The road to understanding how our food system works is long and hard. At the end of the Second World War, the world saw an opportunity to help everyday families spend less time in the kitchen and more time at work; we rapidly turned something as simple as food into a massively complex and profitable business. Before industrialized farming there was no need to label foods as “organic” because this was really the only way to practice farming. However, with the incoming of industrialized farming, there also came the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, and eventually genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Once this happened, not only did consumers have to worry about what ingredients were in their processed foods but they also had to be concerned with how their food was grown.
Before we can get into the pros and cons of choosing organically produced foods, we first have to understand what organic means. Organic is defined by the farming practice by which foods are produced. Organic foods are grown without man-made pesticides or fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs. Animals that are raised organically are also fed exclusively organic feed. Every country has its own specific guidelines on organic labeling. In Canada, the federal government created The Canada Organic Regime in 2009 to implement regulations on organic agriculture within the country. Among many parameters on farming practices, a product that bears the certified organic logo must also contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for monitoring and enforcing these regulations. Unfortunately the certification itself is quite expensive which prohibits some smaller farms from attaining the documents. I’ll speak more to this later on in the post.
Is organic more nutritious? There is not enough scientific evidence to suggest that eating organic is more nutritious than eating their non-organic equivalents. Although there are some studies that show slightly higher amounts of certain micronutrients in specific fruits and vegetables, there isn’t reason to believe that these higher levels improve overall nutrition and health. There are so many different factors that affect the nutritional content of foods, including soil quality, climate, harvest technique and timing, processing, travel time, and storage. All of these factors play a role in the nutrition profile of fruits and vegetables, which ultimately makes it difficult to conduct these studies.
What about pesticides? When it comes to pesticides, organic foods might have lower levels of pesticide residue on the final products. Pesticide use in non-organic farming is strictly regulated and upper limits are set at safe levels to reduce harm whether you are eating organic foods or not. Regardless of the farming practice, all your fruits and veggies should be washed under cold running water before eating or cooking to remove any residue.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a list called The Dirty Dozen that specifies fruits and vegetables with the highest amount of pesticide residue. Generally speaking, these fruits and veggies have thinner skins and outer layers that are edible, which makes them more susceptible to having higher pesticide residue. The EWG also put together a list of fruits and vegetables with the least amount of residue found on final produce grown with non-organic practices. This list is called The Clean Fifteen.
Why would you choose to farm or buy organic? The goal of organic practices is to protect the environment by minimizing damage to the surrounding plants, animals, soil, and air, as well as to promote health for farm animals and consumers. Farmers are able to meet these values by practicing crop rotation and avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. Organic principles also strive to maintain biodiversity of plants and allow animals the freedom to behave naturally. For the larger part of history, these goals have been the norm, not the exception, albeit likely because we previously didn’t have the technology to industrially produce food.
Is organic equivalent to sustainable agriculture? Generally speaking, organic farming usually means sustainable practices. However, it is important to understand the differences between the two because organic farming can be done unsustainably and as previously mentioned, sustainable farming can be done without being certified as organic. The major difference is that organic is a certification a farmer or company can obtain, whereas sustainable agriculture is more of a philosophy. As consumers have become more aware of food production practices in the last decade, the demand for organic products has been on the rise. Not surprisingly, large food corporations have jumped on the organic bandwagon and are now making a large profit under their organic brand names. Even large grocery stores are creating their own organic brands to get in on the profits. Unfortunately this means that the reliability of organic standards is starting to disappear. Large companies are cutting corners and meeting minimum standards to slash production costs and lower selling prices enough to attract consumers but also to cut out small farmers from the business. Moreover, sustainable agriculture ensures that goods are sold as close to the farm as possible in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Unfortunately, organic regulations don’t limit food mileage, so large companies are producing organic foods that must travel thousands of miles to be sold in grocery stores around the country.
I know it seems like I’m giving industrialized organic farming two thumbs down, but I have to admit that it’s not all bad news. These large corporations are bringing awareness to the negative impacts that pesticides and synthetic fertilizers have on the environment, as well as the negative impacts that growth hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs have on humans and livestock. Just keep in mind that even though a product is certified organic, it does not mean that it is healthy for you. There are plenty of organic cookies, granola bars and cold cereals out there, among other processed foods, which are just as nutritionally empty as their non-organic equivalents.
The bottom line is that we should be eating fruits and veggies at every meal, whether they are organically produced or otherwise. Unfortunately our reality is that certified organic products are more expensive and many people are not in the position to buy entirely organic or even to buy organic at all. There are however some ways to start heading in the right direction. Choosing locally produced food allows you the opportunity to meet the farmer. Many small farms practice organic techniques that are sustainable. This means that you are likely getting the benefits of organic practices, as well as eating in season. A few great ways to connect with your local farmers are through farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. We know that foods are nutritionally superior when they are in season and when they don’t have to travel far from the farm to get to your plate. By buying local and in season, you can usually get a better price at the time of purchase. Having a freezer is a great way to store fruits and veggies in the high season so that you have a good supply throughout the winter months. No matter how you choose to feed yourselves, it’s important that you understand which farming practices are out there so that you can use your food dollars wisely to better nourish your body and to support practices that you believe in.