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Certifiably Better


Discovering foods labelled "organically grown" is getting easier all the time--finding out what has gone into the growing and preparation of these foods may not be as simpl.

Discovering foods labelled "organically grown" is getting easier all the time finding out what has gone into the growing and preparation of these foods may not be as simple.

The groundwork for current chemical-based agricultural methods was laid during and after WWI, when poison gas was developed as an anti-personnel weapon. These chemicals, developed to immobilize the nervous systems of vertebrates (that's us!), were also discovered to be effective against insects that caused damage to agricultural crops. Suppliers of agricultural chemical weapons (pharmaceutical companies who manufacture prescribed drugs) moved the research into developing commercial applications for these products. They developed synthetic fertilizers at the same time and the face of farming was irreversibly changed.

Farmers were persuaded that their problems were over and that only prosperity lay ahead. Later on, however, after the end of WWII, a vocal community sprang up in opposition to the use of synthetic chemical agents in farming. The residual health effects of chemical exposure were evidently harmful to both human and animal life, as well as to insect "pests."

Arguing against the new university-trained advocates of soil science, proponents of this "organic" method stressed the importance of soil health and crop diversity. It was claimed that nature could do a better job of mobilizing the resources necessary to produce healthy crops. Nature did not need to rely on toxic additives. Farmers could use organic fertilizers and natural agents such as earthworms. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides brought down the level of biological vitality within the soil. Such chemicals impact negatively on the health and disease resistance of crops.

The controversy over who is right rages on, half a century later.

Truly Certified Organic

The message of organic agriculture is that farming is as much art as science. By watching the relationship between weather, soil and living organisms, the organic grower responds to changing conditions with techniques dictated by skills his experience has honed. The fine balance of keeping those variables harmonized is what designers of synthetic chemicals have abandoned in favour of aggressive techniques designed to control rather than utilize environmental factors.

Currently there are a number of organizations, some for profit, some non-profit, charged with the responsibility to inspect farms and processing facilities. All of these organizations adhere to minimum standards governing the length of time a farm must be free of chemical fertilizers, unapproved fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and additives such as growth hormones and antibiotics. One of the oldest and most widely known certifying bodies is the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Their handbook of standards is available on the web at (Beware when the product is labelled "certified" or "organic" but does not say by whom. A list of respected third-party certifiers operating in North America is available at

Quality Rules Quantity

Rising concerns about the health risks of chemicals in farming have forced the agrochemical industry to look towards genetic engineering to refashion their corporate image. The practical fallout from years of products that build up insect and viral resistance is that no amount of chemicals can protect crops that have been bred to maximize quantity of yield at the expense of quality of nutritional components. The genetic modification of plants to include DNA material of one species in the genetic structure of another has been touted as the way to have a safe environment and high yield farming.

Proponents of organic farming methods have been quick to label these new techniques of gene manipulation as incompatible with organic systems for many reasons:

  • There hasn't been a suitable period of time to develop a track record for possible unexpected developments stemming from unproven techniques of genetic engineering.

  • The use of plant stock genetically modified to tolerate herbicide use will increase the use of toxic chemicals in farming. (It's also likely that biological splicing into non-related species will result in stronger resistance in pests and viruses. It will lead to decreased efficacy of the methods now used by organic growers, such as Bt, a bacteriological means of fungal control.)

  • Crops which require pollination are going to be contaminated by neighbouring genetically engineered (GE) crops. It will be impossible to segregate the two, eliminating the ability of growers to offer the choice of GE-free foods to those segments of the market which choose them.

Because of this problem of drift, no iron-clad guarantee of crops being free of GE content can be made. Nothing prevents the drift of sprays from chemically managed farms from reaching organic crops. However, the certifying standards of the main agencies are all clearly laid out to disallow genetically altered seed from being used in production. They must also establish minimum safety corridors between adjoining acreages to cut down the possibility of contamination.

Perhaps the best way of ensuring genuinely organic foods is to shop with suppliers who can answer your questions knowledgeably and who, ideally, are supporters of organic agriculture for reasons personal as well as commercial.



10 Quick and Healthy Plant-Based Lunch Recipes

10 Quick and Healthy Plant-Based Lunch Recipes

Make your mid-day meal veggie forward and filling

Michelle von Hahn

Michelle von Hahn