If you are like me, going to the grocery store has become less of a chore and more like a navigation of the minefield that is today’s food products. Numerous products bear the deceptively healthy tags of “gluten free,” “natural,” and my personal favourite, “made with real fruit juice… from concentrate.” However, there is one particular tag that is a source of great confusion and contention: “organic.” Most people associate it with health benefits, but there is more to organic food than just that.

Webster’s dictionary defines “organic” as anything made or grown without any artificial additives. Although there are considerable efforts made on organic farms to keep food pristine, we live in a severely polluted environment making this near impossible. Data collected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) found that organic products do contain trace amounts of pesticides, probably due to existence of pesticide residues in our environment.

The truth is that some pesticides do take a long time to break down and can be present in soils for decades. The long-term interactive effects of pesticides are yet to be fully determined, but studies have linked some to cancer. Now more than ever, consumers have to be careful about what they buy, but the question now arises: With all these misleading tags claiming that food is natural, how can a consumer make the proper food decisions?

The National Post published an extract from a report prepared by the Frontier Center for Public Policy, which referred to the organic food industry as an extortion racket. It went on further to claim that organic food labels are based solely on an honour system that most companies have the incentive to break due to the high prices organic products usually sell for on the market. The report also emphasized that organic food is rarely, if ever, subjected to proper laboratory testing to ensure that it is, in fact, organic.

However, organic inspector Roxanne Beavers strongly refutes these claims.

“We have a system in Canada where we do laboratory testing, but it is usually done through the CFIA. If there is a concern, the inspector can order testing. Our standard is a process-based standard: you are looking at soil rotation, the way you handle pests, the health of the soil, and so many other aspects, and if you test just for the presence of a pesticide, it won’t show the way that the product was farmed,” Beavers explained.

“You may have an apple that does not have any presence of pesticide but does not match the organic standard. Testing is a tool, but it is just one tool. When I am inspecting, I look at the physical ingredients on-site and see if it matches up. For example, do they have enough land to produce the amount they have organically? We do tend to rely on records more.”

So, what is the organic standard? According to Beavers, the standard is to prevent pesticide contamination, but also to minimize environmental impact as well. Organic practices such as crop rotation and mixed farming greatly improve the quality of the soil. Efforts are made to encourage beneficial organisms such as nitrogen fixing bacteria and cover crops that help fix nitrogen in the soil.

For animals, humane living and slaughtering practices are a must as well as the avoidance of artificial hormones and steroids. However, the organic critics still continue to cry foul. Authors of the Frontier Centre report, Mischa Popoff and Patrick Moore, further claim that most CFIA-accredited organic inspectors receive a 1-3 percent “royalty” from their clients’ gross revenues. This would act as an incentive to grant organic status to a product.

When asked about this, Beavers commented, “I think what they would be referring to would be the way in which fees are set for certification. A larger company involves a longer inspection, so sometimes you will see it is based on total sales or total acreage for farms. I don’t think it affects the decision because organic inspectors for the most part are independent and do not work for the certifier. The certifier would make the final decision.”

Now that we have established that organic food is the better option as far as health and the environment is concerned, another issue arises: How viable is organic food going to be in a world where large-scale productivity is so desperately needed? According to data collected by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 870 million people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger. At the same time, the world’s population continues to grow exponentially. Organic farms are said to have about 80 percent of the productivity of the conventional farms. So, how well does organic farming fit in with these dire statistics?

The Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at Trent University, Dr. Mehdi Sharifi, feels that the food on the earth right now is sufficient to feed everyone; the problem is that distribution is inequitable.

“We waste up to 40 percent of the food that we have. If we reduce that waste, we can feed up to one billion people. Down the road, we might need more food, but right now, we just need to distribute that food better,” he explained.

Sharifi further stresses that although mass production creates a higher yield, the strain it puts on resources is too much to be sustained and will eventually bring us back to the problem of food scarcity. In light of climate change, it is even more important to have a diverse ecological-based agricultural system because this can survive the erratic climate conditions better than the mono-crop industrial system. Furthermore, although organic farms have 80 percent of the productivity of conventional farms, they consume 50 percent less energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also, as time goes by and soil nutrients are built up, the system can produce comparable yields to conventional farms.

Sharifi’s research colleague, Dr. M. Reza Ardakani, stresses the importance of changing mindsets. Focus should be placed more on food quality and ecological improvement rather than on high production.

“We cannot use a conventional mindset with organic farming,” said Ardakani, and referred to Albert Einstein, adding, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Reduced emissions, potentially high yields, and sustainable ecological systems! Why isn’t every food company screaming, “Sign me up!” at the top of their lungs? Well, ideas on this may vary.

Sharifi believes that large biotech and agrochemical corporations have already invested in conventional systems, and switching to a less or no synthetic chemical approach will not be in their favour. On the other hand, the management of mass industrial agriculture production is simpler compared with sustainable agricultural systems. Ardakani also feels that resistance against reduction of synthetic chemical use in agriculture has roots in the high profitability of the agrochemical business.

So, the food companies are not ready to jump gung-ho onto the organic bus, but that doesn’t mean consumers will not eventually force them into that direction. However, the quality of organic produce does command a higher price. This acts as a compensation for the reduced production the organic farmers suffer.

Since this is a student newspaper, I had to ask a student question: How does someone with a lower income afford these prices?

Ardakani acknowledges this problem and cites the European organic markets as inspiration for North America.

“The European organic markets are very well-matured and the premium price for products that people use daily, such as milk and vegetables, is not that much more. Related authorities try to make these products available for large numbers of people instead of only people with higher incomes, and the idea is that organic products for many and not just for the few,” he said.
“The government supported the producers and gave subsidies to encourage farming, but we have not had that level of support here.”

If North American governments can provide the necessary support, we should see more organic farmers entering the market and the prices eventually dropping. In the meantime, both Sharifi and Ardakani suggest that we focus less on quantity and more on quality. Don’t go full organic, but at least have a portion dedicated to it. Root crops such as carrots usually have more of a tendency for the accumulation of agrochemicals since they are in direct contact with soil, so it would be better to buy those organic. Milk, too.

Some horticultural crops also receive frequent application of fungicides. Broiler and layer chickens receive antibiotics and tend to be subjected to more confined structures compared to beef under industrial production. The quality of the meat has been seen to increase with improved lifestyles. Free-range chickens lead a more stress-free existence.

For every question that is answered about healthy living, two more pop up, and it is hard to find a concrete answer in a sector where the ground is constantly shifting. Although there are many voices pushing different perspectives, the fact still remains that authentically organic food is the healthier, more sustainable option. In a world where ecological sustainability has become the biggest threat to our existence, we need to pay more attention to what we eat than ever before.