Environment: Are You Ready to Go Organic?

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By Gilda Spitz

The new green buzz word is “organic.”

The Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada website has witnessed “increased consumer demand for products such as organic milk and cheese, organic breads and cereals, and organic fruits and vegetables” in Canada.

But what exactly is an organic product? And is it worthwhile to switch?

What makes a product organic?

Most definitions of the word “organic” focus on two concepts – the health benefits of the product, and the environmental benefits of the methods used to create the product.

According to the Organic Council of Ontario:

  • Health benefits: No “synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers… or growth hormones for animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products”
  • Environmental benefits: Respect for “the environment through the responsible usage of soil, water and air, minimizing agricultural pollution” and protection for “the long-term health of the soil”

Food

The most common types of organic products are fruits and vegetables. For most types of regular produce in your supermarket, you can purchase an organic variety.

Meats such as beef and chicken can also be organic. According to Steve Bessada, owner of an organic food delivery company called LoveGan Ltd., the animals from which they obtain their organic meat are “not given hormones or antibiotics, and are treated humanely.” The cattle owners ensure that the fields in which cattle graze have not been treated with pesticides, adds Bessada.

Hair products

Some shampoos and other beauty products can be organic too, if they contain no alcohol, sulphates, or formaldehyde. This is significant because the small amount of formaldehyde legally found in regular shampoo can be absorbed into the skin and “is considered a probable carcinogen” [a substance that can cause or aggravate cancer], according to the website for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Cathy Buttafoco, co-owner of Salon Life in Richmond Hill, explains that, for health and environmental reasons, her salon stocks organic hair products almost exclusively. One of her deciding factors was that “I wanted a product that I could use on my son.” In addition, the shampoo containers are biodegradable, making the decision doubly attractive.

Environment

Organic agriculture is considered by some to be better for the environment. According to the Go Green website, “farmers [who] grow organic produce and raise organic livestock must use sustainable practices, which are always better for the environment [than] the conventional methods.”

The Go Green website also claims that “because of its extensive use of compost and crop diversity, organic agriculture will … be able to better withstand the difficulties that climate change will bring.”

What’s the cost?

You may be leaning towards jumping on the organic bandwagon. But it’s also clear that organic foods are significantly more expensive.

The cost of a can of regular canned tomatoes at a local supermarket in May 2010, was $1.29; the organic version of the same brand was $2.49. Similarly, the cost of a dozen regular large eggs at the same supermarket was $2.99; the organic equivalent was $5.99.

Can you compromise?

Is there a middle ground? The Greenopolis website provides handy advice.

  • Foods with thick inedible skins, such as bananas and pineapple, are safe even when non-organic because pesticides can’t penetrate the skin anyway.
  • Some vegetables such as asparagus and onions traditionally don’t require many pesticides and are therefore relatively safe regardless.
  • On the other hand, consider going organic for fruits and vegetables that do require large quantities of pesticides, such as peaches, strawberries, celery, and lettuce.

For a complete list, check their website at greenopolis.com/myopolis/blogs/aresende/what-you-should-shouldnt-buy-organic.

Are organic foods really healthier?

Most official agencies in Canada and the U.S. say no.

According to Rachael Burdman of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, “Our position is that organic certification helps Canadians make informed choices – it is not a food safety issue. All food in Canada must meet the same stringent Canadian food safety criteria.”

Similarly, in the U.S., according to the website of the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food.”

Others disagree. Bessada is convinced that organic foods are indeed healthier:

  • For fruits and vegetables, says Bessada, the avoidance of synthetic herbicides and pesticides is the key. “Even minute quantities can have detrimental effects for humans, especially for pregnant women,” he adds.
  • For meats, Bessada considers the detrimental elements to be antibiotics and hormones. “In the conventional livestock industry, often the animals are given antibiotics on a regular basis, whether they are sick or not,” he says, eventually building up a resistance which can be then be passed on to the humans who eat that meat. Similarly, when animals are fed hormones to speed up weight gain, he adds, those hormones are also passed on to humans.

The manufacturers of many organic products seem to avoid making specific health claims on their packaging, but some come close. For example, the package of an organic cereal called Wild Roots Organic Triple Berry Morning Bliss states, “We feel that food should be straight-forward, not full of chemicals and compromise.”

Purchasing organic products

If you do believe that organic food is better for the environment, your health, or both, you can find a wide variety in your local supermarket. Look for the organic section in the produce area, and also for special labels on other items such as canned goods, egg cartons, and milk. You can also arrange for delivery of organic products through services such as LoveGan Ltd.

For hair products, look for a salon that carries organic products. And don’t be fooled by the term “natural” (a product with no added preservatives or flavouring), which is often mistaken for “organic” – they’re not the same, says Buttafoco.

For more information

www.safecosmetics.org
www.organiccouncil.ca
www.greenopolis.com
www.gogreenarticles.com
www.lovegan.com 
inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/orgbio/orgbioe.shtml

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