Tag Archives: agriculture

Buying Local, Sustainable, Ethical Meat

by Julia Smith

Blue Sky Ranch, Merritt, B.C. 

Seems like everyone is selling “local, sustainable, ethical” meat these days. It’s big business and even companies like Walmart and McDonald’s are cashing in on consumer demand for products that are produced using methods that take issues like animal welfare and the environment into consideration. There are all kinds of certification and labelling systems designed, in theory, to bridge the gap between production methods and consumer knowledge. But, for all these efforts, the waters just seem to be getting muddier and muddier, and increasingly words like “local”, “sustainable” and “ethical” are being diluted to the point where they don’t mean much any more.

One hopeful thing I’ve noticed is that, in general, farmers are quite forthcoming and trustworthy when it comes to communicating about their practices. The problem seems to be with the middle man and their inevitable team of sales people, marketers and spin doctors. So if you are a consumer who cares where your food comes from and wants to make responsible choices that reflect your values, here are a few pointers.

Find the Farmer

I’m in a unique position being both a consumer and a farmer which has allowed me to realize that you simply cannot believe everything people tell you, especially if they are not the farmer. I see meat that I know was produced using conventional methods being marketed as “grass-fed”,” natural”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “ethical” every day. That’s the bad news. The good news is that farmers will generally tell you the truth. So before you buy from a retailer, restaurant, etc., find out where they get their meat.

A lot of places get their meat from a distributor, so you may have to go through a second level of screening at this point before you can get the name of the actual farm. Most distributors source from a number of different farms that employ a wide range of standards and practices and it can be difficult or impossible to pin down from where the meat you are interested in purchasing really came from. In that case, you should assume that your meat is coming from the farm that has the lowest standards because they tend to produce much higher quantities than the smaller farms with higher standards.

Ask the Farmer Questions

In this golden age of technology, getting the story straight from the horse’s mouth can be as easy as typing the name of the farm into your smartphone. Many farms have extensive web sites that can answer most of the questions you are asking. If you can’t find the answers you are looking for online, contact the farm directly. Here are some good questions to ask.

  1. Do the animals get to go outside? 
    If the answer is “yes,” ask for more information about how and when and what the outdoor conditions are like. A tiny door in the end of a giant barn that is sometimes open and leads to a small concrete pad might not be what you had in mind.
  2. How much space do the animals have?
    This should be a fairly straightforward math problem. Take the size of the enclosure and divide it by the number of animals in the enclosure.
  3. Are the animals physically altered in any way?
    Practices such as de-beaking & toe-clipping birds and tail-docking of pigs are often employed in situations where large numbers of animals are housed together in a small space.
  4. What do they eat?
    “Grass-fed” doesn’t mean that the animals didn’t spend the last 4 months of their lives consuming huge quantities of grain in a feed lot. “Organic” doesn’t mean local ( and remember that “local” is only useful as a geographic reference). Commercial feed comes with a huge footprint so a general rule should be – the less commercial feed the animals eat, the better.
  5. Any “Hidden” Confinement Systems?
    Remember to look at ALL parts of the system. Are calves removed from their mothers shortly after birth and confined in tiny pens alone? Are mother pigs kept in gestation crates? How are the hens who laid the eggs that hatched into chickens that ultimately become meat or egg laying birds raised? Are the cattle pictured on a web site in open grassy meadows sent to a crowded feed lot for finishing?

A Word About Third Party Certification

If the farm participates in any kind of certification process, research that certification. You might find that what passes for “animal welfare” in some of these systems, is not in line with your personal values.

This post reproduced with permission.


Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).

Table 1
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450

Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.

So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.


Food Security in the 21st Century: A Global View

by Stan Hirst

The Suzuki Elders’ Educational and Community Engagement Working Group have identified food security as one of several focuses for its ongoing educational programme.  Two salons on the subject have been held in recent months (summarized at this link and at this link). These meetings were structured as community events and so understandably had a major focus on food issues, concerns and policies in Canada and more specifically in Vancouver and the B.C. lower mainland.

We live in an increasingly connected world. Canada is far from immune to offshore trends, changes and impacts as recent religious conflicts, refugees, pandemics and economic shifts have made clear. It is therefore useful, possibly informative, to examine briefly the hugely important concern of food security from a more global perspective.

Most people in Canada seldom worry about where their next meal is coming from. The most recent statistics indicate that in 2011–2012 only about 5% of Canadian children and 8% of Canadian adults lived in food insecure households. This means that they did not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money. Nunavut currently has the highest rate of food insecurity (36.7%), over four times the Canadian average (8.3%).

In 1900 two in every five Canadian workers laboured on a farm; now the number is more like one in 100.  Statistics Canada data show that in 2015 we imported nearly $50 billion worth of food and agricultural products from a total of 175 countries, a figure strongly suggesting that Canada is a long way from food sufficiency (and/or that our appetites are considerably wider in scope than what is produced by our own farms).

Other parts of the globe are not as fortunate or as affluent. According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) some 2 billion of the world’s current 7.3 billion people do not have enough to eat. Some countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, to name just a few, depend heavily on handouts of food from international donors such as the UN’s World Food Programme.

By 2050 the global population is projected to reach 10 billion. Add this to the rising demand in the Third World for meat, fish, milk and eggs which require extra fodder to produce, and the extra food needed by 2050 is estimated to be about 70% higher than was produced in 2009 (when the calculation was last made).

Where will all this extra food come from? Indications are that in developed countries the productivity of many staples such as rice and wheat has reached a plateau. Neither new strains nor expensive agrochemicals are raising yields significantly. Unfarmed land that is suitable for agricultural production is no longer available in economically viable amounts in most countries.  To make the situation worse, large agricultural areas in poor tropical regions are now becoming significantly less productive due to increased droughts and increased hail and flooding damage brought about by global climate change. Positive changes in the agricultural potential of northern areas wrought by the same climate changes are thus far too slow and globally insignificant to offset the losses.

What to do now?  Two avenues still remain open for positive change – the development, application and dissemination of new technologies, and the implementation of rational and appropriate government policies.

Agricultural technology is changing at an ever-increasing tempo, much of it driven by corporations and rich-world farmers in North America and parts of Australia and South America.  Crop breeding and cultivation techniques, especially genome-based breeding that can create crops with special properties almost to order, has been applied at increasing rates in the West for a quarter of a century.  They are now being adapted to make tropical crops such as cassava and some rice strains more productive and more nutritious. Such ‘smart’ crop breeding, in combination with genetic modification could conceivably break through the present yield plateaus. It could very well produce crops with properties such as drought- and heat-resistance that will mitigate the effects of global warming. Drought-resistant maize created in this way is already on the market.

Technology is of little use, however, if it is not adopted. In the developing world agricultural innovation applies to existing farming techniques as well as to the latest advances in genetic modification. So far yield plateaus have been a significant phenomenon only in the most intensively farmed parts of the world. Extending the best of today’s agricultural practices to the smallholders and subsistence farmers of Africa and Asia would get them quite a way down the road to a 70% increase in output, which is the figure cited to avoid future widespread famine. Improved infrastructure like better roads and markets would also encourage productivity and growth.

The FAO estimates that about a third of food is lost globally during or after harvest. In rich countries much of that is thrown away by consumers. In poor countries it never reaches consumers in the first place. Bad harvesting practices, poor storage and slow transportation mean that much food is damaged, spoiled or lost to pests. Overcoming such waste in Africa and Asia is largely a matter building things like secure, pest-proof grain storage silos.

The Suzuki Elders have thus far not addressed food security issues on scales larger than urban (Vancouver) or regional (British Columbia lower mainland).  The first step in widening the scope could well be a sensitisation of members and supporters to the magnitude and gravity of the situation.  Hopefully this post will contribute towards that.


Food Security in the 21st Century: Are we prepared?

April  18,  2018.  Fifteen elders from the North Shore ElderCollege Society and the Suzuki Elders sat around paper-strewn tables in the Capilano Library, North Vancouver, and considered a topic of great importance to elders and to everyone else.  How secure is our food supply and what should we be doing to ensure its security in the forthcoming years?

We were guided in the deliberations by three experts on the topic:

  • Grant Rice – Education and Planning Coordinator for Burnaby Food First, a group of community members and local agencies working together to bring food security to Burnaby, B.C.
  • Karen Morton, President of EcoUrbia, a not-for-profit organization advocate for local food and organics, extended producer responsibility, ethical e-waste recycling and waste reduction strategies.
  • Tara Moreau, Associate Director, Sustainability and Community Programs, UBC Botanical Gardens.

After some hours of deliberating and scribbling notes on scratch-pads we found ourselves the proud possessors of a trove of questions,  answers to some of them and, perhaps most significantly, a series of themes on food security which urgently need to be addressed in the coming months and years.

This was the Suzuki Elders second effort at a community deliberation on food security (the first is described at this link).  It has become apparent to us that the subject is complex, multifaceted and often misunderstood.  It urgently needs to be discussed and teased out a lot more.

In the interest of establishing a baseline of questions and items which need to be acknowledged and explored further, we proudly present here…..ta daaaa …. our itemized notes.



We would much appreciate questions and comments on what we’ve achieved so far.  It is our intention to keep the community focus on the theme of food security.  Without it, we won’t get too far into the future.


Food Security in the 21st Century: Are We Prepared?

by Stan Hirst

The question of food security has long been an item of debate amongst the Suzuki Elders. Based as we are in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, we often hear concerns over Canada’s exposure to impacts to the food supply system from factors such as loss of B.C. farmland from urbanization and industrialization, and the threats to our crop imports posed by climate change.

Canada’s food supply

The Canadian food supply system is complex and sometimes paradoxical. Statistics Canada reports that ¾ of the food bought in Canadian stores is produced domestically. But StatsCan data also shows that in 2015 we imported nearly $50 billion worth of food and agricultural products from a total of 175 countries. The records show that the US is the source of more than half of all our imported food.

Is our food supply at risk?

Its a simple question, but one which is difficult to answer clearly from the available statistical data. Just within the past two years California, Brazil, North Korea, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Zimbabwe have had major droughts which has measurably impacted their agricultural outputs and the local food supplies.

Climate monitoring in many parts of the world, including British Columbia as well as in some regions in the U.S. which are the source of foods exported to Canada, has revealed significant changes in parameters such as rainfall, soil moisture and groundwater availability which could be influencing agricultural crop production. But it is not easy to draw firm conclusions on the effects on food production because there are so many other factors besides climate which affect production and marketing, e.g. market prices, trade tariffs, competition, marketing strategies, etc.

A salon on food security

On 24 February 2016 the Suzuki Elders took a step towards a better understanding of food security in B.C. and especially the lower mainland by hosting  a salon on Food Security in the 21st Century: Are We Prepared?   The Elders wish to record their appreciation to the four speakers who provided keynote addresses to the salon:

Janine de la Salle, principal of Urban Food Strategies, a consultancy focussed on planning, engagement, design, and implementation projects for healthy communities and resilient regional food and agriculture systems.

Ross Moster, founder of Village Vancouver, the official Transition Initiative for the city of Vancouver and a hub for communities throughout the B.C. Lower Mainland in taking actions to build sustainable and resilient communities, cities and bioregions.

Heather Pritchard, Farm Program Manager  for FarmFolkCityFolk, a non-profit society working to cultivate local, sustainable food systems.

Rick Barichello: Professor, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia, specializing in agricultural economics and public policy analysis.

How is ‘food security’ defined?

The generally accepted definition is that published by the FAO in 2001 in its policy document The State of Food Insecurity 2001:

Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life

What characterizes the current food insecurity situation in Canada?

Environmental factors

Intensive farming on  industrial scales has led to widespread loss of topsoils and a reduction in the diversity of food crops produced for the market.

A number of causative factors have impacted bee populations and reduced the availability of bees to perform crop pollination.

Climate change is affecting agricultural crop production in many areas, and poses an even greater risk for the future. We have passed the point of no return to any previous situation; climatic thresholds have changed.  The costs of climate mitigation are too costly for the poorest sectors.

Economic factors

Control of agricultural food production is now dominated by corporate interests with a primary concern for the bottom line and a reduced sense of responsibility for community welfare. Food production has become a business rather than a social or health enterprise – this affects marketing, ingredients, use of GMOs and other issues. Monocultures and uniformity of growth, season of cultivation and crop conformation are typical preferences of corporate agro-industries.

Agricultural land has become expensive and is subject to usurpation by industrial and urban demands.

The rising prices of agricultural inputs such as energy and water are impacting crop production.

Rejection of science & technology by large segments of society affect the levels and rates at which science and technological innovations are implemented.

Society’s incessant striving for income growth has been leading to more GHG emissions and more demands for improvements in nutrition.

Social factors

Modern society is characterized by unhealthy food habits. Society has a poor knowledge of food origins, composition or nutritive values. Society seldom connect the food back to its origins. Decisions on food purchase are poorly made. Children are often ignorant about food and its selection.

Locally grown foods are usually touted as an alternative to store-bought items. These may not always meet nutritional requirements, especially for proteins.

The farmer cohort is getting older and smaller in numbers.  Agricultural land is coming under the control of younger, less interested ownership.

Economic instability has led to a situation where many people can’t afford food. Urban food deserts are a feature of many metropolitan areas. The ratio of food expenses to family income is a standard metric for food security.

Government Responses

Governments typically cannot afford the luxury of just one food policy. There are too many driving factors, too many competing demands.

Canadian government responses to the challenges of food security has been variable but also progressive. A healthy food system is one component of the Healthy Built Environment programme managed by B.C. Provincial Health Services.

Typical federal responses to the challenges of ensuring food security include institutional adaptation, attempted elimination of trade barriers, directing funds to support public goods, encouraging incentives and providing economic growth to the poor sectors.

Salon Participant Reactions to Food Security

The most important thing I learned today was………

  • food security is complex but not impossible to understand
  • there are trade-offs involved in implementing food security
  • much is being done by individuals and groups to secure our food but they don’t seem to feel very positive about their efforts
  • how complex the problem is, but also how vital it is to solve the problems of economic insecurity, foreign ownership, corporate control without responsibility, education, spending money wisely, supporting local communities, and supporting agriculture
  • we may be facing the end of easy food
  • there are threats but also opportunities: young people are interested in food security work and in farming;  they just need a chance!


To eat or not to eat….organic foods

by Peggy Olive

A recent Stanford study has received a lot of attention because it finds that organic foods are no more nutritious than those grown “conventionally”. Apparently this comes as a surprise to many, although there have been similar reports in the scientific literature over the years. Leaving aside the fact that until the 20th century all food was grown organically, does this mean that we’re wasting our money paying extra for organically grown foods?

It’s not obvious to me why crops grown organically should contain more vitamins and minerals. That’s determined genetically for the most part. Popeye eats spinach and not green beans because of the higher vitamin and mineral content of spinach. The level of vitamins is also closely tied to the time since harvest. Vitamin C levels drop precipitously in many vegetables held at room temperature or even some kept in our refrigerators for a few days. If concerned only about nutrition, eating freshly-picked vegetables from your local gardens makes more sense than buying organic foods from afar.

Food safety issues are no different for organic and non-organic foods, although many people think the higher price paid for organic foods should make them safer to eat. There’s also no reason to believe that organic meat comes from animals that have been treated more humanely than animals fed hormones or antibiotics.

So why should we choose to eat foods grown organically if they aren’t more nutritious, they aren’t safer to eat, and the animals haven’t led happier lives?

An excellent reason to eat organic foods is because they are grown without the use of pesticides, additives, and hormones that we should avoid for health reasons. Just as important, organic refers not only to the food itself, but how it was produced. Organic foods are grown using methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity, considered key elements of environmentally sustainable agriculture. Monoculture and intensive farming methods using petroleum-based fertilizers depletes the soil of important organisms that supply nutrients to growing plants. Soil degradation has been of concern for a long time in Canada and elsewhere, and ultimately conventional farming practices result in reduced crop yields, now exacerbated by climate change.

The argument has made that organic farming methods cannot increase agricultural productivity because they are too inefficient. However, the UN Environmental Program reported in 2008 that organic farming practices in Africa outperformed industrial, chemical-intensive conventional farming, and improved soil fertility, retention of water, and resistance to drought. Scientific studies support the conclusion that organic farming methods are better at retaining soil productivity than conventional methods.

Ten benefits of organic farming/ organic food

  • Better for our environment, by definition: A production system that integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
  • Not treated with pesticides, hormones, or potentially toxic additives
  • Safer for farm workers (limits exposure to toxins)
  • Safer for farm animals
  • Safer for crop pollinators
  • Better for soil (fosters biodiversity, water retention, productivity)
  • Animals not fed animal by-products
  • Not genetically modified (when labelled 100% organic)
  • Not treated with antibiotics so organic meat contains less antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • More likely to be farmed locally (fresher)

The major disadvantage of organic food is the price you will pay at your supermarket checkout, typically 10-40% higher. Organic foods are more expensive because production costs are higher. Production costs are higher because farming methods are more labour intensive and there is potentially greater crop loss from pests. Because the price is higher, the choice to eat organic foods is not always available to those on limited incomes, and this could be viewed as a social equity issue. Certifying that the organic food you buy has actually been grown organically and is chemically free is an ongoing concern. To counter this problem, Canadian organic food now bears a logo but more oversight is required.

Fortunately, not all the foods we eat need to be grown organically if we want to significantly reduce our exposure to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group, a U.S. based non-profit organization specializing in research and advocacy to protect public health and the environment, has given us a list of the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables that are likely to present with the highest levels of pesticides, so it makes sense to use your “organic dollars” to buy these ones. Now, if only my aging mind could remember which ones are best to buy ‘organic’ when standing in front of the vegetable displays and fruit bins.

It is true that some of the benefits of organic food might be accomplished by no-till farming methods and by the use of genetically modified foods (GMFs) that are naturally pesticide-resistant or tolerant to environmental stresses. No-till methods will improve the soil, but many GMFs are grown to be resistant to the drugs used to kill the weeds or pests, and we, like honeybees, are not resistant. The potential of GMFs to add new toxins, allergens and genetic hazards to our food supply is a concern for many consumers and the paucity of studies on the long-term safety of GMFs has been reported in the scientific literature.

As demand for organic food grows, economies of scale will reduce cost to the consumer and cost to the farmer who implements organic farming practices. Before we complain about the price of organic foods, we need to be reminded of how little of our income we actually spend on food. In 1961, Canadians spent on average 19% of their income on food, but by 2005 this had dropped to 9.3%. In comparison, Europeans spend about 15% of their income on food, South Americans about 30%, and Africans more than 40%. Also, we shouldn’t forget how much food we waste. Total losses and wastage in the food chain can reach 50% in Western countries, so we would pay much less for our food if we simply reduced waste. With the benefits of organic foods listed above (which do not include nutrition per se) and the low relative cost for food in this country, price alone becomes a poor excuse for not choosing to eat organic foods.

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