This is part 2 of series on food labeling and label claims.
In part one, I briefly described how Canada’s labelling system works (not boring, promise!) and waded through one of the most commonly misrepresented claims, ‘natural’.
This time, I’m diving into organic, and geez folks, it’s not a simple one. It’s probably why there is no label claim I’m asked more often about.
I admit to a brief love affair with organic food. Even as a health professional trained to sift through scientific jargon to bring evidence-based messaging to the masses, I found myself swayed by fear-based narratives and touting the superiority of organic food.
But as I’ve learned more about how food is produced, I’ve come to realize that fear is never a good reason to make choices about food.
Do I eat organic now? “Yes. And No.” It’s not a great answer, I know. People don’t like ambiguity.
My strategy for answering the organic question these days is to ask, “Do you?”. If the answer is “I want to”, “Of course!”, “I try!”, “I should” or any variant of these, I follow up with, “Why?”
Reasons people tell me they eat organic in (approximate) order of popularity:
- To avoid dangerous chemicals/ pesticides/ toxins (take your pick)
- I’m trying to eat healthier
- They say it’s safer (honestly, who is ‘they’)
- It’s better for my kids (this one makes my blood boil)
- To avoid GMOs
- It’s better for the environment/ more sustainable
- I think it tastes better (honestly, this answer is incredibly rare, but I’m being honest and leaving it here anyway)
Look, if I believed these reasons were true, I would insist on eating all organic all the time. But in learning more about agriculture, food production and our food regulatory system, I now understand how the word organic has been twisted, primarily by those who market organic food, to be something is just isn’t.
First, (and the main take home point of this entire blog post, to be honest) is while there are specific standards for what constitutes ‘organic’ here in Canada, these standards do not inform us about the healthfulness, the safety or the nutrition content of our food. Period.
In fact, on the very first page of the Canadian Organic Standard document, the organic regulations bible, they make this explicit:
Neither this standard nor organic products produced in accordance with this standard represent specific claims about the healthiness, safety and nutrition of such organic products.
This single sentence immediately eliminates half of the most common concerns. Healthier, safer, better for the kids: gone.
So what does the Canadian Organic Standard define as organic?
First, know that choosing organic means you are choosing a food production method.
I’ll repeat it again here (because I’m a persistent woman), these production methods do not make organic food safer or more nutritious. The principal goal of organic production, according to the standard, “is to develop operations that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment”.
This standard is made up of two parts. The first defines the general principles and standards of organic farming, the second is a 75-page list of ‘permitted substances’ which includes everything from crop production aids (pesticides, fertilizer), to animal feed, to animal health care products (pain medication, antibiotics).
Generally speaking, these standards include the following criteria (abbreviated for simplicity).
Organic production must:
- Avoid the use of synthetic products for production, growth, animal health and food processing (pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones and certain medications like antibiotic).
- Prohibit all products of genetic engineering (commonly known at GMOs), nanotechnology (not in use at this point), and irradiation (treating food with radiation to reduce microbes and prolong shelf-life).
- Ensure livestock are provided with organic feed and living conditions and space allowances appropriate to their behavioural requirements.
Let’s work through these a bit, because if these criteria are important to you, then choosing organic may be the right choice for you. I would however, like to add a gentle reminder here: the words “synthetic” and “technology” shouldn’t be vilified because they are part of the standard.
There are trade-offs in using organic methods.
- Overall, there are fewer pesticides used in organic agriculture. That being said, synthetic pesticides can help farmers protect their crops, and improve the quality and quantity of the food they grow, often in a way that is not achievable using organic methods. Not only can this protect a farmer’s livelihood, it keeps food affordable for all Canadians. Pesticides that are naturally derived can, and are used in organic agriculture. Importantly, they are never used indiscriminately, and any residues that remain on the food we eat (synthetic or naturally derived), simply aren’t present in quantities that would impact our health. Remember, not safer. You can read more about pesticide myths here.
- Technologies like genetic engineering, used in conventional agriculture (non-organic) can lead to decreased water usage, improved soil quality, reduced need for pesticides and even improved nutrition profiles. Products of genetic engineering (GMOs) are considered as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts, and have been deemed so by more than 200 of the leading scientific regulatory bodies globally (more on that from me here). To me, this piece of the standard is baffling if the principle goal of organic production is to “develop operations that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment”. There is so much potential in this technology to do just that, and to me, the major trade-offs aren’t obvious.
- Finally, when it comes to animal welfare, the organic standards for ensuring specific living conditions for livestock imply that standards either aren’t in place, or are insufficient for conventionally raised animals. Animal welfare is a concern for all farmers, and it is covered by provincial legislation in Canada. Personally, I am in favour of medications that keep animals healthy and comfortable, including the judicious use of antibiotics to treat sick animals.
Now I want to make this clear. I am NOT an agriculture expert, and what is important to me, may not be important to you. But when it comes down to it, I do not believe that Organic vs. Conventional should be an Us vs Them debate. I think this mindset has been manufactured by organic food marketers, who are using fear based marketing to sell their products at a premium. Fear sells and peace of mind is valuable (I’m looking at you, parents). A great example of this is the yearly Dirty Dozen list, which I’ve called out for being misleading and perpetuating food fear.
I think the concept of organic agriculture was born with great intentions.
The principle to farm in a way that is holistic, that not only produces good quality food, but preserves the environment for long term vitality of farms. I’m on board with that!
When this movement started to grow (ha! see what i did there?), some of our modern food production methods were just being introduced; synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, namely. In hindsight (it’s been about 100 years) we now know that fertilizers and pesticides should be used with discretion, that they can have human and environmental impacts, and that consumers and the planet deserve protection through the use of regulations and standards.
Consider the advances made in human medicine in the last century. We’ve stopped blood letting, we no longer use mercury as a treatment for syphilis, and performing lobotomies is generally frowned upon. We have better healthcare because of the advancement of science, technology, communication and regulatory bodies.
On the whole, when we know better, we do better. Human progress is pretty amazing.
Is it perfect? Nope. Will it ever be? Unlikely.
Today, I’ve learned the push to achieve improved environmental sustainability is a goal among farmers on organic and conventional farms. Science has brought us a better understanding of how important a holistic approach is, and it’s not only organic producers aiming to do better.
I’ve asked a lot of organic and conventional farmers why they grow what they grow.
What I’ve found is:
- There are farmers who choose to grow using organic principles, yet don’t seek certification because it’s cost and time prohibitive.
- There are farmers who choose to seek organic certification so they can reach a niche market, where consumers are willing to pay a premium. This is part of running a successful business.
- There are farmers who choose to use the most innovative and tech-forward options available in order to improve quality, quantity, safety and sustainability (sometimes all at once!). Those options may not be permitted under organic standards.
- There are farmers who choose to grow using a mix of organic and conventional farming principles based on geography, their personal beliefs, their family history, their agronomist’s (plant doctor) advice , what they like to eat, what you like to eat, what makes the most business sense, and a slew of other reasons.
In all of these scenarios, you will find the word “choose”. Farmers choose.
And because they get to choose, we get to choose. How glorious.
But I digress. Back to the matter at hand.
How is Organic food labelled?
- A product can be labelled “organic” if it has been certified by an accredited certification body to meet the Canada Organic Standards.
- Terms such as “organically grown”, “organically raised”, “organically produced” are considered the same as “organic”. As are abbreviations, symbols or phonetic renderings.
- The term ‘certified organic’ is not allowed, since it implies that foods simply labelled ‘organic’ are not regulated.
- In order to use the Canada Organic logo, the produce must have a minimum level of certified organic content. The following infographic illustrates the guidelines perfectly.
These rules are overseen by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (our national food regulatory body) and apply to:
- products that have an organic claim on the label and are sold between provinces or territories or imported
- Any product displaying the Canada Organic Logo on the label
This means organic products sold within provinces are not covered, unless a provincial government has organic legislation.
As of today, provincial organic regulations only exist in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec.
This definitely leaves wiggle room for products labelled and sold within unregulated provinces. That being said, there remains an overarching standard from the Food and Drug Act and the Safe Food for Canadians Act which state that misleading or deceptive food marketing is prohibited. If you’re in doubt about an organic claim say, at a local market, the best way to determine the legitimacy of that claim, it to ask the vendor for their certification.
(I suggest this in the spirit of transparency, not as a ‘gotcha’. It may be these vendors are using organic principles without certification, but certification requires a lot of time and money, so we should always support the effort it takes to play by the rules).
For imported products, Canada has equivalency agreements with a number of countries which certifies products in a similar fashion, and allows the use of the Canada Organic logo. The important thing to note here, is that just because something bears the Canada Organic logo, does not mean it is a product of Canada.
A few final thoughts
In the end, do I have a problem with the labeling? No.
Do I have a problem with the sentiment that organic food = better? Yup.
Should there be separate regulations for organically grown food? I’m not sure, but probably not.
I just don’t think it better informs consumers.
I do think the organic movement has been successful in pushing consumers to think more about their food, to ask more questions and to demand better standards for human, animal and environmental health.
But in 2019, I would love to see more common sense regulations that include a mix of organic and conventional practices based on whatever is best for each unique farming scenario.
Pie in the sky, I guess.
- Consumers choose organic for many reasons, including fear that conventionally produced food isn’t as safe or nutritious.
- These common concerns have been perpetuated by organic food marketers.
- Organic foods are as safe and nutritious at their conventional counterparts.
- Choosing organic means you are choosing a food production method.
- According to the Canadian Organic Standard, the goal of organic production is “to develop operations that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment”.
- By prohibiting some modern food production technology, organic production doesn’t necessarily reflect the ‘best’ way to produce food.
- In Canada, the use of the ‘organic’ label claim is highly regulated.
- While the organic movement has pushed and inspired safer, more sustainable food production overall, continued segregation of ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’ regulations may be hindering our potential to do better.
- I eat organic and conventional food without discrimination, based on taste, affordability and convenience, and I heartily support the farmers producing all of it.
A very special thank you goes our to dietetic intern, Laura Thibodeau who assisted me with the background research for this post. You can find Laura on Instagram @lauras_lunch.3