agriculture, namelydecentralization, diversity and locality. The cost would be borne by those using the service, i.e., theorganic farmers and processors desiring ISO certification. For provinces which already have aprovincial standard, provincial accreditation, and local Certifying Bodies (CBs), this would mean threelevels of regulation that farmers have to pay for.

The threat of being excluded from the European market is a major factor behind the CGSB/ISOpush. The COAB website states that after July 1, 1999, member states of the European Union will notimport organic products that are not certified compliant with the ISO Guide 65, thoughCOAB staff say the actual date for compliance is 2002.

Further enmeshing itself in the privatization and deregulation program of the federal government,COAB is currently applying for federal support under the Canadian Adaptation and Rural DevelopmentFund (CARD) "to develop the infrastructure and capability of COAB in building a national certificationsystem, and to coordinate and promote sustainable agriculture." (COAB Bulletin Vol.3, #1) Of course,CARD funding, like just about everything else the government does these days, requires an industry"partner" to match the 50% of the project cost that the government will provide. There is no indicationof who this "industry partner" is expected to be.

This whole process amounts to the privatization of the regulatory function of government in theinterests of facilitating international trade. Described this way, it is easy to see the consistency withgovernment trade policy and the government commitment to transnational corporations which hasnothing whatsoever to do with the integrity of organic agriculture and the honesty of its representationin the marketplace.

The transfer of the regulatory function to a private agency is a way of avoiding liability and thelegal mandate of the government to protect its citizens. It is important to remember that food inspectioncame about out of the need to protect citizens from the adulteration of food, adulteration being the termused to describe not just watering down the beer, but using whatever cheap substances could be foundto hide the smell of foods gone bad, to extend the quantity of food by adding chalk to cheese, sawdustto wieners, and similar practices. (Mind you, meat "extenders" are now a legally recognized product,as you can see from reading the ads in Meat & Poultry magazine or attending trade shows. If they arestill killers, they are slow enough to get by a regulatory system that now describes itself as the"approval process.")

Now the government is using the process by which the organic standards were moved into theprivate domain of the CGSB as a template to establish voluntary guidelines for the labelling of GEfoods. To relieve himself, as Minister of Agriculture, of his legal responsibility for the proper labellingof GE foods, the Minister got the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD) to take the lead inrequesting that voluntary labelling guidelines be developed by the CGSB. Agriculture Canada 'agreed'to fund the work, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the so-called Consumers Association ofCanada and the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada eagerly signed on. (See RH#173, Sept. 1999)The voluntary guidelines are now being developed by a committee of the CGSD dominated byappointees who can be expected to serve the interests of the biotech industry. The result is highlyunlikely to be a meaningful mandatory requirement for the labelling of all foods produced throughbiotechnology though we might expect to see voluntary guidelines that permit foods containing from1% to 5% GE components to be labelled as GE-free.

The deadline for completion of the labelling committee's work is the end of March. Is it justcoincidence that the decisive meeting of COAB, which is supposed to finalize its relationship to theCGSD and ISO 65, was inexplicably postponed for a month by the CFIA, to March 26-27?

There is still some confusion, for good reason, among organic farmers about what the CGSBprocess and ISO Guide 65 will actually mean in terms of cost and control. While organic growers arebeing told that they will have to have ISO certification to export into the global, and particularlyEuropean, market, it would be very unwise to organize one's life accordingly. The European Union isnot a single monolithic body; it is composed of a number of fairly independent power centres, such asthe EU Commission, the EU Parliament, and the member states themselves, and a decision by one armof the octopus does not mean that the other arms will cooperate or enforce the decision. For example,the US has been trying to break the EU's ban on hormone beef without success for years, and a WTOruling against Europe has not helped.

EU Extends Beef Hormone DeadlineOn February 9th the Standing Veterinary Committee of the European Commission extended the deadline for the US to satisfy monitoringrequirements for hormone-free meat exports by one month to give the US one last chance to meet the EC standards for hormone-free beef.A year ago EU inspectors found traces of hormones in 12-20% of beef samples from US slaughterhouses samples which were supposedto be hormone-free. This has posed a significant obstacle to resolving the broader dispute between the EU and US over the EU ban on US (andCanadian) hormone-treated beef. As part of a US attempt to settle the dispute, the US offered to label hormone-treated beef exports andincrease its non-hormone treated beef exports to the EU.The issue of hormone residues was aggravated last July when Swiss health inspectors discovered supposedly hormone-free beef imported fromthe US contaminated with DES, an illegal hormone. According to Swiss officials, 26 samples were tested: two were contaminated with DES andfive with melengestrol acetate.Some experienced exporters of organic grains say that ISO certification is irrelevant: they don'thave it, they don't need it, and business is just fine. What their customers want to know is where thegrain comes from, who grew it, and what the local certifying body is. In other words, it is thereputation, the brand name, if you will, of the certification body that is trusted. It is also the reputation,experience and vigilance of the exporter that sells organic grains, not some impersonal ISO number.

Then there is the philosophy of most organic farmers that organic should mean local orbio-regional: we should grow for the local market and trade the leftovers for the items we cannot growin our climate, such as coffee and oranges. There are a great many organic growers who want to anddo sell only into their local market, and for them local or regional certification is all that is needed. Conversations with people in the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool organic division, the Canadian WheatBoard, and traders-exporters of organic grainsd suggest that the CGSB/ISO route may be a costly andunnecessary encumbrance that will ill serve the development of healthy organic food systems withinCanada. There are also major players in the food industry who do not like the game being played withthe "voluntary labelling" of GE foods and feel that labelling standards are the responsibility ofAgriculture Canada and its minister, not a matter to be privatized under the CGSB.

When the process of developing an organic standard was shifted from Ag Canada to the CGSB,there was no way for organic growers and processors to know that they were being the developers ofa template that the government would subsequently use to relieve itself of its legal mandate to properlyregulate and label GE foods, but that is exactly what is happening.

The hidden agenda behind the switch from Ag Canada to the CGSB/ISO process is privatizationand harmonization for purposes of fulfilling the global marketing plans and ideology of the majortransnational corporations.

It seems to me that organic farmers and the organic trade need to take the lead in demanding thatAgriculture Canada, and the Canadian government, accept responsibility for implementing the organicstandards so painfully and labouriously developed by COAB and accept responsibility for the properregulation and labelling of GE foods. These two items are inseparable, if only because the unrestrictedgrowing of transgenic GE crops is going to have a major deleterious effect on organic agriculture.

We should not forget for a moment that, in the context of a government commitment to thepromotion of biotechnology since 1983, the direction it is pushing organic and GE can serve only theinterests of the TNCs engaged in biotechnology and the TNCs that exercise effective control over theindustrial food system. Nor should we overlook the fact that within weeks of the USDA releasing itsorganic standards that allowed the use of genetic engineering, the same thing happened in Canada. Ihave been assured that it was only a clerical error that caused all mention of genetic engineering in theCOAB standards to be dropped between the last draft approved by COAB and the draft that was sentout for a vote under the rules of the CGSB. The draft was promptly rejected, but questions were raised.If it was actually a clerical 'error', then the incompetence of the CGSB staff is alarming. A similar'clerical error' removed the term "inspection system", thereby allowing an individual to use the word'organic' without being member of a certifying body.

The plotters are still operating, with public financing thanks to the government, Industry Canadaand Agriculture Canada. It is time to put a stop to this.

Home | Who We Are | Current Issue | Back Issues | Books