When I browse through headlines on organic food, common themes seem to be price, pesticides, and nutrition. Of course as consumers we want to know if organic is better for us to justify paying the extra bucks. But there’s more to the story than that.
The organic perspective doesn’t just consider if food is better for me, but considers whether it was treated with chemicals that contaminate drinking water; how much CO2 was produced to grow it; and if its’ growing inputs will kill off aquatic life miles away. If we look beyond our plates we see that organic is a way of viewing agriculture long term. It envisions fostering healthy relationships between people, the land, plants, animals, and other organisms we share the planet with. Organic is about a wider, sustainable system.
And organic doesn’t just apply to foods but fibre crops—such as cotton and hemp that are used for textiles and other manufactured goods—and ingredients that are used in cleaners, supplements, personal care products, etc. The scope of what organic encompasses is enormous, so let’s start with the basics in “Organic 101” to kick off our series on exploring organic.
When a product is called ‘organic,’ what does that mean?
According to the Organic Trade Association, organic doesn’t just refer to the way the crops are grown and animals are raised, but to how they are processed. Behind the organic label is a whole network of growers, handlers, processors and distributors that adhere to established standards to maintain the integrity of a product from farm to retail.
Every country has different standards for organic labelling, but Canada has equivalency agreements with the US and the EU. If you’re really keen, check out the difference between organic claims in Canada (what organic vs. made with organic ingredients really means).
What is organic about? What are the principles it’s based on?
For Canada, our official standards say organic principles are to:
- Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.
- Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
- Maintain biological diversity within the system.
- Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
- Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
- Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing, and handling methods in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production.
- Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.
And more specifically for organic food:
Organically produced foods also must be produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Cloning animals or using their products would be considered inconsistent with organic practices. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.
What are some organic practices?
Organic practices are incredibly diverse as growers work with their respective environments, but according to Only Organic, some common practices are:
- Building healthy soil
- Working with beneficial insects
- Crop rotation
- Using buffer zones
- Growing cover crops
We’ve only scratched the surface of what organic is and its impacts. What’s the big deal about GMOs? What are the costs built into organic pricing? Who’s in charge of regulating organic? Is it more important to buy organic or local?
What would you like to discuss? We want hear from you!
Also, check out Canada’s National Organic Week (September 20th-28th). It’s the largest annual celebration of organic food, farming and products across the country. See how you can get take part at organicweek.ca, or visit their Facebook and Twitter.