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Michele Sponagle digs up the dirt on organics


Good eats
Michele Sponagle digs up the dirt on organics

For a trip to the grocery store these days, you might feel like you need a degree in chemistry to make sense of what’s on the shelves—what with genetically modified foods, synthetic hormones and irradiation. To reduce our exposure to all that weird science, many of us are happily paying premium prices for all things organic. In fact, it’s the fastest-growing sector in agriculture, with a leap in sales of 20 percent each year. But when practically everything on the shelves seems to be labelled organic, you can’t help but wonder if what you’ve just packed into your enviro-friendly bag is authentic. So what does “organic” really mean?

In a nutshell, any food free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, ionizing radiation and genetic modification is considered organic in Canada. When it comes to meat, eggs and dairy products, “organic” means no antibiotics, growth hormones or genetically modified organisms are used. The animals must also be raised humanely with access to the outdoors and fed a diet that’s been produced without chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. (If you’re planning to pick up some organic salmon for dinner tonight, however, know that Canada has yet to deliver federal regulations for fish.)

The good news is that identifying organic food is soon to become easier than spotting a fake Louis Vuitton bag. Starting on Dec. 14, 2008, the Canada Organic logo will appear only on food products that meet the government’s standards for organic production. For the first time, shoppers across the country will have reassurance that the organic goods they’re buying, whether it’s imported grapes from Chile or apples from the Okanagan, are the real deal. (Until that final regulation was passed, only British Columbia and Quebec had standards enforced by their provincial governments.)
Can’t afford to buy organic all the time? Consider the “dirty dozen” listed on the Environmental Working Group’s website, www.foodnews.org: when it comes to fruit, peaches and apples have the highest percentage of pesticide residue. For veggies, it’s sweet bell peppers and celery.

Aside from concerns over pesticides and genetic modification, though, are nutrient levels of organic produce higher than conventional fruit and veggies? “It varies,” says Laura Telford, exec­utive director of Canadian Organic Growers. “For example, organic grapefruit and lemons have almost 30 percent more vitamin C [than conventional ones]. Over the next 50 years, because of current farming practices, we’ll be seeing an enormous decline in the levels of nutrients in food [produced traditionally]. We’re already seeing that. You have to eat three or four carrots to get the same nutrition as a carrot grown in the 1950s.”

There’s another important consideration for buying organic—its environmental impact. Maintaining a sustainable food system by tending to the health of the soil—by using cover crops, rotating crops, irrigating with clean water and using only natural pesticides—helps to prevent the soil from being stripped of nutrients. So one more way you can be kind to our wee planet is to regularly eat alternative sources of protein in place of beef and chicken, which require huge quantities of land and water. (To produce 10 ounces of beef, it takes 11,825 litres of water, compared to 550 litres for the same amount of soybeans.)

In the end, though, going organic is all about changing our habits bit by bit. “There’s no need to be a purist,” says Telford. “Go part of the way, at least, by incorporating some organic foods into your diet, so that you can eat in good conscience.”