The term organic has exploded in the last decade in our privileged and health-conscious first world state.
In fact, the global organic industry is now a $50 billion a year industry.
The Canadian arm of this industry, through a six-page “information feature” in the Oct. 14 issue of the Globe and Mail, leveraged that market power and made several assertions that are incorrect and misleading about modern agricultural practice.
First, the assumption that organic production does not use toxic chemical pesticides or antibiotics is misleading.
The organics industry endorses the use of copper and sulfur compounds in its applications. Deemed natural, both of these products are toxic to a broad range of organisms and are long-term soil and environmental contaminants. As well, they are applied at significantly higher rates than synthetic fungicides.
Antibiotics, such as streptomycin and tetracycline, have been used in organic production of orchard crops such as apples for years in the United States.
Antibiotic use is restricted in organic animal production in Canada but can be used when the animal’s life is in jeopardy. In fact, producers are required to do so. No animals with antibiotic residues above a low maximum tolerable level are allowed to be used as food animals, so antibiotics should not be present in the flesh and products of treated animals.
In the case where hormones are used, they essentially cannot be present at levels above those which naturally occur.
Second, a mainstay of organic food propaganda is the insinuation that conventionally grown food or production methods that employ genetically modified crops are unsafe.
Findings in the 2010 A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research report, which was commissioned by the European Commission, did not indicate any increased risk from growing GM crops nor any evidence of risk from consuming food containing GM ingredients.
This does not mean there are no risks because no food is 100 percent safe. Earlier this year, 60 people died and more than 3,000 fell ill after eating organic bean sprouts in the European Union.
It is important to note that organic production methods endorse the use of animal manure as fertilizer for food crops. This “natural” fecal matter is a huge breeding ground for nasty bacteria like salmonella, C. difficile and E.coli.
This leads us to a third myth that organically grown food is the healthier option.
There is no evidence to suggest that organic food is any healthier than conventionally grown food or food containing GM ingredients.
Studies conducted in 2009 and 2010 did not find any consistent nutritional benefits in organic food when compared with conventionally grown food.
No jurisdiction, whether it is the British Food Standards Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Food Standards-Australia New Zealand or Health Canada, permits superior health claims for organic food because there is no scientifically accepted evidence to support them.
The organics industry used the Globe and Mail to launch a creative publicity campaign. It was, essentially, a paid news release meant to generate media attention, which may be readily interpreted by the average consumer as a legitimate journalistic piece.
However, it was really a six-page cluster of misleading information supported by flawed research that disparaged conventional and other agricultural practices.
We cannot continue to assume that organic is the more superior food choice or agricultural practice. The process of bringing food from the farm to the fork is more complex than that.
Ryan is a research associate with the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. Wager is a laboratory demonstrator at Vancouver Island University’s biology department.