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Dispelling the Many Myths About Certified Organic Food

By Edited Jul 7, 2016 4 11
Fresh Fruit(108370)

Over the past 2 decades, organic foods have risen in prominence. The expansion in specialty food retailers such as Whole Foods Markets and Fresh Market has been fueled on the notion that organic food is a healthier, albeit more expensive, alternative to the conventional North American diet. I have long been intrigued by this phenomenon and set out to discover whether organic foods are a) worth their premium and b) a healthier alternative. The answers I found are somewhat disconcerting and suggest that there is a place for organics, but not as a full replacement to the traditional diet. 

What does Certified Organic mean?

My first question was a very basic one – what does it mean for something to be Certified Organic?  There are various shades of organic (non-sprayed, organic but not certified, and fully certified), but is there a single universal definition for Certified Organic?  Sadly, the answer is no.  Various countries have documented standards; however, there is no global agreement on what Certified Organic means.  This means that the organic apples you buy from Mexico are not held to the same standard as those from Europe. 

Although progress is being made on developing a global standard, those involved in negotiating these standards have the political interests of their constituents at heart.  For example, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) have a place under the US Program but are forbidden in Europe.  It is highly unlikely that the US will agree to a ban on GMO’s given the cost burden that such a concession would place on US farmers.

In addition, the enforcement standards vary by country.  In Canada, farmers who want to be recognized as Organic producers are required to buy all new equipment as their legacy equipment is contaminated.  Evidence of purchasing new equipment may not be required in other jurisdictions.

Although we may find ourselves literally comparing apples with apples, when it comes to Certified Organic growing standards, we may as well be comparing apples with oranges.

What Makes Organic Healthier?

Don’t let the lack of a global recognized standard on organics dissuade you altogether.  Organic farming techniques are far more environmentally sustainable relative to the alternative.  Modern farming techniques seek to maximize the yield of a crop by spraying pesticides on plants and encouraging fast production with the use of growth additives. 

The important thing to recognize here is that organic food is not just a healthier alternative to its non-organic counterpart, but rather it is far better for the greater good.  There are several downstream impacts (no pun intended) from modern techniques that will manifest themselves as the population ages and our natural resources become increasingly polluted.  For example, over-fertilization has resulted in a population explosion of algae in many freshwater lakes.  The algae is growing so thick that it is preventing oxygen from getting to the fish and resulting in a mass extinction of lake trout in the Central and MidWest.  As well, health care of the future will become burdened with the effects of a majority of the population ingesting toxins for most of their life - diseases such as multiple sclerosis and various forms of cancer tend to follow toxic diets.

Should I convert entirely to organics?

Upon hearing the unsettling stories of toxins in our food, the natural inclination is to start including more organics in our diets.  Although this is a reasonable approach, it can be overly simplistic. I feel that the most important take-away from the organic-movement is to lessen our dependence on pre-packaged and processed foods.  No amount of organic eating will offset a diet that is high in processed flour and canned food.  The first step is to take a hard look at your diet such that you are able to incorporate more fresh fruit and vegetables.  Once this has been achieved, you can look to bring more organics into your diet.

Which Organics Are Worth the Money?

Organic foods are much more expensive because farmers are unable to get the efficiencies of scale that modern farming now enjoys.  For the most part, organic fruits and vegetables are grown on a farm that is smaller than 50 acres and picked by hand.  As not everybody can afford to make a wholesale switch to organics, I recommend the following:

  • Your Protein - beef, chicken, pork, fish - for me, this is as much an issue of environmental sustainability as it is about health.  There are some really insightful (and disturbing) documentaries that chronicle the lives of farm animals on feedlots.  Organically raised animals enjoy a better quality of life and are free of growth hormones.  
  • The "Dirty Dozen" - the non-organic versions of following fruits and vegetables are known to have the highest pesticide levels.  I suggest you always make an effort to buy the following in their organic form:
    • Apples
    • Celery
    • Strawberries
    • Peaches
    • Spinach
    • Nectarines
    • Grapes
    • Sweet Bell Peppers
    • Potatoes
    • Blueberries
    • Lettuce
    • Kale

If you stick with this short list of organic ingredients, you will get most of the upside from eating an organic diet.

Growing Your Own Garden

I have really noticed an increase in the number of community organic gardens and small-scale greenhouses over the past decade.  This is a practice that I take part in as it offers two very significant benefits - a) I know exactly what has gone into growing my food (ie. the seeds; my time, care and attention; watering, etc) and b) it helps my daughters appreciate the link between the earth and their food.  We live in a society that has become so disconnected from recognizing that food comes from the earth (and not the grocery store)!  There is a Cree saying that I believe captures this sentiment very well:

"When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money."

I would be very interested in your take on this subject.  Please use the comments box below to tell me what types of food you prefer to buy as organic, and whether you feel the cost difference is worth it.



Aug 10, 2012 5:06pm
Pesticides and GMOs are the very reason we, the United States, are the "breadbasket" of the world. The developed world literally keeps hundreds of millions of people from starving to death because of this technology. The implementation of an "organic-only" farming program across the world would doom a large portion of this planet's population to slow death by starvation. "Organic" farming is a luxury that only rich nations can afford. As a starting point, I suggest a book written by a "leftie" named Michael Specter called "Denialism." Good luck.
Aug 10, 2012 6:21pm
Thanks for your perspective. I see your point but am not following the part of your argument that suggests that modern technology is keeping the planet from starving. There are 2 reasons why I can't follow the logic:

a) Overconsumption of any resource is not sustainable over the long term - the unintended consequences to pesticides and GMO's will result in problems that future generations will need to deal with. Our polluting the planet is akin to racking up a big credit card debt that our kids will need to pay off.

b) The planet has always been able to supply enough food. The fact that 30%-50% of the world's food is thrown away is an outrage (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46743203/ns/world_news-world_environment/t/experts-percent-worlds-food-thrown-away/)

I will grab a copy of Denialism and hope that you will watch the movie "Fast Food Nation".
Aug 11, 2012 3:44pm
Hi--Don't know why I missed this article but I'm certainly glad I've finally caught up to it: First, extremely well written and researched--five big starts from me!
As far as world starvation--by an large--nearly all of it is UNNECESSARY and caused by government and armies not natural causes such as wind and rain--As for pesticides--they are doing far more harm than good world wide--as a backyard gardener I try not eat the genetically-changed or pesticide-covered fruits and veggies we have to buy at the supermarket--I do my best not to eat meat from animals that have basically been blaoted with hormones and so forth to grow the pounds in a few months that ought take at least a
cou[ple or more years for the sake of profit. Anyway, I am ranting--bottom line--Great article!
Aug 13, 2012 8:13am
Thanks for your note Marlando. After researching this article, I felt a very strong urge to buy my own farm and become more self sufficient. It is scary how little we know about what we eat.
Sep 9, 2012 12:39am
Very good article, thanks for it.
Sep 9, 2012 4:01pm
I agree that it's scary how little we know about what we eat. I recently read a good book called "The End Of Food" which went into detail about modern farming practices. Thanks for the great read.
Sep 10, 2012 8:31pm
Those pesticides and GMOs are the reason why Americans have so many health issues. This is a great article...love it!
Sep 11, 2012 6:43pm
Great article and valuable suggestions!

Thumbs Up!
Sep 14, 2012 11:24am
Hello Ryan,
This was a very intelligent and well thought out piece. My husband and I have one son who has been a vegetarian since about age 10, although we eat meat. Then he began eating organic. I agree there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, politics and mismanagement play a large role in food not getting to people. But the higher prices, coupled with a time where everything is more expensive, makes it hard to justify why organics are worth it, when they cost at least double, or triple, the price. A bunch of bananas that was $1.00 is about $6.00 if they are "organic." I think the thick peel should offer some safety. So we reached the same conclusion, beware of certain foods, like those in your list. The organic peanut butter is gooey and gloppy, it's difficult to even use it for anything, though some say peanuts belong on the "bad" list too.Thanks for an insightful article.
Sep 22, 2012 11:41pm
Ideally,organic foods promotes optimum health,and the Western world can't convince me otherwise.I have written a lengthy article yet to be approved by IB on ,"5 Ways of Living Healthier and Longer Life." My emphasis is on traditional diet,organic foods or plant-based diet. My dad and mom are both living,aged 106 and 92respectively.They have never changed their traditional diet. My article is an effort to make plant-based diet stick to the minds of sceptics.NB.Follow me on twitter.
May 30, 2013 12:39pm
Excellent article. Organic meat is almost essential because toxins tend to concentrate in animal fat. I like how you write about the "Dirty Dozen," as I try to avoid buying non-organic versions of those fruits and vegetables.
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  1. "Dirty Dozen Foods with High Pesticide Residue." The Daily Green. 6/8/2012 <Web >

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