Organic sector must keep claims real, educate public

It is good that the Canadian organic movement is talking about the pitfalls of making over-reaching claims about being GM free.


Extravagant claims about purity misinform the public and lead to unrealistic expectations that food can be 100 percent unadulterated. Such faulty thinking can lead to unworkable government regulations, trade barriers and consumer myths that hurt the entire agricultural industry.


Dag Falck of Nature’s Path told the Guelph Organic Conference at the University of Guelph this month that because of the widespread use of genetically modified varieties in major crops such as canola, corn and soybeans, it is impossible for food that contains those ingredients to be totally free of GM content.


“It does not matter how philosophically pure you want to be, it isn’t going to happen….There is no such thing as zero percent of anything.”


The movement needs to do a better job of educating the public about the benefits and limitations of the organic certification process. Simplistic claims that organic food is GM free or pesticide free are misleading and ignore the realities of the modern world.


Organic certification simply means the farmer follows a code of practice and maintains a paper trail that confirms the code has been followed. In Canada, there is no testing to determine what the harvested product actually contains. The integrity of the system largely depends on the integrity of those using it.


The system reduces the exposure of organic crops to GMOs and pesticides, but can’t eliminate them. Pollen from conventional GM crops drifts in the air, as does pesticide residue.


And it is important to recognize the weight of scientific evidence that shows the benefits of an abundant and affordable food supply made possible by today’s technologies vastly outweighs whatever the minuscule danger might be behind such minute residues.


The Canadian government’s organic standard recognizes the limitations of the organic system, stating it “cannot assure that organic products are entirely free of residues of prohibited substances and other contaminants.”


However, too many organic proponents represent their products inaccurately.


The big U.S. organic and natural food retailer Whole Foods ran into controversy last fall when employees at stores in California were caught on video making untrue blanket claims that its foods have no GMOs, pesticides, growth hormones or preservatives. The chain carries many foods identified as “natural,” which have no defined standards and which do contain GMOs. As well, as already noted, even organic products likely have GMO content.


Over-reaching claims about organic food, as well as implied and overt vilification of the conventional food system, go far beyond Whole Foods, as any internet search will confirm.


By creating false perceptions of 100 percent purity, the organic industry opens itself to consumer backlash and even lawsuits. More importantly, it gives consumers unrealistic expectations about all food, organic and conventional, which prompts them to pressure lawmakers to introduce zero tolerance rules.


An example is the European Union’s unreasonable and unworkable zero tolerance restrictions on Canadian flax. Minuscule traces of a GM variety, Triffid, have almost destroyed a once profitable trade, despite the fact there was never evidence Triffid presented a health danger.


Canada’s government is leading an international effort to create rules for dealing with low-level unintended and unapproved GMO presence in commodity shipments.


Similar thinking is needed throughout the food industry, including the organic sector, that low levels of GMOs are generally unavoidable and should be accommodated.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.