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Take the Guessing out of Organic

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So you’ve made the decision to buy organic. Now, how do you find it? Here are some basic guidelines on what to look for and some suggestions for reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals when organic food is not readily available.

So you’ve made the decision to buy organic. Now, how do you find it? Here are some basic guidelines on what to look for and some suggestions for reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals when organic food is not readily available.

If you buy organic from a store, a label offers important guarantees. The gold standard in organic labels is certification by an independent certification agency. Canada has 47 of them, and the label most commonly seen belongs to the Organic Crop Improvement Association. Others, seen often on organic food imported from the United States, include Farm-Verified Organic, California Certified Organic Farmers and Quality Assurance International. Their independence from government is a plus. When governments get into the organic act, they bring their own baggage.

In 1998, for instance, the US Food and Drug Administration tried to redefine organic to include sewage sludge fertilizer, genetic engineering and irradiation. Only the efforts of more than 200,000 people who took part in a write-in campaign blocked this effort to destroy organic’s good name. No one has more of a vested interest in preserving the highest standards for organic than working farmers, who rely on the reputation of the label to stay in business. This is a case where self-regulation serves the public interest better than government.

The Road To Organics

A farmer who wants to be certified applies to a certification agency, which arranges for a professionally qualified inspector to visit the farm. All farm management practices are reviewed and the inspector makes sure that chemical fertilizers and sprays haven’t been used for at least three years. Once certified, the farmer must maintain a paper trail on purchases and practices to enable continual monitoring by the agency. Farmers can also take advantage of educational and other programs offered by agencies to facilitate continual improvement.

Exacting standards create a problem for farmers during the transition to organic. For their first three years, they face all the challenges of a new way of farming but don’t qualify for the label that gets them a premium price for a premium product. As a result, some farmers who are moving towards organic follow pesticide reduction growing protocols, or Integrated Pest Management known as IPM. The idea behind IPM is to reduce pesticide use as much as possible: attract birds and bats that prey on insects, keep a close eye on emerging problems so they can be isolated, and use pesticides sparingly. Produce grown in this way will often have the designation "ecological."

Companies that want to sell certified organic processed goods–like bread, frozen entr? and salsas–must, like farmers, have their operations inspected and must keep the same rigorous paper trail. If most of the ingredients in a product are organic, then it can be called certified organic. If only some of the ingredients are organic, the manufacturer is allowed to list the organic ingredients but can’t claim that the entire product is certified organic.

Reclaiming the Natural Label

If you’re used to supermarket labels, the certified organic label is in a class by itself; most others are pure self-promotion. "Grade A," for instance, refers to size, shape or fat content; it bears little relationship to quality, healthfulness or safe farm practices. "All-natural" refers to whatever fantasy Madison Avenue hopes to conjure up in your mind. "Pure" sugar has none of the original nutrients and is 99.9 percent sweet nothing. "Brown," as in sugar or bread, refers to a color, usually provided by molasses or caramel, not to an organic process. To keep the word organic from being kidnapped in the same way that natural was stolen from the counter-culture of the 1970s, it’s important to keep your eye peeled for a certified organic label.

If you can buy food directly from an organic farmer you know and trust, a formal label is not the be-all and end-all. Labels play a role akin to brand names: in an anonymous market, they’re a trust mark you accept in place of knowing much about the personal integrity of the producer. When dealing directly with a trusted farmer, like when eating from your own organic garden, you don’t need a third-party endorsement. An organic farmer may have a credible reason for not getting a formal label. Some feel the expense and rigmarole of using labels aren’t worth it until sales reach a certain level, much like home-based entrepreneurs who postpone incorporating their businesses. Others just assume organic as a baseline while seeking a reputation and identity tied to their region or personal flair, much like Stilton cheese or French champagne. If the farmer is trustworthy, why get hung up on a piece of paper?

Practice Safe Food

If you’re not able to make a total switch to organic and have to resort to half measures, there are several ways to practice eating safe food and reduce your risks.

Buying local is usually a good bet. Food grown in the Third World has likely been sprayed with chemicals not permitted in Europe, the US or in Canada. The most infamous, DDT, is in widespread use. DDT sprayed on Central and South American plantations is carried away by air currents as far north as Canada, which accounts for the fact that the Great Lakes have DDT concentrations as high as they were when DDT was banned in Canada more than 20 years ago. Food from the US is much more likely than Canadian food to be grown from genetically engineered seeds or to contain growth hormones.

Food shipped locally for quick sale is also less likely to have been sprayed with methyl bromide (to keep away molds and fungus) than imported produce, especially from California and Florida. Methyl bromide is a suspected cancer-causer. It’s also a major culprit in the destruction of the ozone layer, which is linked to the rise of skin cancer. At the very least, local food is more likely to be fresh. The biggest losses of nutrients come from picking food before it’s ripe, so that it can withstand the long haul, and from the losses while in transit.

Several scientific and public interest groups have developed "dirty dozen" lists of fruits and vegetables that receive the most lethal doses of chemical toxins. The lists are all quite similar. Strike these off your non-organic shopping list: apricots, bananas, bell peppers, cherries, Chilean grapes, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, Mexican cantaloupe, potatoes, spinach and tomatoes. Tomatoes, in fact, top the list of foods treated with chemicals that are linked to cancer. The National Academy of Science in the US estimates there’s a risk of nine cancers per 10,000 consumer exposures. Given levels of tomato consumption in Canada, that theoretically means that every family faces a chance of contracting cancer from tomatoes at some point.

Many people scrub their produce with dishwashing liquid and remove the outer layer of peels and leaves to try to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals. There are limits to the effectiveness of this because some pesticides are embedded in the plant tissues. Also, be careful what soap you use for scrubbing food or plates. There are soaps especially formulated for this purpose.

When you make the decision to go organic, you’ll find that it’s not as hard as you might think, nor as costly.

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