Sunday, September 18, 2011

What does "Organic" mean anyway?

I got a comment in response to yesterday's post, which I am always really excited about. It let's me know that I am not just sending text into cyberspace, which no one reads, plus I like the dialog. I also just came back from a dinner with some friends and there was some discussion about the topic of organic food. The contention seems to be mostly about the price of organic food and what really justifies such a mark-up. As Josh pointed out very much correctly in his comment yesterday, just because something is labelled organic doesn't mean it has no chemicals in it. In other words, there is no guarantee that organic food is 100% chemical and pesticide free.
The question on the mark-up of organic products is, in part, one of volume. It is difficult for organic products, which make up a fairly small portion of the market, to compete with products grown or produced in big industrial-style agriculture. When I left Europe 9 years ago, organic products were only marginally more expensive than conventional products, the selection was big and the products were available in almost all stores. I believe we are almost two decades behind Europe when it comes to this trend and we're just not quite at the volume were organic products can compete with conventional ones. We are close, in some markets in the US organic products are close to half the price they are here in BC.
When considering if eating organic really makes a difference in the amount of chemicals you get exposed to, it is important to realize that you cannot eliminate all pollutants. But consider this, in 2003 Cynthia Curl, PhD, a researcher at the University of Washington conducted a study in which she analyzed the urine of 42 children aged 2 to 5 for traces of organochlorine pesticides (the most commonly used pesticides). The parents were asked to write down exactly what they gave their children to eat and drink for 3 days. Their diet was considered 'organic' if at least 75% of their food was labelled organic. On the other hand, their diet was considered 'conventional' if their food was at least 75% non-organic. The results showed that the levels of pesticides in the urine of the children on the organic diet was below the maximum acceptable level (as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency). It was also about 1/6 of the level seen in the children eating the conventional diet. Those children, in fact, had levels that were four times the maximum acceptable level. So, clearly eating organic does have an effect on the amount of toxic chemicals that go through your body. That same study was backed up by another study at the same University and similar results have been shown by studies done in Europe as early as 1986.
But 'organic' isn't only about our health, it's also about sustainable farming practices and the health of our soil and water. As David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. writes in his book Anitcancer: "Many politicians believe that pesticides promote agricultural productivity, although there is very little hard data to support this belief. Some argue that relying on conventional agricultural chemicals protects the economic activity and jobs in farming areas. It also preserves the interests of the chemical industry."
It simply isn't sustainable to continue to dump ever increasing amounts of synthetic chemicals onto our soil. So, while our wallets may bleed still, we are sending a message as consumers and creating a demand for products that are grown in more responsible and sustainable ways. As for growing your own food and buying locally, either directly from local farms or at farmers markets, I not only whole heartedly support that, I think it's the way of the very near future. I recommend a book by Canadian economist Jeff Rubin called "Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller" which deals with the end of available, cheap oil and the consequent end of globalization. I believe we will soon rely much more on fields closer to home, rather than those half way across the globe. Just one more reason to treat those fields well.

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