Last week CBC ran day after day of stories about the CFIA findings that almost half of organic products randomly tested had traces of pesticides.
CFIA concluded that about eight percent appeared to have been deliberately treated with pesticides. The rest of the 45.8 percent – who knows? Somehow it contained stuff it wasn’t supposed to.
Other media carried a few stories about these findings, but CBC spent a lot of time going through the results and exploring what it meant. To CBC, it was a big, big story.
That’s exactly why organic farmers need to be worried about fraud in the industry. CBC was accurately responding to its audience, which is largely urban and urbane, mostly from the well-educated parts of cities – like the neighbourhoods I tend to live in. (I also listen to hours a day of CBC, making me rather typical.)
In the kind of neighbourhoods I live in and have lived in for decades, belief in the superior health and environmental value of organic foods is rife. Some people I know proudly proclaim their purchasing of organic foods and denounce “industrial,” “factory” and other sorts of large-scale farming, and often use the word “poison” to describe conventional crops, meats and foods. And they celebrate the salt-of-the-earth small farmers they buy their food from, or imagine they buy their food from. For them, paying many-percent higher prices for food is like paying for a membership in a club of moral superiority to most other people, a way to achieve personal purity.
Also around me are lots of ordinary people who simply tend to believe organic foods are better for them and their children because all sorts of aggressive and active organic food promoters tell them that this is so. This is a far bigger group than the one I described in the preceding paragraph and it’s where future growth for the organic market will probably come. They probably buy organic whenever they can, but also buy conventional stuff on the grocery store shelves. For them, buying organic is like paying for insurance: it seems a reasonable way to minimize risk and exposure to bad things that might happen.
Unless organic isn’t actually any better for you than regular stuff.
Which is the worry raised by the CFIA stories last week.
Now, after these widely publicized findings, buying organic doesn’t seem like a way to guarantee that you and your kids aren’t going to be consuming pesticides. Sure, the organic industry can argue that you’ll probably consume less pesticide if you eat organic, but that’s not nearly as heart-warming, especially if organic folk are pushing the idea that pesticides are poison. “Less” poisonous is less engaging than “free” of poison.
I’m not a big consumer of organic products because I accept what the science says about the pesticides and other inputs in our food: at the regulated limits allowed, our food is safe to eat. I think that there are about 100 other ways I can improve my health and my kids’ health better than by going organic, like exercising more and eating more fruits and veggies.
But I’m a supporter of the organic industry because I think it’s a valuable niche market and an alternative production system for farmers who don’t want to play the bulk commodity game. They’re going to do something differently, sell it a different way, and get enough premium to make up for the lost efficiencies – like not being able to control weeds with chemicals. It’s a good market for good farmers who can overcome the production inefficiencies of organic production.
That market, or at least its growth, and the ability to demand premium prices is damaged by findings that there’s lots of fraud going on in organic production, or organic retailing. I’m a big fan of free markets, adequate regulation and good policing and believe all three are needed to allow a market to survive. It looks to me like the organic industry has good free markets but is falling down when it comes to regulation and policing. And without good regulation and policing, the market could be lost or crippled.
The outrageous CFIA results are the sort of thing that can badly damage public confidence, and if people lose confidence they abandon a market. How is anyone going to convince a middle-class mom to pay 25 percent extra for organic veggies if there’s an almost 50 percent chance that they’ll have pesticide residues anyway? That’s a tough question to answer.
The Americans seem to be doing a better job in monitoring, regulating and enforcing compliance with their organic industry. On our side of the border, we’ve taken a more laissez-faire approach, with only soft oversight by CFIA. If we want a robust free market to exist for organic foods, the public and especially legitimate organic farmers need to insist our country do a better job of guaranteeing that stuff labelled “organic” actually is.
Otherwise, why would anybody buy it?