The organic movement was served a toxic dish recently when the media disclosed that a Canadian Food In-spection Agency study suggests organic food contains pesticide residues.
The report claimed that half of a sample of organic products randomly tested had traces of pesticides.
To explain why results were not disseminated when the study was completed more than a year ago, the CFIA told the media that none of the test results posed a health risk because farming practices complied with Canadian-approved standards.
In this era of skepticism, mistrust and scandals, it makes one wonder why the CFIA allowed the media to unveil the information before it did in its role as our country’s premier risk communicator.
Basically, the CFIA was outright undermined by a study it actually conducted itself, which made the story quite surreal.
The way that these findings were made public should be a cause for concern for organic farmers in Canada.
Many Canadians were surprised by the findings and were hard-pressed to find clear answers from regulators. Some organic products cost double or triple the average price of their conventional counterparts.
The organic industry is an environmentally focused niche market that offers an alternative production system for certain farmers.
The findings of the recently re-vealed CFIA study are not consistent with what the industry is trying to achieve. In a sense, the organic movement is now paying the price for its pesticide-free campaign.
For years, studies have suggested that it is nearly impossible to find organic produce at the retail level with zero pesticide residues unless, of course, production distribution and retail chains operate in complete isolation from conventional supply streams.
Such an approach would likely increase the prices of products, which are already expensive enough.
Organic production allows the use of only natural pesticides. From an ecological standpoint, it makes the organic case much more compelling than conventional farming.
However, agriculture has seen some dramatic changes in Canada and elsewhere in the last decade. Farming is now much wiser and more frugal when using chemicals in the field.
Sound practices have led to the elimination of many problematic, old pesticides. This is something we need to recognize more often.
Nonetheless, consumers are often oblivious about how our organic operations become certified.
The certification process for any commodity in Canada is comprehensive and rigorous, but our climate makes the organic industry much less efficient than in other countries.
In fact, more than 80 percent of all organic foods bought by consumers in Canada are imported, so certification processes are complex, to say the least.
This means reviews and access to proper data will remain a challenge, particularly when dealing with emerging countries where regulatory oversight is lacking.
The CFIA, in partnership with the domestic organic industry, should commit to expanding the scope of its surveillance and compliance guidance with our trading partners.
Consumers ought to continue to buy organics for reasons they feel strongly about. However, they also deserve to have access to proper data so they can make educated decisions in relation to their diets, organic or not.
Science remains inconclusive about the health benefits of organic food products compared to conventional offerings.
What we do know is that they are certainly not unhealthier. Organic products generally have fewer pesticides on them, full stop. Therefore, the premium we pay is justified.
However, the CFIA should stop allowing the media to be the food safety bogeyman and make its studies readily available to the public.
Sylvain Charlebois is professor of food distribution and policy, and associate dean of management and economics at the University of Guelph.