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:
- Sweet Bell Peppers
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.