Eating organic: The chemical question












arrow Organic produce on display at Farm Boy in Kanata, Ont. [Photo © Nichole Ekkert-Vine]

By Nichole Ekkert-Vine

M ore than 50 per cent of Canadians are now investing in organic foods each week, according to the Canadian Organic Trade Association.  Organic foods have been a popular topic recently, as bigger box stores like Whole Foods begin to pop up in cities across Canada.

But is eating organic foods really that much better for you? What happens to the nutrients in food when they are sprayed with pesticides?

In Canada, organic foods and food labeling is monitored by the provincial and federal governments. The labeling of organic foods must adhere to the Canadian Organic Standards regulations and must abide by the rules outlined. Among many substances that are not on the permitted substance list are products such as synthetic pesticides and wood preservatives.

The policy behind government organic certification

In order for anything to be labeled organic in Canada, the product must contain at least 95 per cent organic materials and ingredients. If a product contains less than this, it can simply indicate that a certain percentage of the product is organic, but not that the product itself is organic.

The Canadian Organic Agriculture Standards, which is overseen by the Canadian General Standards Board, strictly states that the use of synthetic pesticides is prohibited. They do however provide a disclaimer that says that it is the farmers job to keep pesticide residue down to a minimum.

This does not ensure that products will have zero pesticide residue on them, and states that “the practices permitted by this standard are designed to assure the least possible residues at the lowest possible levels.”

Pesticides are regulated by the government, and go through rigorous testing before used on crops and agriculture. Sophie Poirier-Geve of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada notes that the “government is committed to keeping the food, feed and environment in Canada safe, and to supporting sustainable agriculture”. All of this, she says, is backed by sound science.

“Canada has a stringent regulatory system for assessing the safety of novel products,” says Poirier-Geve. “Such products are subject to rigorous standards of scientific evaluation for health, safety and environmental impact.”

Some studies however show that there may be a link from the use of pesticides to serious diseases such as cancer and behavioural disorders.

The negatives and positives of pesticide use

Andre Leu, author and president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, is an advocate for cleaner methods of producing food that do not include these toxins.

He says there are “numerous human health problems associated with exposure to amounts of pesticides that are significantly lower than are currently permitted in our food.”

“The current testing protocols are completely inadequate for determining the safety of pesticides and the numerous data gaps that require testing to assure science based evidence to establish their safe use.”

Through his research, Leu has concluded that “unless we have a major shift towards organic agriculture and away from processed foods” human health will not be able to improve.

Although Leu strongly believes, based on his research, that pesticides have lead to a rise in human diseases such as cancer, some food and nutrition scientists aren’t so sure.

Dr. Illimar Altosaar is a biochemist who conducts research and teaches at the University of Ottawa. He says that the main issue is with how much the human body is being exposed to pesticides.

“There haven’t been any deaths in Canada that have been a result of pesticides. Nothing has been confirmed,” he says. “So why would I spend more money on something that will taste the same?”

Altosaar uses the abnormally small, organic banana on his desk as an example. He says his wife got it from Loblaws, just like all the other produce he consumes.

“This banana is black on the outside. It has the same disease that all bananas in the whole world have: black sigatoka. It is the number one pest of banana grass, and it is a fungus that is poisonous to human beings,” says Altosaar.

Ponting to the black streaks on the outside of the banana, he peels away the excess to reveal a very small banana inside the peel.

“Because it is on the outside, it won’t hurt me,” he says.

“But I am more concerned in general about ingesting this dangerous bacteria and the presence of fungus, than I am about the dangers pesticides may have on our bodies.”

Altosaar says it is not the genetically modified organisms and the pesticides that are dangerous to humans. The “lifestyle diseases of lethargy, couch-potatoe’ing, and sedentary sentience are known to kill more people than foods approved by AAFC, CFIA and Health Canada.” He feels that when it comes to health, people have more to fear from junk food and inadequate exercise than they do from pesticides.

The culture of eating organic

Dr. Irena Knezevic is a researcher in communications, culture and health, and is particularly interested in food labeling and nourishment.

Knezevic explains that two years ago a comparison study showed that organic food does in fact have a higher nutrient content. This, she says, is one of the first reasons why we should be eating organic foods.

She does however identify that although organic food is healthier for the human body than food sprayed with pesticides, neither will make someone sick.

“If you look at things like pesticide use, we can see that the concern behind it started with this idea that we don’t know how our diets came to be what they are,” she says.

“We have relatively strict rules regarding the use of pesticides, but the public hasn’t been involved in that decision making.  When regulated, these chemicals won’t kill us, but we as humans are eating things and we didn’t get a choice as to how they were made.”

In Canada, each pesticide used on a crop has to be certified, and is due for re-certification five years later. This ensures that the content of the pesticide does not change over time without the consent of Health Canada. Each chemical used is tested and dosed appropriately to reduce the impact on humans as much as possible.

“An apple spray by pesticides isn’t good for you, but it isn’t going to kill you and it isn’t going to make you sick,” she says.

“But just saying that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care abut these cultural dimensions and that we shouldn’t care about what our food production does.”

Knezevic says that an overall understanding of our well being as humans is what is most important. She says that although organic is trending, what we really need to be concerned about is how our choices ultimately affect the rest of our lives.

“I think it is funny that you almost have to be an expert in food science to make educated decisions about what is best for you.”

“But what we choose to eat is so much more than just a concern for our health. We have to think about everything that encompasses the business of food production,” she says, urging people to think about other issues too, such as environmental costs, or the workers who tend crops around the world.

“Whether we eat organic or not, we need to educate consumers in a more effective way. We are so detached from where our food comes from that, really, how can we make an educated choice on what to eat? And who is to say that any type of food is better than another when we are learning new things every single day?”


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