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On Board for Organics

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Organic foods are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian agricultural sector. In each</EM> of the past 10 years, sales have increased 20 percent in Canada, and worldwide annual sales of organic products are now estimated at $20 billion..

Organic foods are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian agricultural sector. In each of the past 10 years, sales have increased 20 percent in Canada, and worldwide annual sales of organic products are now estimated at $20 billion.

More people are taking the time to search out healthier, organic food. A British Columbia survey done by the Certified Growers Association in late 2003 showed that just over half of grocery shoppers purchased organic food in the past year. Nearly half of those said they would be buying even more organic foods in the future.

People have many reasons for choosing organic foods, but the main reason is better health. People are concerned studies showing connections between conventional agricultural methods and cancer, chronic illness, birth defects, and immune-system deficiencies. They may also be skeptical about statements that genetic modification and food irradiation are safe practices or that feeding antibiotics to animals is necessary. Better taste and nutrition are two other primary motivations in choosing to eat organic products.

There are benefits to organic food production that go beyond the immediate interests of the consumer. Organic agriculture, which doesn't rely on pesticides, is less harmful to the environment, and organic livestock production is more sensitive to concerns about animal welfare and treatment.

Fruits and vegetables are the most common purchases, with dairy/eggs and grains/cereal products following as the next most common. Organic meats/poultry and packaged foods/prepared meals are less commonly purchased.

You can get organic food from a variety of sources; natural food stores, grocery stores, farmers' markets, or home-delivered by one of the specialty organics delivery services that have become more popular in the past five years.

Organic or Ordinary?

When you walk the aisles of your favourite food store, the variety of labels can be confusing. Organic, certified organic, pesticide-free, all natural, free-range - do they all mean the same thing? Is one group a subset of another? Can something be pesticide-free but not organic?

"Organic" is a specific description that has been adopted by farmers and livestock producers who use certain methods of growing food and managing their farms. Organic foods are produced without chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides. Irradiation is not used during processing and the foods are not genetically engineered. In the case of livestock production, antibiotics are used only to treat infection. Growth hormones are not used and the animals are fed organic feed.

The term "organic" is not a guarantee of superior nutrition or better taste, although many consumers believe the connection exists. It is used in our stores simply as a label for a type of food production. However its authenticity is not guaranteed.

Certainly Certified Organic

Certified organic means the product and the way it is grown have been inspected and verified.

A certified organic product must be grown on farmland that has been free of chemicals for a minimum of three years. A formal inspection gives a grower or producer the right to label his or her product certified organic. Farmers and inspectors leave a paper trail of detail about the way the food was grown. Many farmers point to the costs of the inspection system as a major factor in the higher cost of organic food. The price also includes higher labour costs for controlling weeds and pests, naturally.

The inspection systems in Canada are voluntary and are run on a province-by-province basis. However, there is an initiative to create a national system that would stand up to the international standards of countries that buy Canadian organic foods. A significant portion of Canada's organic food is exported.

In British Columbia, farms that have been inspected and meet the standards can label their products as certified organic with a special mark: a box with a check mark within it. "Transition to organic" is a term used by producers who are using organic methods but have yet to complete the required three-year chemical-free period.

In addition to these products, you may see products that have been certified by another province, state, or country.

Organics Abroad

Since October 2002, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has run a national labelling system (although individual states can still maintain their own certification programs). If it is labelled "100 % Organic," then all ingredients and inputs are organic. If it is labelled "Organic" with the USDA seal, it has been certified to contain 95 to 100 percent organic ingredients. Produce and other foods that have at least 95-percent organic ingredients will show the USDA seal - a circle enclosing the words "USDA ORGANIC" - indicating a certified organic product. The words "Made with Organic Ingredients" on an American product mean the food is at least 70 percent organic.

US meat certified as organic must come from livestock that has been given access to the outdoors, reared on organic feed, and not treated with hormones or antibiotics.

Not all farmers who use organic methods choose to pursue certification. Certification is voluntary, and some farmers choose not to pay the additional costs of inspection or commit to the additional paperwork. While the certified organic label guarantees that the growing conditions have been inspected and verified, a product labelled simply as "organic" may (or may not) be grown in a chemical-free environment.

In the US, consumers have the added protection of knowing that people who intentionally sell or label a product organic when it is not, face a fine of up to $10,000 for each violation. Fines are also levied in Quebec.

How Natural is Natural?

People are often puzzled by the word natural. Natural is not a very specific term - it can mean many things. It is not interchangeable with organic or certified organic. While a product may truthfully claim to contain all natural ingredients, this tells you nothing about the growing conditions, the use of chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, or irradiation.

Pesticide Free

Pesticide free doesn't mean the same thing as organic, either. While no product in today's world that is absolutely likely to be pesticide free, several studies have shown that there are far fewer pesticides on organically grown products and what is there degrades quickly and rarely leave residue. Certain producers, processors, or packagers may use the phrase pesticide free as a description, but it is one without the backing of an inspection system.

How Free is Free-Range?

Free-range describes living conditions of birds and animals and means the animal has not been confined to a barn or a pen. It does not mean that the product is organic or could qualify as certified organic label. Hormones, antibiotics, or non-organic feed may have been used on that farm.

The boom in healthy eating and the food producers' and packagers' rush to the market with various products and labels are compelling food inspection agencies and departments of agriculture in many countries to examine ways to clarify the confusion.

Use Only Organic - Not Ordinary

While there is controversy about the extent of the difference, studies show that organic foods contain fewer pesticides, fewer food additives, less nitrate, and more nutrients and phytonutrients. Therefore, for those who want to make the effort to eat healthier, purchasing organically grown fruits, vegetables, and grains is an excellent first step.

The Environmental Working Group has issued a guide to pesticides found in produce. The 12 popular fruits and vegetables most like to show pesticide residues are: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. The lowest concentration of pesticides were found in asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas. If you are concerned about pesticides in your food, always buy certified organic.

Some studies have shown that not only are organic foods safer, they also contain more nutritional value&more magnesium, more potassium, manganese, iron, and copper. Organic tomatoes were found to yield 500 percent more calcium than conventional tomatoes, and organically grown oranges 30 percent more Vitamin C. A study done in the UK and published in the journal New Scientist (2002) found that organic soups have almost six times more salicylic acid, than non-organic soups. Salicylic acid helps prevent hardening of the arteries and bowel cancer.

While the increased nutrients in specific organic produce cannot be generalized across all the categories of food, choose organic whenever possible for better nutrition and health.

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