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Highlights from the revised Canadian Organic Standards

December 21, 2020  By Laura Northey, Nicole Boudreau, Janet Wallace

After an intensive revision process, the 2020 Canadian Organic Standards (COS) have been approved by the Canadian General Standards Board Technical Committee on Organic Agriculture (the Committee), and are due for final publication this November.

Several major updates to the standards may have implications for fruit and vegetable growers.

Artificial lighting
In the 2015 standards, 100 per cent artificial lighting was prohibited. In the consultation leading up to the 2020 revision, many petitions suggested that this clause be reconsidered. After much debate, the Committee decided to allow 100 per cent artificial lighting in the draft for public comment, but only for crops harvested within 60 days of planting.


This proposal received unprecedented opposition, and was therefore reversed. In the 2020 standards, the only certified organic plants that can be grown under 100 per cent artificial lighting are annual seedling transplants started in winter or spring that will be transplanted within the operation (see section 5.3.3 and 7.5.4 of the revised Canadian Organic Standards), and sprouts, shoots and microgreens, as defined in section 7.4.

Crops grown in structures or containers (Formerly “greenhouse crops”)
Previously known as “Greenhouse crops,” clause 7.5 of the Canadian Organic Standards is now called “Crops Grown in Structures or Containers.” A revised introduction specifies what types of production are and are not covered by this clause, such as plants grown in unheated greenhouses, for season extension.

Defining soil and minimum soil requirements for crops grown in containers
Organic agriculture is based on growing plants in living soil, which supplies the bulk of nutrients. Therefore, some changes were made to the COS to ensure that crops grown in containers and season extension structures where supplemental heat, light, or CO2 were not provided, are not being grown in “quasi-hydroponic systems.” These changes require that:

  • The volume of soil in containers remains proportional to plant size, growth rate, targeted yield, and length of crop cycle,
  • the minimum amount of soil for crops not covered by (see below) is 2.5 L of soil per m2 of photosynthetic area per week of crop production time,
  • the maximum amount of soil required in any case is 60L/m2 of photosynthetic area,
  • crop production time is counted from the start of plant propagation (for example seeding, sticking of unrooted vegetative cuttings, divisions, etc.) until final harvest.

Section requires that for containerized, semi-indeterminate and indeterminate staked crops (for example, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant):

  • Additional compost applications shall be included in the fertility program, and
  • the maintained soil volume shall be at least 60 L/m² (1.2 gal./ft2), based on the photosynthetic area.
  • Interplanting short-lived crops among other crops (e.g., basil among tomatoes) or having multiple crop cycles within a year (i.e., cucumber) do not reduce this 60 L/m² requirement.

Parallel production
Despite continual debate throughout every revision of the Standards, the simultaneous production of organic and non-organic crops on one operation, known as “parallel production” continues to be prohibited in 2020. Although many arguments can be made to support this practice, including the case for import/export competitiveness, the Committee ultimately decided, once again, that allowing parallel production would make it too easy to either accidentally or intentionally mix organic and non-organic products.

One new exception regarding parallel production, however, is that for existing organic farms, it will be allowed during the last 24 months of the transition of new land added to an existing organic operation. In this case, it is essential that the crops are completely separated at harvest and storage. Meticulous records must be kept, and the transitional crop must be sold as non-organic.

Biodiversity and ecosystem health
The 2020 Standard includes a new clause that will require organic farmers to take concrete steps to support the diversity of life forms on their farms.

All farms will have to demonstrate that they promote and maintain biodiversity. For example, a greenhouse grower on leased land can plant wildflowers around greenhouses. A rancher can fence off lakes and streams to prevent livestock from accessing the banks of water bodies. Field crop producers and market gardeners can leave wild areas such as woodlots, shelterbelts and hedgerows between fields, and strips of flowering plants between crop rows, on their farms.

A note on the biodiversity clause suggests that “existing prairie, parkland, or wetland habitats should be maintained and enhanced wherever possible” (emphasis added). Although the goal of this addition is to encourage organic farmers to protect wild areas on their farms and take measures to increase biodiversity, the Committee decided that it is too difficult, at this time, to specify the types of habitat that should be protected.

An industry effort
The Canadian Organic Standards revision is an industry-led process organized by the Organic Federation of Canada (OFC) and supported by federal and provincial organic industry groups. The process requires extensive volunteer participation, and funding for the revision is difficult to procure, making broad communication of the process difficult. For more information on the review process, please visit

To support the 2025 standards revision process, please contact the OFC at

Producers who have questions about how the changes will affect their operations should contact their certifying bodies directly for support and information.

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