Is organic food really healthier for you?
by Alicia Priest (

There's no talk about food without talk about farming. So Mary Alice Johnson explains as she guides a visitor around her 10-acre fruit and vegetable farm. ALM Organic -- named for the first letters of three Arabic words meaning beginning, middle and end -- is carved out of the West Coast rainforest near Sooke, a small rural community 20 kilometres west of Victoria, B.C.

No flat fields and ruler-straight rows here. Instead, the lay of the land mimics the ocean on a blustery day. It's hard to tell weeds from vegetables. Blackberry vines ramble wildly along fence lines, and mounds of rotting mulch dot the ground like mini-haystacks.

A farmer's pride and passion
Dressed in gumboots, black fleece pants, a tattered grey wool sweater and a smile as wide as the sky, Johnson points to a lumpy plot of dirt. "I can tell you exactly what went into that bed there...what manure, when it was put in. I would never consider farming any other way than organically -- I can't imagine putting poison on the ground and then eating food grown in it," she says.

An increasing number of people agree. Food frights such as mad cow disease, genetic engineering, E. coli contamination, additives and pesticides have put food safety on the public's front burner. Almost three-quarters of Canadians have tried organic food, though it may cost from 20 to 200 per cent more, and about 40 per cent buy it fairly often, reports a recent Environics International Food Issues survey.

An organic boom
Canadians' demand for organics is so great that we must import about 80 per cent of the organic products we consume. Worldwide production, processing and consumption of organic foods are booming. Stroll through the supermarket and you'll spot everything from tea to turkey to brownie mix sporting organic labels.

Organics are the fastest growing sector of the food industry. Organic farming is so promising, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada wonders if it could save the family farm. "The premium prices that organic foods command may be essential to maintaining the existence of small farms in developed countries such as Canada and the United States," it said in an October 2000 report. All this optimism makes Johnson a rare thing in Canadian agriculture -- a happy farmer. While mainstream growers complain about increased production costs, shrinking markets and unfair trade practices, "I sell everything I grow at good prices," she beams.

All this positive buzz around organics begs a veritable shopping list of questions. What does the word organic mean? What can consumers expect from the organic label? Has the mushrooming organic market affected the product itself? Could mainstream agri-business, which is getting into organics in a big way, co-opt the very essence of organic? And, most importantly, is the public's faith in organics justified? In other words, are products labeled organic truly healthier, more nutritious and safer than products without such a label?

To Johnson, organic means "near, naked and natural" product that is grown close to home without pesticides, hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or synthetic fertilizers. In reality things aren't quite so simple. For one, organic refers not to a product or place but to a process, a way of doing things. Anne Macey, past president of Canadian Organic Growers and now a Saltspring Island-based organic farm inspector, says organic farming is "a production system based on the minimal use of off-farm input [anything that comes from a non-farm environment, such as synthetic fertilizers as opposed to animal manure and compost]. The label means that product has been verified as coming from that production system," Macey says.
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Before branding it "organic"...
Credibility for organic growers and processors rests on obtaining "certification" from a registered organic certifier. And that means complying with standards set by the organic industry and the Canadian General Standards Board. Organic farmers cannot use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified organisms and cannot give animals growth hormones or antibiotics except in the case of extreme illness. Farmers must protect soil and water by rotating their crops and properly composting and storing manure. Organic food processors cannot use chemical preservatives, colouring agents, waxes or irradiation treatment.

Processed food labeled organically certified contains 95 per cent organically grown ingredients, says Arran Stephens, president and founder of Delta, B.C.-based Nature's Path Foods, the world's largest organic cereal company. Processors may use up to five per cent non-organically grown ingredients such as salt, yeast and lecithin, Stephens says, because these ingredients can't be found in organic form.

Certification, variation, location
Certification, however, is voluntary everywhere but in Quebec, which stipulates organic products must be provincially certified. In other words, in Saskatchewan anyone can call their carrots organic. If they say "certified organic," however, they must identify a third-party certifier. At present there are more than 40 different certifiers in the country. Organic industry members believe Canada should have mandatory national certification to compete with its trading partners.

Stephens, who ships his products to the Far East, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., points out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will start allowing its seal to be used on all eligible organic foods by the end of 2002. "I'm just waiting for Canada to get its act together."

The saga of Stephens' company follows the evolution of organics. It carries more than 100 products, and sales grew more than 30 per cent this year. Stephens and a partner founded Vancouver-based Lifestream brand (one of Canada's original organic small businesses) in 1971. In 1981 he sold Lifestream to Nabob, which sold it to Kraft. Then seven years ago Stephens bought Lifestream back and has now tagged the brand to five varieties of "highly nutritious" toaster waffles.

Nature's Path is one of the few large organic food processors not to be taken over by industry giants. Over the past five years companies such as Nestle, Kellogg, Heinz, Dole and Chiquita all bought or created organic brands. About three years ago General Mills, the third biggest food conglomerate in North America, acquired Cascadian Farm and Muir-Glen, two highly profitable organic fruit and vegetable processors. Given the double-digit annual rise in organic sales, the move into organics is simply smart business.

So what happens to counterculture cuisine when it becomes mainstream? So far, the organic industry has managed to retain its integrity, says Herb Barbolet, co-founder of Farm Folk/City Folk, a Vancouver-based non-profit society focused on food, agriculture and the environment. But he fears that could change as fewer companies swallow larger chunks of the food chain. "Once these corporations have that kind of power... there's virtually nothing to stop them from pressuring for changes to organic standards," he says.

The perils of going global
Barbolet has another worry, one shared by fellow hard-core organic supporters. Originally organic was tied into eating locally grown, seasonal food. Now some organics have begun to go global. We want our kumquats organic and we want them in March. "We're now shipping organic food thousands of miles. The infrastructure to ship it, the fossil fuels, the roads, the detrimental to the environment and detrimental to our health," says Barbolet.

There is weighty evidence that farming organically - sans synthetic fertilizers or pesticides - aids the environment. In 2000, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that "Organic farming can help reduce ground and surface water contamination and can safeguard drinking water supplies..."

Assessing nutrition
But personal health is probably the No. 1 reason people eat organics. As faith in the safety and nutritive value of conventional food withers, sales of organic products thrive. This is a curious thing, given that most food scientists maintain that organics hold no health advantage whatsoever. "Food is the 21st century's snake oil," says Doug Powell, assistant professor in the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph and head scientist of U of G's Food Safety Network. "There is no evidence that organics are safer, healthier or more nutritious."

Instead of fearing GMOs and pesticides, Powell says, people should be wary of bacterial contaminants such as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter, which are responsible for two to seven million cases of food poisoning and about 200 deaths a year in Canada. "Growers, whether conventional or organic, need to pay attention to bacterial issues," adds Powell.

Pestering pesticide issues
But what about pesticides? Aren't organics a surefire way to avoid those deadly agents -- some 541 of which are registered for use in Canada? René Cardinal, chief of the Canadian Food Inspection Fresh Produce Safety Agency, says the agency does not distinguish between organic and non-organic food. In general, he says, 98 per cent of all fruits and vegetables comply with levels set by Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency. And 75 per cent show no detectable pesticide or metal residues at all.

Gwen Chapman, an associate professor of food, nutrition and health at the University of B.C. explains that because pesticides are designed to break down rapidly, many foods are virtually residue-free by the time we eat them. One study couldn't find any difference between organic and nonorganic pesticide levels. However, Chapman notes, pesticide products remain in the soil, and may leach into our water supply and harm our environment. For her, that's reason enough to choose organics.

Yet, on the nutrition front, Chapman agrees with Powell that organic foods hold no advantage. "The nutrients in any fruit or grain are for the most part set by the plant itself," she says. "There's no particular reason to think that organic foods are grown in better soil. Some might argue that there might be less nutrients in the soil because it's not getting the chemical fertilizer." What's more, she says, a healthy diet depends more on the variety and quality of food a person eats than whether or not it's organic.

The nutrition debate continues
But not every scientist agrees that organic and conventional food are equally healthy. E. Ann Clark, an associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, says science has much to learn about industrial agriculture's true effect on human health. Right now, she admits, there is little evidence that nonorganic food is unhealthy, "but that's because scientists have not been asking the right questions." Clark says safety testing is done for only one residue at a time, when the average fruit or vegetable has several on it at once, and there has been little research into the synergistic effects of different residues. She is also concerned about at endocrine disrupters - chemicals that mimic hormones such as estrogen and androgen - may be doing to human health. "In the U.S., 40 per cent by weight of all pesticides used are known or suspected endocrine disrupters," Clark says.

Society vs. science
Far from being a fad, Clark says, the public's support for organics is a telling sign of how society and science are moving in opposite directions. Imagine the letter V, she says. Institutional agricultural researchers are moving from the bottom of the V up one of the sides serving the interests of agri-business and international food conglomerates, often with development of biotechnology such as genetically modified foods. Travelling up the other side of the V is societal demand for organics. The result is an ever-widening gap between what the public wants and what modern agriculture delivers. "Eventually," Clark says, "we're going to turn around and see no one is with us anymore."

If Clark is right, more and more people will be buying organic. Whether that worries the food industry is anyone's guess. One thing for sure, farmers like Johnson have no reason to fear the future. image