OTA responds to Calgary Herald

on credibility of organic
by Matthew Holmes
August 31, 2008

Organic: credibility where credit’s due.

Matthew Holmes, For The Calgary Herald Published: Saturday, August 16, 2008

I was disappointed to see the Calgary Herald’s recent article questioning the credibility of the organic market in Canada. Considering that Alberta has the fastest growing market in organic products across the country (now valued at well over $1 billion per year), readers deserve a better-informed and more balanced perspective on this important and growing sector.

A study conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency last year found Canadians are more concerned about “Long-term effects from things like pesticides, chemicals, GMO, hormones in meat and dairy products, and the lingering worries about the impact of mad cow disease on the meat supply” than any other food-safety issues. Organic farming fits in with consumers’ priority to see persistent synthetic and toxic chemicals eliminated from our food chain and removed from the environment. Organic crops, like any crops, can be inadvertently exposed to chemicals pervasive in rain and groundwater due to their overuse during the last fifty years, and via drift from wind and rain. But organic agriculture is part of the solution to reduce reliance on potentially dangerous pesticides and fertilizers highly dependent on oil and natural gas for their production.

There is actually mounting evidence that exposure to pesticides has serious health implications, particularly for pregnant woman and young children. Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle have found organophosphorous (OP) residues in the urine of children eating conventional produce that disappeared once the children switched to eating organic. Other studies have indicated that chronic low-level exposure to OP pesticide residues may adversely affect neurological function, neurodevelopment, and growth in children.

So let’s not be simplistic: this is not a question of people eating “hundreds of pounds of vegetables” daily to hit a “lethal dose” of pesticides, it’s about the bio-accumulation of dangerous toxins in our bodies, groundwater, and air that can effect us over time; not to mention the compounding effect a mix of multiple chemicals could have that we simply don’t know about yet.

Consumers choose organic because they understand that it is about more than simply not using chemicals to grow food: it is about sustainable growing that considers the long-term biodiversity and health of our air, water, soil, livestock, wildlife, and people. Recent Canadian multi-year studies have concluded that organic agriculture uses up to 50% less energy, significantly reduces the “nutrient loading” run-off of fertilizers into our waterways, and increases plant biodiversity in areas surrounding organic farms. International research suggests organic farming can play a role in addressing climate change: by sequestering more carbon into the soil rather than as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, there is mounting scientific evidence that organic produce contains higher levels of some nutrients than produce grown non-organically. For example, findings published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry this past July show organic blueberries contain higher levels of antioxidants than non-organic blueberries. Studies by scientists at the University of California at Davis found organic tomatoes have nearly twice the number of flavonoids than other tomatoes.

Canada imports the majority of its fresh and packaged food (whether organic or not), and this understandably leads many to question to what standards the food was produced. Many don’t realize that the way in which organic foods are grown, inspected and processed is more closely monitored than other types of food production. Organic food meets stringent organic standards and all food safety and other food regulations. The organic sector is a global leader in full food traceability—everything that goes into an organic product has to be documented and traceable, and meet requirements of the organic standards. The inspectors who visit organic farms and processing facilities have access to the entire operation, including secret recipes and financial records. Inspectors are also equipped to take samples or recommend further testing if they think it is warranted. And yet Mr. Verboven suggests there is no accountability in the organic system when this is clearly not the case.

With the implementation of Canada’s new Organic Products Regulations at the end of this year, the Government of Canada is backing the organic sector. Since the CFIA will now be able to take enforcement action on questionable products, consumers will have an additional assurance that all organic food sold in Canada meets stringent Canadian standards and requirements. The Organic Trade Association in Canada applauds the Government of Canada for standing behind the organic sector in this way. Other than growing food yourself, organic certification remains the best verifiable way to know how your food is grown and made. Strange that it seems to make some people so nervous.

Matthew Holmes is managing director of the Organic Trade Association in Canada.

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