Organics: Hype or Hope?

What you need to know

Organics: Hype or Hope?

Do you buy organic products because you don’t want pesticides in your food? In a world where persistent toxic chemicals pollute the oceans and DDT has been found in Antarctic snow, perhaps you’ve wondered if it’s possible to buy anything that’s truly pesticide free.

Although organic is often assumed to mean “pesticide free,” in fact, the Canadian National Standard for Organic Agriculture is careful to note that “the term organic isn’t synonymous with ‘pesticide free.’ ” Instead, in the US and Canada, foods may be labelled as organic when certifying agencies verify they have met a set of industry standards.

Defining Organic

There are now 27 privately run certifying agencies that ensure grower and manufacturer compliance with the organic National Standard in Canada. At present, however, certification of products as organic is voluntary in all provinces except Quebec.

The Organic Production System Task Force, an industry-driven initiative in concert with the federal government, is currently drafting what is expected to become, by the end of 2006, a mandatory national standard. Certification of organic products across Canada will be regulated. The federal government will administer the proposed standard and, using private inspection agencies, conduct random testing for compliance with the standard in all provinces. The new standard is expected to increase consumer confidence in organic products and boost sales. But just what, exactly, is organic if it isn’t pesticide free?

The current standard doesn’t specifically define the term “organic,” but it does outline agricultural practices that are acceptable for organic farms, and it lists chemicals that are permitted and prohibited in organic crop and livestock production, storage, processing, and labelling. The standard outlines six general principles that organic farmers should follow to meet organic production standards.

Pesky Pesticides

Why isn’t organic agriculture guaranteed to be untainted with pesticides? According to the National Standard, “by themselves, organic practices cannot ensure that organic products are entirely free of residues of prohibited substances and other contaminants, since exposure to such compounds from the atmosphere, soil, ground water and other sources may be well beyond the control of the operator.” In other words, it’s a very polluted world out there, and it’s impossible to guarantee produce that’s pesticide free. Furthermore, a limited number of natural pesticides, such as sulphur, copper, and pyrethrins, are permitted in organic agriculture.

While the definitive scientific study on the health impacts of natural pesticides has not yet been done, they are used sparingly and appear to break down rapidly in the environment, leaving little residue. Most organic growers use natural pesticides rarely, preferring to mitigate pests and disease with mechanical and cultural means, such as insect predators, use of disease-resistant plant varietals, and beneficial soil micro-organisms.

An analysis of data collected from the late 1980s to 1999 by the US Organic Center has shown that while organic produce may not always be 100-percent pesticide free, conventionally grown crops are three to four times more likely to contain pesticide residues than organically grown crops. In addition, conventionally grown foods are eight to 11 times more likely to contain multiple pesticide residues than organic foods, and to contain residues at levels 10 times higher, on average, than organics. Further, while levels of pesticide residues on any one crop may be below “acceptable” levels, the long-term cumulative effects of exposure to multiple pesticides poses a health risk to which many consumers aren’t willing to expose themselves or their children.

What health risks do synthetic pesticides pose? The Canadian Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development issued a report in 2000 that linked pesticides with “cancer (brain, breast, stomach, prostate, and testicles), childhood leukemia, reduced fertility, damage to the thyroid and pituitary glands, lowered immunity, developmental abnormalities, and behavioural problems.” These aren’t risks you want to incur by eating your carrots.

The Nutrient Factor

There are other reasons to choose organic. Study after study shows that in addition to containing less toxic pesticides, organically grown foods provide more nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts. Organic crops show higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and chromium as well as higher levels of antioxidants, possibly because of the nutrient-rich soil in which they grow.

Plums, peaches, pears, and potatoes have all tested for greater concentrations of nutrients, and the oft-cited Worthington study (published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, January 1998), which analyzed 50 years’ worth of literature comparing organic and conventionally grown produce, concluded not only that “the data indicate higher nutrient content in organically grown crops” but also that “animal studies showed better growth and reproduction in animals fed organically.” Studies are now determining whether organically grown food will produce better long-term health in humans, too. It seems likely that people eating more nutrient-rich organic foods will provide the researchers with similar conclusions as the animals in previous studies.

In addition, by buying organic, consumers are getting foods that are free of genetically engineered organisms, whose health risks are still largely unknown. They aren’t consuming foods that have been irradiated, and they’re not eating meats containing antibiotics and growth hormones (xenoestrogens). Organically certified foods haven’t been packaged or prepared with harmful food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and artificial colours and flavours. By any measure, organic foods are healthier.

Better for Biodiversity

They are healthier for the planet, too. The organic imperative is to protect biodiversity at every level, from soil bacteria on up. Native plants and animals are respected rather than obliterated. Organic agricultural practices substantially reduce agrochemical pollution (pesticide runoff polluting soil, rivers, and lakes). Furthermore, sewage sludge containing toxins (used in industrial farming as a crop fertilizer) may not be used on organic fields. The Rodale Institute’s study, Farming Systems Trial, compared conventional and organic farming methods and found that organic farming practices effectively reduced greenhouse gas emissions and used as much as 50 percent less energy than industrial farming.

Organic practices are also better for animals, which enjoy a much higher standard of living than those raised on factory farms. The Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia, for example, ensures that “organically raised animals are fed a certified organic diet. They are never fed the by-products of other animals and never given artificial hormones. For a farm to be certified [organic], its animals must be allowed outside for fresh air and exercise.” Animals raised organically aren’t crowded into massive mechanical warehouses or squeezed into tiny battery cages as they are on factory farms.

Buying into it

Organics are healthier for us and for the planet–but they often cost more at the checkout counter. Using fewer pesticides means more hand weeding, making labour costs higher. Organic fertilizers and compost are often more expensive than conventional, and the use of cover crops and crop rotation (which help maintain the health of the soil) add to farmers’ expenses, as well. Because of the certification processes currently in place, administrative costs are also higher for organics.

There are hidden costs to conventionally grown foods, however, including those for environmental remediation of contaminated water supplies and treating the long-term health effects of pesticide use on both farm workers and consumers. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, environmental damage from agricultural pollution costs $34.7 billion US a year. The Organic Farming Research Association notes that “if all the indirect costs of conventional food production were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same or be cheaper than conventional food.”

Consider going organic and beyond by supporting locally grown organics. It is estimated that organic retail sales growth totalled about $3.1 billion in 2005. Increased consumer demand will drive prices down, making organics not just a luxury item but also an affordable health-conscious choice for all.

The Six Principles of Organic Agriculture

The National Standard of Canada for Organic Agriculture is based on these six general principles:

  1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity, and promote a sound state of health.
  2. Replenish and maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
  3. Maintain diversity within and surrounding the enterprise and protect and enhance the biological diversity of native plants and wildlife.
  4. Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
  5. Provide attentive care that promotes the health and behavioural needs of livestock.
  6. Maintain the integrity of organic food and processed products from initial handling to point of sale.

Source: Canadian General Standards Board, Organic Standard, CAN/CGSB-32.310-99, www.pwgsc.gc.ca/cgsb/032_310/32.310epat.pdf.

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