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What Is "Certified Organic?"


Organic food is in demand more than ever. Yet most people aren't entirely clear on what "certified organic" really means.

Organic food is in demand more than ever. Yet most people aren't entirely clear on what "certified organic" really means.

Organic food was first grown and marketed in the '60s and '70s for personal consumption and for sale at farmers' markets and in health food stores. It was motivated by a perceived need for control over food sources and disenchantment with conventional food production. Consumers were concerned about the persistence of chemicals in their food. Food allergies and illnesses were identified as chemical-related.

People wanted good food, pure and simple.

And as the demand for organic food grew and markets expanded, the need for standardization and organic certification grew along with it. Along came "certified organic."

Today, certified organic products guarantee that growers have abided by the strict guidelines of an organic certifying body in order to grow and process their products be it grains, animal products, herbs, flowers or value-added products such as jams, breakfast cereals and packaged foods.

A product can only be labelled "certified organic" if the product meets these certifying standards. There are many certifying bodies, some regional and some international. Some are monitored more strictly than others, but the end result for the consumer is: If it says certified organic, then it is. The guidelines for certification are long and specific.

"Certified organic" represents a guarantee that the food is grown in an environmentally sensitive fashion. At a bare minimum, this means that there is no genetically engineered material, toxic or artificial substances involved at any step along the continuum from grower to consumer, including planting, growing, harvesting, processing, storing and transporting.

What Practices Do Certified Organic Farmers Use?

If a farmer wants to convert a farm from conventional to organic, there is a long transition process, usually three years, before the farm can be certified organic. During this time, the farmer works with an organic certifying body.

Organic farmers have to be very scrupulous about crop management. According to Organic Crop Improvement Association International Certification Standards, "Maintenance of soil health is the first line of defense against weeds, pests and disease." Techniques such as crop rotation, precise tillage and green manures maintain soil health, thereby managing pests, diseases and non-crop growth, commonly known as "weeds."

Organic farmers are known to say that "a weed is just a plant out of place."

Some organic pesticidal soaps and botanical insecticides may be used. These do not inhibit natural processes, are harmless to the environment and must be approved for use by the certifying body. There is a strict list as to what can and cannot be used specifically, no genetically engineered materials and no petroleum or chemical pesticides.

All certified organic products are stored and transported in a fashion that may not compromise the organic integrity and guarantees no prohibited materials are used.

Why Is There More Than One Label on Some Products?

Many organic farmers are certified by more than one body, starting with a regional certifier. If a product is only sold locally, the farmer may not feel the need for international certification.

If the farmer intends to export, international certification is required. It is important to note that local certification is no better or worse than international certification. The latter is more acceptable internationally because it is more broadly known and monitored.

Why Should I Buy Certified Organic Food?

Consumers often balk at the price of certified organic food. However, certified organic farms are labour-intensive and generally operate on a smaller, costlier scale. In contrast, conventional food prices are kept unnaturally low due to economies of scale enabled by the use of agrichemicals. World prices, free trade deals and low labour costs also contribute to unrealistically low prices.

In reality, all farmers are underpaid and food production is undervalued in Canada. Agricultural production is being eradicated. Good arable land is developed instead of used for growing food. Less than three per cent of Canadians are involved in agriculture today, as opposed to 45 percent at the turn of the century.

It is important for consumers to support local economy by growing or buying local organic products when feasible. And when you buy certified organic, you are voting with your consumer dollars for a sustainable future, and you're getting healthy food pure and simple.

The Wide World of Organics

Organic foods are grown on 15.8 million hectares of land across the globe, according to one of the most extensive studies on world organics released by the German eco-agricultural foundation SOEL. Australia leads the way with 7.7 million square hectares, followed by Argentina at three million. Countries in the European Union have more than 3.7 million hectares under organic management, while North America has only one million. The statistics are up-to-date as of February 2001. The full study, entitled "Organic Agriculture World-Wide Statistics and Perspectives," is available in English and German as a pdf file at the website

A Growing Canadian Industry

Presently at $1 billion a year, sales of organic produce is expected grow by 20 percent annually, to reach $3.1 billion by 2005. Organic farmers took in $600 million in 2000, which accounts for about 1.5 per cent of total farm cash receipts. The industry expects its market share to increase to 10 per cent of the Canadian retail market by 2010.

Source: Western Producer, Jan. 3, 2002, Agriculture Canada

Take Two Nuts

Here's an easy way to get your daily dose of selenium: Take two Brazil nuts daily for the desired level of 200 micrograms per day. The nuts must be unroasted to preserve their nutrients, as well as unshelled (shelled Brazil nuts contain only 12 to 25 mcg each). Unshelled nuts are also less likely to be contaminated by chemicals or mould. Look for ivory whiteness (yellow means they're rancid) and store them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh.

Source: The Moss Reports, Dec. 10, 2001,



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD