By Erin MacGregor
Organic food is safe, healthy and nutritious. But does this mean all other food is not?
From a consumer standpoint, organic food has gained a reputation. One that places the claim ‘organic’ on a pedestal. Many consumers buying organic foods perceive them to be a healthier, safer or more ‘natural’ choice (more on the natural claim here).
But how do these perceptions match reality?
In short, they don’t.
The reality is, organic food is no healthier or safer than conventionally grown food. It is equally so. Buying organic means choosing a specific food production or farming method. The guidelines which outline these methods are called the Canadian Organic Standards, and they include the criterion for organic farming, along with an extensive list of ‘permitted substances’ which may be used in producing organic food.
On the opening page of the standard, there is a clear statement about what organic is not: “Neither this standard nor organic products produced in accordance with this standard represent specific claims about the healthiness, safety and nutrition of such organic products”.
The primary (simplified) criteria to meet organic production standards are that they must:
- Avoid the use of synthetic products for production, growth, animal health and food processing (these include synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones and certain medications such as antibiotics).
- Prohibit all products of genetic engineering (commonly known as GMOs) and irradiation (treating food with radiation to reduce microbes and prolong shelf-life).
- Ensure livestock are provided with organic feed and living conditions and space allowances appropriate to their behavioural requirements.
These criteria may compel some consumers to choose organic, and that is a choice we’re all lucky to have.
However, it is also important to be mindful that these criteria could help or hinder a producer from maximizing the quality and quantity of their crop. Depending on each farm’s unique geography and environment, certain production methods will be better suited than others.
As an example, all growers and producers, whether organic or conventional, face similar challenges with regards to weed and pest control.
Both organic and conventional farmers use pesticides.
Naturally derived pesticides are permitted and used in organic farming, and like their synthetic counterparts, they are highly regulated to ensure consumer safety.
The use of synthetic pesticides, can keep food costs low for Canadians, help farmers have more predictable and profitable harvests, and can often contribute to improved soil health and sustainability, as farmers don’t need to till (overturn) their soil to get rid of weeds.
As another example, the use of genetic engineering has led to the development of GMO crops that are resistant to pests and drought. The potential to improve sustainability and lower production costs by using less water and fewer pesticides, for some producers, is enormous. And since more than 200 of the world’s leading scientific regulatory bodies agree that GMOs crops are safe to eat, common sense has led to the widespread use of this technology for conventional farmers.
These are just two of the many examples of how choosing a food production method (organic vs conventional) may not be as straightforward as it seems. Farmers must consider what will work best for their land, their resources and the markets they are selling to, with the end goal always being: safe food production.
When it comes to food labelled “organic”, (along with any variation, abbreviation or phonetic spelling of “organic”), there are straightforward guidelines that apply which are set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
These foods must be certified by an accredited body and include a minimum level of certified organic content as illustrated below.
We know that selling organic food is profitable, and the market share of organic food products continues to grow year after year. If consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic production methods, then we should support a marketplace that gives consumers what they want, and in turn, support producers who make that choice possible.
Just know, that the bottom line is, when purchasing any food, you shouldn’t be wrestling with the choice of ‘organic vs conventional’. Both are food production methods that ensure Canadians have access to high quality, safe, nutritious food.