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Organic or Gimmick? What You Need to Know About Organic Foods

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Ah, organic foods. Mysterious and pretentious. Some people swear by organic foods to avoid the "hidden dangers" of conventional products, whereas others completely ignore anything organic, equating the term organic with expensive.

Regardless of the variety of opinions, the organic industry in Canada is alive and well: according to a recent study, Canada's organic market is now the fourth largest in the world, valued at over $3.5 billion annually. I have been dabbling in this market, but have been struggling to determine the value of eating organic meat to avoid hormones, organic produce to avoid pesticides and free range eggs to avoid... well, there must be a reason they're twice as much money, right? Exactly. Here are my findings...

First thing's first: organic does not equate to healthy. I've seen organic potato chips, organic cookies, and organic candies. Much like the terms "low fat" and "all natural" don't translate to healthy, organic also falls into this category. Don't be fooled by food labels! Now with that bit of house-cleaning out of the way, let's talk turkey...

What Does Organic Even Mean?

Organic has different meanings in different countries, but the definition of organic farming according to the Parliament of Canada is:

Organic farming is based on a simple principle, namely, strict respect for the links and natural balances among soil, plants and animals (animals nourish the soil, which nourishes plants). To this is added the constraint of a prohibition on synthetic chemicals.

From this principle and constraint follow a number of agricultural practices that distinguish organic from conventional farming, including:

• a prohibition on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, plant and animal growth regulators, hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, etc.;
• a prohibition on GMOs;
• a prohibition on soil-less culture (which does not preclude greenhouse growing);
• the requirement, in the case of animal production, to allow free-range practices, to use organically produced feed, to limit animal density in buildings, etc.; and
• the requirement to observe conversion periods in crop production before any produce can be marketed as "organic," etc.

Supporters of organic farming add a social and ethical aspect to the definition of organic farming, because they see in it a means of preserving a human dimension in agriculture, one that is respectful of the environment and in touch with the consumer.

Another definition, from the General Principles and Management Standards of organic farming in Canada states that organic production must include the following:

• Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.
• Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
• Maintain biological diversity within the system.
• Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
• Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
• Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing, and handling methods in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production.
• Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.

In a nutshell, "organic" basically means that a product is either grown in chemical pesticide-free soil or raised on chemical pesticide-free feed, without the use of antibiotics, hormones and GMO seeds/feed. With this in mind...

Why Eat Organic?

People typically choose organic products for one of the following reasons:

- Environmental impact

- Nutritional profile

- Animal welfare

- Fear of possible health issues from GM feed/seeds, from antibiotics, from hormones and from synthetic pesticides.

Other reasons may very well exist, but these are the big ones. Let's address these reasons...

Environmental Impact

Organic agriculture is touted as being better for the environment because the concept is to promote sustainability, along with other green practices such as conserving energy, enhancing biodiversity, minimizing nutrient losses, and reducing pollution. The issue is that organic agriculture is not always superior to conventional agriculture when it comes to these environmental practices.

Studies have shown that while some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. In general, for example, conventional farming techniques allow more food to be produced on less land than with organic methods, leaving more land for wildlife and other productive purposes. So whereas organic farming may have a lower overall energy cost, they take up more land and have a higher potential for eutrophication. In the end, there are many factors to consider when comparing the environmental impact of conventional vs. organic farming, and difference between the two is much closer than organic advocates may have you believe.

Nutritional Profile

Some people will argue that organic foods offer more nutrition than conventional products. According to studies on produce, there simply isn't the data to back up this claim; the vitamin and mineral yields of organic produce is no better or no worse than that of conventionally-grown foods.

There are however some small benefits to eating organic meats. As I've mentioned before, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the North American diet is extremely out of whack. People tend to consume far more inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3. Organic meats, notably grass-fed beef, may contain higher levels of omega-3 due to their more favourable diet. Again though, this is a very small difference, and you still need to consume fish sources to get two of the three beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in your diet (hello fish oil, a.k.a. EPA and DHA).

Animal Welfare

Some organic consumers choose organic meat because organic farming is more humane than conventional farming. Sadly, this really isn't the case. Although there are different regulations, the organic farming method is arguably only slightly more humane -- organic labels on meat, dairy products, and eggs can be misleading. Take eggs for example -- "Cage-free" eggs essentially means that the eggs came from a small barn crammed full of thousands of hens with no outdoor access. "Free-range" eggs means that the hens must have occasional access to an outdoor space- however the "outdoors" might be nothing more than a tiny dirt pen that's only accessible through a small hole in the wall of the crammed barn, occasionally available to the hens. Conditions of living may be slightly better, but the animals are still slaughtered in a similar fashion. Buying organic does not guarantee animal welfare.

Fear Of Possible Health Issues

This is the main reason that I began to consider buying organic products. I'd heard many conflicting things about everything from pesticides to antibiotics and hormones to GM seeds, and this made me challenge what I was putting into my body. So was this concern justified? Let's discuss...

Seeds: The Canadian Organic Standards (COS) requires that organic farmers use certified organic seed. However for some products, it is sometimes extremely difficult for commercial growers to obtain sufficient quantities of certified organic seed. In this case, growers must provide documentation proving that they have made at least three phone calls to organic seed providers. If they are still unable to obtain enough organic seed, they can use non-organic, GMO-free seed. For this reason, it is impossible to know if organic products are actually grown from organic seeds. And because the non-organic seeds are cheaper, organic growers can save money by contacting only seed dealers unlikely to have organic seed. This often leaves the Canadian organic seed supplier with unpurchased organic seed at the end of the planting season. Essentially, seeds may be organic, but there is no guarantee.

Produce: The big concern here is pesticides -- herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, etc. Most think that organic farming doesn't employ these chemicals, but organic farming allows the use of naturally-derived pesticides (from plants, soils, bacteria, etc. instead of being made in a lab) many of them also quite toxic. So really, the only difference is the use of toxic synthetic chemicals instead of toxic natural chemicals.

Additionally, organic produce may have a higher risk of microbial contamination, which has proven more lethal than the residues from synthetic pesticides. The bottom line is that you should always wash your produce thoroughly before eating it, because the odds are exceptionally high that there is something unwanted on the skin of the product. Out of interest, this link confirms the training/licensing required to purchase/use pesticides and the restrictions around their use.

Eggs: The only difference between organic and conventional eggs are the small living condition exceptions of "Free-range" and "Cage-free" eggs, along with a difference in feed -- organic hens consume feed that is GMO-free.

Antibiotics: This is something I don't fully understand. Some people go out of their way to get flu vaccines and to self-medicate with over-the-counter drugs, but refuse to eat animals who have been treated for their illnesses. It's weird -- we put certain antibiotics and other drugs into our systems voluntarily, so why is there such a stink over eating the meat of another animal that had been treated in the same manner? Doesn't this just guarantee that the animals are as healthy as possible? I can't understand the big controversy over antibiotics. With that being said, you must buy organic meat and milk to guarantee that the animal was never treated with antibiotics. Eggs on the other hand are all antibiotic-free, so no worries there.

Hormones: Some animals are given hormones to accelerate their growth or to increase their milk production. In Canada however, only cows are subject to such hormones -- you must therefore buy organic beef and milk if you want to ensure that it is hormone-free. Chickens, pigs and other animals are never administered hormones.

Additional Notes

- Some argue that organic agriculture can't produce enough food, with some experts saying that it will only condemn more people to hunger, malnutrition and starvation due to lower crop yield. Other experts claim hunger is a consequence of poverty and landlessness and has nothing to do with a lower yield from organic farming. The topic is a hot question for debate: Is organic farming even a viable option for our booming human population?

- The Canadian Organic Standards actually does allow GMOs in some Canadian organic production, including the routine usage of a milk-curdling enzyme made from genetically modified E. coli in making organic cheese. There are indeed exceptions to the organic rules.

- Both conventional and organic farming share many eco-friendly and sustainability practices such as cover crops and rotations to minimize soil erosion and fertility. Some believe that only organic farmers are using these practices, but the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) recommends 30 per cent residue to be left on the soil to control erosion. OMAF also highly recommends using IPM (integrated pest management) so that conventional farms use only the bare minimum of pesticides and only in areas of the field that need it -- soil testing tells farmers which areas of the field need which kind of fertilizer and how much to use. Farming has become very precise in application so as to avoid over using products, to save costs, and to cause less impact to the environment and beneficial agricultural organisms (i.e. bees).

- Don't trust labels blindly. Here is what certain labels actually mean:
  • 100 per cent organic: Product must contain 100 per cent organic ingredients.
  • Organic: At least 95 per cent of ingredients are organically produced.
  • Made with Organic ingredients: At least 70 per cent of ingredients are organic.
  • Free-range or Free-roaming: Essentially meaningless.
  • Natural or All natural: Meaningless.
  • Antibiotic-free: Meaningless.

In Conclusion...

No matter what kind of food you consume, there are inherent risks with crops and meat from both organic and conventional systems. In the end, it comes down to personal choice. Personally, I see no need to buy organic eggs or chicken, but I'm going to try to eat local grass-fed beef whenever possible. Regarding produce, I'm far more comfortable with the lower microbial risk of conventional farming; there simply isn't a big enough difference here to for me to justify the consumption of organic fruits and veggies -- my goal is to get everything as local as possible. As time marches on, both farming systems will evolve and eventually hopefully we can find a way to incorporate the best of both worlds to make efficient and effective farming practices that work for society and farmers alike.

For those interested in reading more about Ontario farming practices, I highly recommend reading The Real Dirt on Farming II, a document created by Farm and Food Care Ontario. This will give you additional insight into the farming practices in this province and help answer any other questions that you may have.

- DW

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