The average North American grocery shopper has only a vague idea of how their food is grown, processed and transported to the supermarket.
The agriculture-to-grocery-store process is a complex machine that seems almost like magic: row upon row of shiny fruits and vegetables appear in the store every day in seemingly unending amounts. But it’s not magic, and many consumers are aware of this, and becoming wary of the great agriculture machine.
For some, organic foods seem to be the answer. Producers tout organics as the answer to the toxic, mutant fruits and vegetables that crowd the grocery store. They encourage consumers to pay a little more for peace of mind, painting organics as the safer alternative.
Organic producers say their food tastes better, is more nutritious, and is better for the environment. But in an effort to be wary of salespeople’s pitches, I decided to get to the roots of claims about organic foods.
Initially, one of the biggest barriers for me when considering buying organic foods was the price. To compare what I might spend on an average grocery trip, I took my regular grocery list to an organic market.
The biggest surprise for me was the price of milk. My boyfriend and I drink a lot of milk, and so I buy four litres a week. A four-litre jug of organic milk cost a whopping $12.19, compared to the Co-op brand four-litre I usually buy at $3.99.
I would have spent about $60 on organics, compared to about $30 on conventional foods. That’s a pretty big price difference, and no small difference for a student, but most people don’t buy all their food organic. Organic fruits and vegetables have the most competitive prices, and the organic lemons were actually 10 cents cheaper.
As more organic producers get into the market, the prices will continue to drop, as well. For a fairly well-off family, paying an extra dollar for organic ground beef may seem worth the perceived added benefits. Unfortunately, I had only started my journey into the world of organic food. Soon enough, price was the least of my worries.
Nutritious and delicious?
Proponents of organic food say it has more vitamins and nutrients and it tastes better. The taste factor may never be scientifically settled as it is completely subjective, but at least one study has determined the nutritious value of organic foods: they’re no more nutritious than non-organics.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition surveyed over 50,000 published articles about organic food, focusing on 55 studies that met their scientific standards.
They found more nitrogen in conventional crops and more phosphorus in organic crops, but concluded that “there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.” There were fewer published studies on livestock, but of the studies they did have, they found no nutritional difference between organics and non-organics.
Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, oh my!
There are strict regulations on what foods can be labelled organic. When talking to the owner of an organic market recently, he said “no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers” can be used, but this simply isn’t true. Organic farmers can’t use synthetic products on their crops, only “natural” products. The seemingly logical conclusion is that any natural pesticide or fertilizers is safer than a synthetic one, but again, this isn’t true.
One fertilizer some organic farmers use is manure. What the person selling you organic food won’t tell you is that food grown in a manure-based fertilizer has a higher chance of containing E. coli because the virus thrives in the bellies of cows.
The bottom line is that nearly all pesticides are bad for humans, whether they’re natural or synthetic. Luckily, the amount of harm they can do has a direct relation to the amount of pesticide you’re exposed to. The Extension Toxicology Network explains that pesticides decline over time. Residues left on the food after washing and processing break down eventually, and the levels of pesticides and herbicides on the food is “well below legal limits” by the time the food reaches the grocery store. Organic food proponents say there have been no studies showing low levels of pesticides and herbicides do no harm, but this is also not entirely true.
Pesticides are anything used to defend against fungi, insects and predators. A little known fact is that most fruits and vegetables produce their own pesticides. A paper written by Bruce Ames, who invented the Ames test to determine whether a compound is carcinogenic, says the average American ingests 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per day, compared to 0.09 mg of synthetic pesticide residues.
“The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant foods are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves,” the paper says.
Touting the claim that the effects of exposure to low levels of pesticides has not been studied, one organic-supporting website suggests that “In the absence of this information, the safest course is not to expose yourself to chemicals designed and proven to kill other forms of life.” Sticking with this strain of logic, should we stop eating all fruits and vegetables? Natural pesticides may not be synthetically designed, but they certainly have been proven to kill other forms of life.
To be certified organic, foods cannot use irradiation in production. Irradiation uses ionizing radiation to kill bacteria and insects, and to stop plants from continuing to ripen. Fears and misunderstandings about radiation and the process involved in irradiation seem to drive this regulation.
What you might’ve learned in high school and promptly forgotten, like me, is that certain elements radiate energy, making them radioactive. In irradiation, a machine creates X-rays or gamma rays then points them at the food.
While there are all sorts of radiation — including radio waves, microwaves and light — only high frequency ones like X-rays and gamma rays can ionize particles, meaning they can detach electrons from the atoms or molecules.
Ionizing stops the cell growth of bacteria, insects and food. For microorganisms, this means they can’t multiply. For insects, this means they can’t propagate. For fruits, this means they won’t ripen as fast, and for veggies like potatoes, onions and garlic, this means they’ll be less likely to sprout.
Since irradiation uses X-rays, it can’t make food radioactive. A report called “Irradiated Foods” for the American Council on Science and Health says, “Food undergoing irradiation does not become any more radioactive than luggage passing through an airport X-ray scanner or teeth that have been X-rayed.”
The safety of food irradiation has been well-studied. There’s no reason to fear the process. Still, foods do lose some nutrients when going through the process, but no more than cooking, canning or freezing foods.
The aforementioned study notes “It should also be remembered that irradiated food will be consumed as part of a mixed diet, and that the process will have little impact on the total intake of specific nutrients.”
Part of the reason only some foods are irradiated is because not all foods react well to the process, particularly milk and dairy products. The other reason only some foods are irradiated is due to negative public perception. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and by forbidding irradiation to gain organic certification, it seems as though the organic market is only perpetuating those misunderstandings.
Genetically modified foods
As with irradiation, the rejection of genetically modified foods seems to stem from fear and misunderstanding.
“People have to understand that all the foods we have right now… have all undergone genetic modification; that’s where you take one cultivar and cross it with another cultivar,” said Dr. Nicholas Low, a professor with the U of S’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “We want them to grow fast; we want the tomatoes to grow big…. When people talk to me about GM, I don’t think they understand that everything we eat has been modified.”
He says the difference between the old fashioned way of crossing cultivars and genetically modifying it by moving genes from one plant to another is that a very specific modification is made.
In fact, Low says “These genetically modified foods are safer because we know the genome of these plants.” Basically, no changes happen by accident.
Since GM foods can gain genetic materials from other plant species, some consumers and anti-GM groups worry this means allergens might end up in non-allergenic foods, for example, genes from a nut used in grains. In fact, this has been tried: in 1996, the seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International attempted to use genes from the Brazil nut to make their soybeans hardier.
Pioneer dropped the project when the testers pointed out the folly of using a known allergen to enhance other foods.
GM foods aren’t developed over night. They go through years of trials and testing guided by the
That’s not to say there aren’t risks involved in the use of GM foods. Critics have legitimate concerns about the possibility of GM foods having an impact on biodiversity or the potential effects of horizontal gene transfer, where genes from the modified crops would transfer into wild crops. So far, GM foods aren’t in wide enough use to know if horizontal gene transfer can happen or to say if they have an effect on biodiversity (in fact, at least one scientist believes GM crops might promote biodiversity). But we have to ask ourselves if the potential risks outweigh the known benefits.
A complete rejection of genetically modified foods might be a mistake.
“GM foods have the potential to solve world hunger and maltnutrition problems and protect the environment,” said Low. “We could use our foods to help to prevent disease rather than having medicine as a the middle man.”
Flat-out rejecting GM foods might mean rejecting better nutrition and feeding the world’s growing population. Perhaps the better path is to continue investigating this relatively new science, but tread carefully.
If you would like to know the animal you’re eating was treated well before it was killed, organic might be a good choice for you.
Animals raised for food or their food products on an organic farm are required to have access to pasture, no confinement housing, and a maximum transportation time of 24 hours, among many other stipulations.
For those in B.C., the B.C. SPCA also certifies farms for their humane treatment, though they are the only provincial animal rights group to do so.
“The goal with this program and the other work we do is to have the agricultural industry make changes,” said Alyssa Bell Stoneman, the SPCA-certified program supervisor.
One example of the confinement housing the SPCA and organic farmers do not support is the chicken battery cage. Stoneman describes it as a wire mesh cage used for raising laying hens. There are often five or six hens in each cage, which is little bigger than an 8.5 by 11-inch piece of paper. There’s a feed trough in front, and when the eggs are laid, they roll down and are taken away by a conveyor belt.
“Laying hens have a drive to find a nest or find a spot,” Stoneman said. “There isn’t an area or space for nesting and as well it’s crowded so she can’t stretch and move around.”
To city folk, the idea of any animal being raised in confinement can be disturbing, but a B.C. SPCA fact sheet notes that while outdoor access sounds great, it can also leave animals vulnerable to predation and disease.
Stoneman also notes there are reasons the conventional system arose.
“When you think of the development of agriculture and the changes that have happened, it’s become more industrialized because the pressures on food safety or disease prevention. People expect a cheap, safe project and systems have evolved that have been mechanized.”
Trade-offs have been made: the hens won’t come into contact with their feces in a battery, making the final product healthier for human consumption, but it comes at the cost of denying the chicken’s natural behavioural tendencies.
Another debate often heard surrounding organic livestock is the conventional use of hormonal growth promoters. In Canada, six hormonal growth promoters are approved for use in beef cattle, but the synthetic recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is not approved due to concerns for animal health.
Some organic proponents will argue that growth hormones can cause cancer and other disease in humans, but an article from Health Canada says there’s no proof that “food products from animals treated with these hormonal growth promoters pose a threat to human health.”
As with the issue of taste, choosing organic meat is subjective, depending on your personal feelings about the treatment of animals.
Fresher is better
The Dieticians of Canada and Canada’s Food Guide have no official stance on organics, simply suggesting to eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
But organic foods are also not all the proponents make them out to be. It’s not healthier or safer, and if used improperly, natural pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are just as dangerous for the environment and humans as synthetic products.
The process of bringing organic food to your table is every bit as complicated as it is for conventional foods. The best way to feel better about your food choices is to learn about agriculture and how the food gets from the farm to your local grocery store, not by simply assuming organic food as the better choice.
“If you say, ‘I choose to eat organic foods,’ that’s fine,” said Dr. Nicholas Low, “but if you say, ‘I eat organic foods because it’s better for me,’ I have a problem with that.”
Next time you’re trying to decide between an organic or conventional food item, you might want to consider your reasons behind the choice a little more carefully.