Organic food is popping up everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Major grocery chains including Walmart, Loblaws, Superstore and Dominion, and many other stores across Canada and the United States are allocating valuable floor space to selling organic products, and companies are building and growing organic-only stores and organic co-ops like The Big Carrot, Kootenay, and Karma. Whole Foods Markets are also being constructed every year in Canada, US and the UK, and even the major food manufacturers are jumping on board by creating or buying out (in the case of Green and Black’s) organic companies just so that they can get a piece of the organic pie.
But what does this all mean? Does it mean that we’re getting better quality food on our tables when we buy organic food? Does that mean that an organic apple from South America is better than an apple that was grown locally on a non-organic farm? Or are we just paying more money for an organic labeled product when we could save some coin and just buy fresh, locally grown produce?
First off, please note that I’m not comparing organic foods to genetically modified products – there is absolutely NO doubt in my mind that GM products are dangerous to our health and I strongly believe that genetically modified products should never be consumed by any human or animal.
Read the following statistics about organic foods :
- Organic food is the fastest growing sector in agriculture, with sales increasing by 20% per year.
- Organic livestock production is increasing dramatically. From 2004 to 2005, the beef herd increased by 30%, sheep numbers by 19%, layers by 20% and broilers by 56%.
- The number of certified organic processors and handlers increased by 47% between 2004 and 2005, with the largest increases observed in British Columbia and Quebec.
With such a drastic increase in the production of organic foods, one might think that it is always a better choice to go for organic products versus everything else that can be found in the supermarket.
The issue of Organic vs Local is actually an ongoing debate and, in the end, you will have to decide what’s best for you and your family. Before making your decision, think about the following factors.
Unripe Picking and Ethylene Gas
All fruits and vegetables (both organic and non-organic), before being shipped thousands of miles to their destination, are generally picked unripe and transported (sometimes for periods of up to 2 weeks) to their destination. Before reaching the stores, these foods are exposed to Ethylene gas in order to quicken the ripening process. That is, a lemon may be picked when it is still green, transported thousands of miles, and then exposed to Ethylene gas to hasten the ripening process making the lemon turn yellow. If the lemon was picked before it ripened, did it really have enough time to absorb the proper amount of nutrients during its limited growth phase?
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that, “Food irradiation is the process of exposing food to a controlled amount of energy called ‘ionic radiation’. There are three different types of radiation allowed: Gamma rays, X-rays and electron beam radiation.” 
RADIATION?!?! Yes, radiation – the same stuff that you see in comic books, but this time no superheroes are being created. Many foods which cross into Canada are irradiated for several reasons.
- Prevent food poisoning by reducing the level of harmful bacteria like E.Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and parasites
- Prevent spoilage by destroying bacteria, molds and yeast
- Increasing shelf life by slowing the ripening or sprouting in fresh fruits and vegetables
Food irradiation is not mandatory according to the CFIA. Currently, the following foods are irradiated and approved for sale in Canada:
- Whole wheat flour
- Whole ground spices
- Dehydrated seasonings
The CFIA is proposing to expand this list by including fresh and frozen ground beef, fresh and frozen poultry, prepackaged fresh, frozen, prepared dried shrimp and prawns, and mangoes.
To many, food irradiation may sound like a good idea, and I do have to agree that it sounds good in THEORY, but in REALITY, it’s a nightmare waiting to come true in about another 30 to 50 years.
To find out more issues with irradiating food, click here.
Supporting Your Local Economy
Buying local helps to sustain farmers and their families in your region. What’s even better is if you buy from a local farmer’s market as each farmer gets to sell their products directly to the consumer, thus increasing their take-home profits and keep their farms operating efficiently.
The BBC recently aired an interesting piece about a UK study which found that in Great Britain, the total environmental cost of importing organic produce could be higher than that of non-organic local produce, because of the long distances the food had to travel to get to the market.
Imagine the total environmental impact from the airplanes, ships and trucks that transport food overseas – the carbon footprint must be huge! (click here to calculate your carbon footprint) A 2002 Worldwatch report says that a typical meal made with ingredients from a supermarket takes 4 to 17 times more petroleum consumption in transport than the same meal made from local ingredients. Also, take a look at this article from Dale Allen Pfeiffer, about how much energy it takes to produce food (click here).
Personal Financial Costs
Currently, consumers are paying, on average, a 50 to 100 percent premium to buy organic products versus a comparable conventionally grown product. The higher price can due to many factors including supply and demand, overhead costs, and price possible gouging. (Oops, did I just say that?)
It’s true, high demand usually increases the cost of a product due to limited supply and corporate profit taking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of businesses making a profit, but when it costs you $1.75 to buy a single lemon, I have to start thinking that someone is taking advantage of us consumers.
Not all farms can grow the same foods year round. Therefore, you if you stick to locally grown foods, you may be finding yourself with possible limitations in food choices every season. If you live in a colder climate, like in Canada or the northern United States, you may only find only root vegetables and low, sprawling foods from local farmers. If you’re lucky, some farmers may have greenhouses or specially equipped farms in order to expand their variety of foods.
Several studies have suggested that organically grown foods contain higher levels of vitamins and other nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts. In a paper published in October in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a team from the University of California, Davis, demonstrated that organically grown tomatoes had significantly more vitamin C than conventionally grown tomatoes. However, the very same study showed no significant differences between conventional and organic bell peppers.
There is something to be said about knowing who exactly is growing your food and where it is from. Instead of placing our faith in science by allowing imported foods to be ‘cleansed’ of their impurities, it would be great to know that the food I am feeding myself and my family is as close as natural as possible, and was picked just days ago on a farm an hour’s drive away.
Worldwatch researcher, Brian Halweil, states, “Locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste advantage. It’s harvested at the peak of ripeness and doesn’t have to be fumigated, refrigerated, or packaged for long-distance hauling and long shelf-life.”
Now, it may seem that I am biased towards locally grown foods being the better choice and, in some ways, you might be right. However, I’m not convinced that you have to only choose from these two options. I think your best bet would be to choose local and organic if the option is available to you in your region. Why local and organic? Because you get the best of both worlds, of course!
So, what’s your pick?
 Canadian Organic Growers, Quick Facts about Canada’s Organic Sector, http://www.cog.ca/orgquickfacts.htm
 Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Food Irradiation http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/concen/tipcon/irrade.shtml