Eating Organic: The “not perfect, but healthier” alternative

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This post originally published on January 8, 2014

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (“CBC”) reported today that half of the organic fruits and vegetables tested across Canada in the last two years by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency contained residue of pesticides. Of the 45.8% of samples that tested positive, CBC reports, 1.8% violated Canada’s maximum allowable limits for the presence of pesticides.

This news garnered shock and disappointment from many Canadians, not surprisingly. We are led by brand advertising to believe that anything labelled “organic” is free of pesticides, genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”), and hormones, and anything labelled “green” or “eco” is free of harmful chemicals or toxins. A commentator to the CBC’s report suggested that “the data indicate that consumers who often pay extra to buy organic food might not always be getting their money’s worth.”

 

The truth is, it is difficult to escape from chemicals and pesticides, even if your diet is primarily organic. This fact was pointed out by Matthew Holmes, head of the Canada Organic Trade Association, who commented that “unfortunately, it’s really hard to have a zero pesticide residue any longer.” In fact, Section 13(1) of Canada’s Organic Products Regulations, 2009, SOR/2009-176, provides that of a multi-ingredient product, only 70% of the ingredients need to be organic for the entire product to be labelled “organic.” Thus, much of the organic food we consume is constituted from “conventional” ingredients.

Still, eating an organic diet is much better than eating “conventional” foods, for many reasons:

  1. An Organic Diet is Healthier for You

Eating a diet labelled “organic” means that even if you are ingesting some harmful chemicals, you’re ingesting significantly less than if you ate an entirely “conventional” diet. This means less pesticides (which commonly act as neuro-toxins in their intended targets), less artificial flavours and colours (some of which are known carcinogens), less GMOs, less plastics (which often act as estrogen mimics), less hormones, less antibiotics, and interestingly, less antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

  1. An Organic Diet is Healthier for Farm Labourers

One day I was sitting on a small bus as it rumbled through farmland in Goa, India. I like to look out the window, and this day was no exception. As we drove past one field, I very clearly remember seeing a farm labourer with what looked like a large jerry can strapped to his back with a hand-held hose and nozzle attached, and what looked like a t-shirt wrapped around his head. He was walking along a row of plants in the field, immersed in a cloud of chemicals. It seemed to me that more of the chemicals were surrounding his head than being deposited on the plants. That can’t be good.

  1. An Organic Diet Supports the Diversity of Crops and Traditional Agriculture

According to the Organic Trade Association, a USDA Study reported that in 1997, half of US farm production came from 2% of farms. The large majority of our produce and livestock are grown or raised on large, corporate farms specializing in monocultures. Supporting organic foods increases the diversity of the food chain and supports smaller, independent farms. Why should we care about biodiversity? More varieties equals stronger genes, healthier plants that are more naturally resistant to disease and pests, and healthier soils. It also equals more variety on your plate. In North America, we are often given access to only one type of banana: the familiar Cavendish. While the Cavendish is tasty, we are missing out on the numerous other varieties of bananas I happily munched on while living in India.*

  1. An Organic Diet is Easier on Wildlife and the Environment

In 1962, Rachel Carson published what is now considered a cornerstone of modern environmentalism: Silent Spring. The title of the book refers to the death of songbirds caused by the aerial spraying of DDT, a pesticide widely used in the early 20th century as a mechanism for killing mosquitoes. Since the publication of this book, it is widely accepted that pesticides, synthetic chemicals, plastics, and other food additives and toxins are capable of negatively impacting our wildlife and natural environment in a myriad of ways: pesticides and other chemicals are linked to lower reproductive success in egg-laying animals, lower fertility rates, or higher infant mortality; some chemicals leach the nutrients from our soils; some contaminate water supplies.

The Canadian Organic Trade Association’s press release in response to the CBC’s story summarizes the benefits of the organic industry nicely:

For many farmers and consumers, organic is much more than the absence of toxic and synthetic pesticides—organic is about the use of humane standards for animals, increasing biodiversity on farms and in nature, and fostering resilient and adaptable plants and soils that reduce our carbon footprint. In addition to all these things, consumers who choose organic know they are choosing products that do not use GMOs, artificial colours, additives or flavours. Organic is a great choice.

Sources

Canadian Organic Trade Association, “Data confirm organic lowers consumer exposure to pesticides,” online at: http://www.organicnewsroom.com/2014/01/data_confirm_organic_lowers_co.html. Accessed January 8, 2014.

Levasseur, Joanne and Kubinec, Vera-Lynn, CBC News, “Pesticide residue found on nearly half of organic produce,” online at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/pesticide-residue-found-on-nearly-half-of-organic-produce-1.2487712. Accessed January 8, 2014.

Organic Products Regulations, 2009, SOR/2009-176, online at: http://canlii.org/en/ca/laws/regu/sor-2009-176/latest/sor-2009-176.html#Procedure_for_Organic_Certification__15660. Accessed January 8, 2014.

Organic Trade Association, “10 Good Reasons to go Organic,” online at: http://www.ota.com/organic_and_you/10reasons.html. Accessed January 8, 2014.

Smith-Spangler, Crystal et al. “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?” Ann Intern Med. 2012, 157(5): 348-366.

* In writing about bananas, I have not forgotten that for some, an organic diet may also refer to a local, seasonal, and sustainable diet. This is another very interesting issue that I will save for a separate post.

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