By Bernard Pacyniak
Call it a victory for common sense. Last week at the Organic Trade Association (OTA)’s All Things Organic show in Chicago, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan presided over the signing of an organic equivalency agreement between the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Essentially, under the agreement, products certified by either the USDA or the CFIA will be able to cross their respective borders without taking their shoes off, I mean their certifications. The accord, which follows a review by both nations of the other’s organic certification program, says that products deemed organic in the United States can be sold in Canada as such and vice versa.
“This is the first step toward global harmonization of organic standards and marks a historic moment for the organic community,” the Deputy Agriculture Secretary told a standing-room audience at McCormick Place’s Lakeview Center.
Come July 1, certified organic proaducts can continue to move freely across the United States and Canada, provided they bear the new Canada Organic Biologique label or the USDA Organic seal.
“The production of organic foods is a vibrant opportunity for American agriculture, and by agreeing on a common set of organic principles with Canada, we are expanding market opportunities for our producers to sell their products abroad,” Merrigan said.
Chalk up one for the wonks in Washington and Ottawa. They got this one right. Instead of opting to demand double certification, the two agencies determined there was more commonality than irregularity.
Consider some of these facts: Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner, and it’s the largest estimated export market for U.S. organic products. According to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural office in Ottawa, more than 80% of Canada’s organic consumption comes from imports, 75% of those coming from the United States. Estimates of the total market for organic products in Canada range between $2.1 and $2.6 billion. U.S. sales of organic food products reached $24.6 billion in 2008.
So what’s the next step? Can we introduce equivalency on a global scale? Seems that’s going to be a lot trickier than simply having the U.S. and Canadian national anthems sung at hockey games.
For starters, the United States and Canada food cultures – while still distinctive – are similar. Getting the USDA’s National Organic Program standards to pass muster with the European Union’s or Japan’s Japanese Agricultural standards has and will continue to be more challenging.
That doesn’t mean agencies and governments haven’t been trying. Everyone recognizes the benefits derived from simplifying trade: more growth.
Efforts date back to the beginning of this century. The first formal get-together took place in Nuremberg, Germany, in 2002, where the Conference on International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture was held. The conference sowed the seeds for establishing a task force, which surfaced in 2003 as the International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalency in Organic Agriculture (ITF).
After six years, ITF came up with two practical tools, launched late last year, aimed at easing trade barriers in organic agricultural products.
The first, Equitool, help decision-makers assess whether an organic production and processing standard applicable in one region of the world is equivalent – that is, not identical, but equally valid – to another organic standard. This tool facilitates trade while safeguarding organic production according to local socio-economic and agro-ecological conditions.
The second tool, IROCB (International Requirements for Organic Certification Bodies) is a minimum set of performance requirements for organic certification bodies that will enable import of products certified under foreign control systems.
It’s unclear how effective these will be in facilitating global equivalency. Nevertheless, it’s a start. In the interim, let’s give a loud hockey cheer to all those in Canada and the United States that delivered organic equivalency … “They scored!”