Surveys of organic consumers in North America have shown that the main reason we buy organic is because we think it’s better for us; less chemicals, more nutrients. And these are true, although recent studies have shown that even organic produce can get contaminated with pesticides and there is some conflicting evidence on increased nutrients of organic food. (But here’s a study showing increased phenolic content of organically grown food – phenols are good for your health!)
But that’s not what I see is being the main reason we should be buying organic and I hope those few news stories won’t deter you from buying organic either.
This week a guest on CBC’s The Sunday Edition was talking about groups in society that seem to fight reason and have a distrust of science. This might bring to mind the right-wing climate change deniers. Or maybe the anti-vaccine group. And the guest threw out a third group – “those organic people” who think organic is better for you.
I immediately yelled back at the radio “You’re missing the point!” I don’t think he heard me, but I hope you do.
Whether or not organic has more nutrients, it is so much more than that. And I think that seeing organic as good or bad for human consumption is frankly a little selfish. Organic farming has been shown to be good for biodiversity. For example organic farms and their surrounding land have been shown to have higher diversity of birds. It deceases demand for nitrogen fertilizer which is a costly, petroleum-based product that pollutes waterways. If you live next to an organic farm you don’t need to worry about a farmer spraying pesticides on a windy day while your kids are out playing. Did you know that one of the six main principles of the Canadian Organic Standards is about animal welfare? Organic dairy farms have to have their cows out on a pastures for a minimum number of days, whereas a conventional dairy can keep them in a barn 365 days a year.
Here’s an issue created by conventional farming that I only just found out on my trip to Manitoba. Some conventional farmers spray herbicides just outside the edge of the field, killing any weeds that grow on the edge of the surrounding ditch. Once those plants die there’s nothing holding the soil in place and the ditch collapses. The government then has to re-dig that ditch, using taxpayer dollars. A costly consequence of conventional farming I would have never thought of until I saw it happening.
That same survey I mentioned at the beginning of this post showed that the main reason Europeans buy organic food is because they think it’s better for the environment. What an interesting cultural difference. One that I hope we can adopt too.
So while it’s not practical for most people to buy 100% organic due to price and availability, I do want everyone to think about the whole farming system when you make decisions around buying food. Think about the entire chain – from the farm, to processing, to transport, to buying and cooking. It’s so much more than just what goes in your mouth.
So if you buy organic (or even think about buying organic) because you think it’s better for you, I invite you to shift your thinking to what’s better for the whole system. Think big!
I use the term ‘conventional’ in this post and if you don’t know agriculture terminology this might not mean much. Basically any agriculture that’s not organic is classified as ‘conventional’, although that includes a spectrum of farming practices and not all conventional farms are managed in the exact same way.