IS ORGANIC FOOD REALLY BETTER?

Is that a banana in your pocket?
Or are you just one of a growing number of people happy to see organic foods becoming more available

The term "organic" dates to the early 20th century, when British agronomist Albert Howard started writing about sustainability, composting and the need to find natural ways to treat soil and promote fertility. The organic movement has a surprisingly venerable history for one that´s entered the public consciousness, and the grocery stores, within the past 10 or 15 years.

IN THE PAST DECADE or so, the organic food industry has ripened into a full–fledged agricultural phenomenon – and it´s growing. The Canadian industry for organic products now represents at least $800 million, and according to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. retail sales of organic food as increased by more than $12 billion since 2000. "(The organic food market) has been increasing in terms of dollars spent roughly 20 cents per year, every year, for at least 10 years," says Ann Clark, associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph. "It´s getting to a critical threshold, where things… become exponential." "The education process about the types of chemicals that are used (on conventional products) is increasing," says Dawn Leant, spokeswoman for Conscientious Innovation, a Vancouver–based marketing and communication centre for the cultural shift to sustainability. "People have a stronger idea of what non–organic means to them and their environment and their children." But is it really awareness that´s causing consumers to embrace their inner hippies? According to a recent study, only 20 per cent of the fresh foods on Canadian shelves contain detectable amounts of pesticide residues and almost all that did were within safety guidelines set out by Health Canada. "It´s largely fear–based buying," Clark says. "(People) don´t believe institutional reassurance that everything is fine." Clark says buying organic is also an easy and relatively cheap way to assuage environmental guilt. "Food is cheap. Buying organic, even if it costs 20 or 30 per cent more, is still cheap. It doesn´t hurt you to spend more money to buy organic food, but it would hurt you to turn off the air conditioner." Regardless of why the market for organic food has ballooned like a prize melon, it´s not about to shrivel up any time soon. "Words that people didn´t use to know, like social responsibility and organic, are much more pervasive in everyday society," Leant says. "It´s kind of reached its tipping point and from here I think it´s only going to increase."
–JOEL MCCONVEY/DOSE

BREAKING DOWN ORGANICS


  • Per cent of total food sales the organic industry hopes to represent by 2010: 10
  • Number of hectares used for organically managed area worldwide: 24 million
  • Number of hectares used for organically managed area in North America: 1.5 million
  • Percentage of total agriculture land that represents: 0.3
  • Number of organically managed hectares in Australia: 10 million
  • Number of organic farms in Mexico: 53,577
  • Number of certified organic farmers in Canada: 3,317
  • Canada´s position among global leaders in land area under organic management: 11
  • Percentage of organic retail sales in Canada generated by fruit: 14
  • Net worth of organics exported by Canada each year: $63 million
Sources: Certified Organic, cog.ca, atn.riae.agr.ca

Food Fight

Is organic food really better? Dose asked the experts to clarify fact from fiction when it comes to food.

Canadians´ rush into the organic food isles has been frantic. This year, we´ll take home twice as much organic produce as we did five years ago, and four times more than we did in 1995. It´s the fastest–growing part of the food market in the country.

   While people give a lot of reasons for choosing organic food – some of it´s grown closer to home, it´s better for the environment or it´s just plain tastier, they say � one of the most common motives for eating it is because it´s supposed to be healthier than produce and meats grown with hormones and pesticides.

   Organic farming methods dispense with the hormones, fertilizers and pesticides that farmers use to booze yields. The more holistic approach to land use is better for the environment.

     But is there any proof that organic food is really better for you? Is the extra money you pay to eat organic and avoid pesticides and hormones really the best way to buy better health? And even if it isn´t, is it still worth doing anyway?

   Dose put the question to a panel of health and farming experts to see what they think.

Jill Shainhouse is a Toronto naturopath who includes dietary advice as a part of the treatment regimen she uses with her patients. University of Albert professor Sean Cash specializes in the economics of nutrition.
IS ORGANIC FOOD BETTER FOR YOU? The longer you leave fruit on the tree (and) let it ripen naturally, the better it is. (Organic food) is not covered in wax, it´s not covered in junk. It might be a little bit more nutrient dense. If I could name you one study, that would be great. But I don´t know if any studies have been done.

DO THE PESTICIDES IN CONVENTIONALLY GROWN FOOD POSE A HEALTH RISK? If you look at health problems in our society today, there´s a huge increase in cancer. A lot of the cancers that we´re seeing are hormone–dependent. A lot of the pesticides are similar in structure molecularly to hormones. So, maybe they´re binding to the same receptor point. The best thing to do to prevent cancer is eat fruits and veggies.

NO MATTER WHAT STUDIES SAY, IT´S PRETTY COMMON FOR PEOPLE TO CHOOSE ORGANIC FOOD ON THE HUNCH THAT IT´S HEALTHIER. WHY? People are more concerned about the risks that they don´t have control over. If I look at an apple, I can´t see what kind of pesticides are there – that´s out of my control. I overvalue that risk, because I don´t have control over it.

THE ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE SEEMS TO INVOLVE MORE THAN JUST FOOD CHOICE. A lot of it is about our behaviour. If you get on your bicycle, ride over the organic supermarket, buy a lot of organic produce and ride home, and do it all without your helmet, you might be doing some good for a lot of environmental concerns, but you´re not helping your own risks necessarily. You´d probably be better off sitting at home, letting somebody come and deliver you conventional produce.

WHAT ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL DIFFERENCES OF ORGANIC FOOD? If you´re buying food that is produced farther away, with that excess transportation, there´s also an environmental cost. The other issue is that… when I use pesticides, it´s a way of getting more out of a given spot of land. If I switch to organic production, my land requirements go up, and there´s an environmental cost to that. Do you get into this weird question: what´s better for the environment? To have some run-off? Or to destroy four times as much habitat because I need more land? That´s not the whole answer, but it´s a part of the question.

University of Guelph professor Ann Clark studies land resource management and agricultural economics with a focus on sustainability and organic farming.

DOES ORGANIC FOOD NEED MORE LAND? I guess the question is, are we actually short of land to produce food? Yes, you can get a lot higher yields on less land with a lot of exogenous energy — with a sites and potentiating the growth of a hormone-dependent cancer.
WHAT ADVICE DO Y OU GIVE PEOPLE? Eat organic as much as you can. That´s probably more (applicable) in terms of beef and chicken and animal products, more so than fruits and vegetables. But fruits and vegetables are sprayed with nasty things also.

NOT EVERYBODY CAN AFFORD TO EAT ORGANIC ALL THE TIME. IF THERE WAS ONE TYPE OF FRUIT THAT PEOPLE WOULD BE BETTER OFF EATING ORGANIC, WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND? Definitely things like strawberries, blueberries, grapes. If you look at the structure of a berry — a raspberry or a strawberry, for example — there are all sorts of seeds and grooves. Pesticides will get stuck in there. So when you try to wash it off, it doesn´t come off as easily. It sticks. The strawberries are one of the worst. Really pesticidey.

DOES THE COST OF ORGANIC FOOD ACTUALLY GIVE YOU A HEALTH PAYOFF? If you´re buying (organic) because you´re focusing on cancer risk, you´re probably not buying yourself that much protection. It´s not a good insurance policy. The costs are pretty high compared to the risks.

WHAT´S THE BEST THING TO KEEP IN MIND, THEN? Your fear of cancer can put you at higher risk for cancer, if you ate less because, let´s say, you only bought organic but you could afford less of it. It´s a poignant lot of fertilizer, with a lot of machinery — but you´re externalizing all those costs. There are downstream costs of the intensive approach that we have come to see as normal. None of the farmers ever get a bill at the end of the year for their share of the harm that society has to absorb because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (Clark stresses that farmers´ use of drugs contributes less to antibiotic resistance than the health system´s uses do.� And we don´t factor in all of those other costs.

IS ORGANIC FOOD BETTER FOR YOU? It´s fair to say openly that the evidence is not compelling that organic food us actually healthier for you. The evidence is really ambiguous. But it is very clear that when you choose to patronize organic food, you´re dramatically reducing your pesticide load and� you´re favouring the environment in a lot of ways.

Source: Dose Magazine



  

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