Sunday, 16 December 2012

Organic Semantics

Is it just me, or the label "organic" just another reason to double the sticker cost at the grocery store?  I mean, really, how do you justify spending $1.99 an apple, when you can spend $0.99/lb?  It begins to add up when you're feeding 2, 3, 4, or more mouths--and especially when those mouths are teens!  Holy cow can they ever put food back!

I have a little confession to make, just between you and me, of course...I ....don't..... always...... buy.... organic.... produce....

Gasp!  I know, I know.  I've been playing Russian Roulette with my family's health and endangering us all, and....well, hold on a minute!  Let's back that truck up and take a closer look at this...

So why would I want to buy organic?  What, really, does the organic label mean?  We all kind-of assume that "organic" means it's raised without man-made chemical pesticides and hormones.  How bad, really, can those pesticides be, honestly??  They passed the FDA test, right?!  And what about the other side of the coin--nutrition content?

In order to receive an organic label, produce must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, without GMOs, without petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage-based fertilizers, and must be grown in safe, unmodified soil (ref. this link).   The Canadian Government defines it this way--

"The general principals of organic production include the following:
1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological
productivity and promote a sound state of health.
2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
3. Maintain biological diversity within the system.
4. Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
5. Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
6. 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.
7. Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems."  (see this Government of Canada PDF document for more on this)

Sounds promising, right?  Further down in the nitty gritty details that I doubt anyone truly wants to read in its entirety, is a list of what is banned, and that ban covers "...all materials and products produced from genetic engineering" (GMOs) as well as "Synthetic growth regulators...veterinary drugs, including antibiotics... ionizing radiation and forms of irradiation... cloned farm animals and their descendants... "  The list goes on, and covers quite a lot of things we probably even haven't given any thought to, or are completely unaware such things even existed.  This is a fabulous resource, this document, but wow...long and tedious read if you're not into that kind of stuff.

In Canada, as of 2009, organic producers MUST be certified by an accredited agency to be able to use the organic label, which is a great idea, but apparently accreditation companies are not required to test the food being labelled.  They are allowed to accept the words of the farmer/producer as good enough.   The organic farmer IS required to keep detailed records of everything they do, though--so accreditation all boils down to getting an ISO audit (if you've never been part of an ISO audit--I have--the auditor reads your notes, questions why you did what you did, suggests small changes and when you show you've made the changes, your certification follows in the mail).  Also of note; food additives can be used to help maintain the "nutritional value, composition, consistency and appearance", and "stability" of the so-called organic food.  Also, there are sprays out there akin to petroleum-based sprays that do count as "natural" and so can be used--so don't assume that they aren't spraying the crops, just that they're not using specifically identified chemical compounds.  And here's another interesting tidbit--for any food "product" to be classed as organic, it must have at least 70% of its ingredients labelled as organic.  In other words, that $6 can of organic tomato sauce has up to 30% conventional food ingredients in it.  That little tidbit of information came from the actual Cdn. Govt. document 'Organic Products Regulations' here .

The honest truth is that "organic" definitions differ everywhere--country to country, province to province, even farm to farm.  For an awesome list of organic regulations all over Canada, check out this site from Pro-Cert.  It includes not just the regulations in Canada, but also European, Swiss, Taiwan regulations, and how those regulations cross-reference against our own standards.  Neat stuff, if you like reading government documents.  I have always, always questioned the validity of the word "organic" when my cherries have come from somewhere like Chili.  Our standards are not their standards, you know?  But then I found this FAQ article by the CBC--and it totally makes me feel better--scroll down to the end where it discusses imported organic products.  The suggestion is that to be sold as organic here, it must pass OUR standard definition of organic.

Ok, enough poking holes.  Nothing is 100% foolproof, lets be honest.  We'll leave the hole-poking up to the media herehere, and here.  I'll let you decide for yourself on the validity of these articles.  We've all heard those horror stories of organic growers spraying their crops in the middle of the night to avoid detection.  Perhaps I've been listening too much to THOSE kinds of voices in the past.

Know what the best way to really get to the bottom of organics and spraying is?  Get to know the farmer you want to buy it from.  Meet the farmer.  Talk to him.  Tour his farm, see what he does, ask questions.  Most farmers are pretty open to this.  Beware a farmer that isn't.

Organic is great in principal.  And when it comes to produce, some things matter more than others.  We've all heard about the "dirty dozen", right?  Those foods that are just drenched in the worst pesticides out there?  Lets review quickly.  Produce that, on average, contains the highest level of pesticides are:
  • apples
  • carrots
  • peppers
  • celery
  • cherries, blueberries (on some lists but not others)
  • imported grapes
  • kale, spinach, lettuce (and other leafy greens, I would personally add)
  • potatoes
  • imported nectarines
  • peaches
  • pears
  • strawberries
Some lists also include conventional, fatty cuts of meat because all the bad stuff is the most concentrated in the fat--so if you don't buy your beef and pork 'grass-fed' yet, please DO trim all visible fat and replace the fat with a healthier fat like coconut oil until you can find a good grass-fed source.  And coffee is now making this bad list.  And to those of you who consider yourself primal over paleo, milk and milk products are making their way onto this list more and more often as well.  Of course, those of you that I know personally, you already buy all your dairy in its organic form, but not everyone can afford to do that.  I don't buy milk or cream, but I do enjoy butter, so while I do still buy the conventional stuff, I am trying to find an acceptable price on the organic or raw stuff.  I don't buy organic cheese, either, but I do buy Kerrygold brand anything-I-can-get-my-hands-on (their Dublin Cheese is freakin' awesome!).  Kerrygold comes from Ireland, is completely natural and is from 100% pasture-fed cows (not to be confused by pasteurized).   

When it comes to weighing the pro's and con's of organic vs. conventional produce, what's more important (at least to me) is the SECOND list, the list of things that are surprisingly untainted by pesticides for the most part, and this list includes:
  • asparagus
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • avocado
  • eggplant
  • mango
  • kiwi
  • onions
  • sweet potatoes
  • pineapples
  • tomatoes
  • watermelon
I've also recently heard Mark Sisson state that coconut is another product mostly untainted by pesticides.  Whew, because that organic coconut milk is ridiculously over-priced.  We're not looking at Bisphenol-A (BPA) or BHA/BHT here, so don't focus on that problem in this blog post.  That one's for some other time.

Now, both of the above lists are all about pesticides.  They are not any guarantee of nutritional value.  There are a million articles all over the internet lately on how organic-labelled produce is no more nutritious than conventional.  But we already knew that, right?  We don't recommend organic because of its nutritious qualities, we do it to reduce our exposure to any chemicals it was grown with.  If you want to read a bit more on the nutrition topic, this post by Mark Sisson really goes over the topic of nutrient quality.

The truth is that, when it comes to nutrition, fresh is what matters most--it is waaay more important than any organic label.  The closer that food is grown to home, the less time it travels to your table, the more nutritious it's going to be.  Those cherries from the orchard down the road are 10x as nutritious as those organic-labelled cherries at the grocery store that came all the way from Chili.  Which means you HAVE to buy only what's in season as much as possible.  Which probably works in California, but it's kinda challenging in Canada.  Our growing season in Ontario is 5 months long (and other provinces have far shorter growing seasons than we do here).  In October, the farmers markets all close down and its every-man-for-himself unless you live close to some place like the St Lawrence Market.  If you don't, it's grocery-store organic and your food could have traveled from the other side of the world to make it to your table and that organic kiwi you want to toss in a salad might just cost you $5 and still have almost no nutrients left in it anyways when compared to those non-organic strawberries that came from California, which are still less nutritious than the strawberries you picked yourself, in excess, and froze half of them last summer. So you begin to see why I don't always buy organic.  It's only half of the picture and its just not always feasible.

But I do champion the fight to make organic more feasible for more people.  That is a fight I can get behind.  People deserve to eat food that is uncontaminated by synthetic pesticides, they deserve fresh, affordable, and nutritous food.  Large families should not have to eat inferior food just because they have less money and more mouths to feed.  Local and organic foods should be the normal food sold everywhere, it should not be the exception to the rule, and yet it is.  Organic is something that only a select few can afford.

Organic is a choice, and it is not something that either makes you paleo, or not.  You have to decide what works for you, and what does not.  I ate conventional meats until I could find a good, affordable source for grass-fed.  It is much the same with organic produce.  I buy what I can afford, and I focus on the worst offenders first, and I don't sweat the rest.  I do what I can.  Organic isn't a bad idea.  At least, for some things it does seem to make sense.  Of course, knowing that doesn't help with the sticker shock of buying said organic item, so you really have to pick and choose what matters most to you personally, and to your family, when you consider buying organics.  Personally, I would put buying locally above buying organic, every time.  I want to support the small farms that surround my community, and I KNOW that they have not traveled far to my table.  I want to know where my food comes from, and everything else will follow.

So with all of that in mind, know that there are ways to make organic easier on the wallet, and more nutritious, including:
  • Shop your farmers markets whenever you can; often these items are priced fairly competitively, and they are always local and organic--a double bonus.  Plus, you are supporting your local farmers and local economy.  How can that go wrong?
  • Buy what's in-season--easier said than done in Canada, I know, but more and more organic farmers are using greenhouses to grow tender greens, making them in-season even in the wintertime.  
  • Buy from your local CSA.  There are tonnes around the Toronto area, and several in my area that actually deliver FOR FREE!  Depending on the CSA, some even let you tell them what you don't want in your box (potatoes and corn).  I will definitely be testing this out in 2013.   Looks like I'll be paying about $40/wk, which I already spend in the grocery store anyway, so I'm sold.  
  • Consider freezing and other means of preservation.  You'll thank yourself in the winter when you're still eating cheap local organic and everyone else is paying a fortune for theirs at the store...
  • Get to know your local farmers, and buy directly from the farmer.  It does take time to search out the farmers in the area, and get to know them, but it is so worth it.  Knowing your food's source is awesome.  I adore my grass-fed beef supplier, and have a couple of good sources for chicken, but I'm still looking for an affordable source of grass-fed pork and eggs at a price I can justify.  See?  No one is perfect at this.  It takes time to make these changes.
  • Join a buying group.  I cannot stress this one enough.  Why do all the research yourself when you can let someone else do the research for you?  Let them find the best sources and prices, and by buying in bigger groups, you're likely to get better and better prices.  It also means you don't have to buy a half cow all by yourself to get that great price.  
  • Buy an extra freezer--even a used freezer from some place like Kijiji.  So that when you find that elusive and awesome price, stock up!  (Know that a 7.5 cu ft freezer will not quite hold a half cow...maybe consider buying 2 freezers--one for a cow, and the other for everything else)

So with all of that in mind, the decision remains yours to make.  If I had a million dollars, would I buy nothing but organic?    Well, I'd probably buy MORE things organic than I do now, sure.  But I think I'd still rather focus my efforts on buying everything local, to meet all of the farmers in my region and find a way to have all my food brought straight from the farm to my house.  That would be sweet!

So here's the last question of the day...  I pose it to anyone out there who can answer me this--  why does my organic apple still feel like it has a wax coating on it?  Does anyone know?  Anyone???

Huh?  Don't believe everything you see.

Thanks for reading.

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