Grocery Store Guru

All about the grocery industry, from a store level perspective.

Understanding Organic

Organics are one of the fastest growing grocery categories out there right now. More and more people are believing in the benefits of organics – according to statistics, young mothers are leading the way. For this article, I’m going to focus on organic produce because it is the lion’s share of the organics market. While organic meats are making some inroads, they don’t appear to have the popular appeal that the produce has.

But why are we buying organic to begin with? Stop and ask someone who’s buying the $10 worth of organic apples (that would be me, last sunday 🙂 ) why they buy organic and you’re pretty likely to get a vague response about unspecified health benefits, or even worse, something totally false like the fact that they don’t use pesticides in organic farming.

The Truth about a couple of very commonly held beliefs surrounding organic produce:

1. Organics are pesticide free.

Absolutely, 100% false. An organic certification does not guarantee you a pesticide free product. There are several pesticides that are allowed to be used on organic crops (Page 2 of this PDF file lists some of the pesticides approved for use in organic farming). The difference between organic and conventional is that an organic pesticide must be derived from a natural source, as opposed to a synthetic one. Before you start thinking that natural is safer, there are lots of toxic substances in nature (this list is a good place to start). The very nature of a pesticide/herbicide/fungicide tells you that it’s meant to harm or deter something… what difference does it make if the potential poison is natural or synthetic? Now, it is a minority of organic farmers that use these natural pesticides, and not all of them are toxic. But there isn’t currently a method to tell if the apple you are holding in your hand has been sprayed or not, or what it may have been sprayed with.

2. Organics are better for you.

The jury’s still out on this one. One highly cited study revealed that organic strawberries had higher amounts of antioxidants as well as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), but all other nutrients were comparable to conventionally grown strawberries. Stanford University in the States recently released a study with a conclusion that stated organics are no healthier than conventional produce, when it comes to the nutritional components of the actual fruit/veggie. That Stanford study seems to have exploded worldwide, and there are advocacy groups collecting signatures and making statements against the study. While the prominent figures on both sides of the argument sling mud at one another, one thing is clear – the actual science on the topic is not declaring a solid winner.

3. Organics are better for the environment.

I want to be very clear about this – organic farming practices ARE better for the environment. In particular, the soil conservation methods that are not only suggested but mandatory when it comes to organic certification are actually reversing soil erosion in many places. The land doesn’t get “tired” – a phenomenon in conventional farming where as nutrients in the soil are depleted, product yield goes down. Organic practices promote biodiversity, and the overall health and well being of the local environment (even the United Nations agrees).

BUT… there’s always a “but”.

I really wish that these environmental practices extended to the distribution of the organic products. Often times, due to off season demand in foreign markets, organic products are treated exactly the same way that conventional products are. Picked before they’re ripe so they can make a days-long truck or airplane or boat trip to their intended market.

If you’re choosing organic for environmental reasons, I will give you the same dilemma I face with Sweet Peppers: Is choosing a Veggie that is product of Israel really environmentally responsible, no matter how it was grown? How much of a carbon footprint is left by a salad that has accumulated more Air Miles than I have travelled in the last 10 years?

 

Drumroll, please!

 

Those are the facts, here’s my Opinion:

 

I buy organics every week, but certainly not all of the produce I buy is Organic. Firstly, I firmly believe in local produce. Not only does it taste better (even than the organics in many cases), but I believe in supporting local farmers. I would like to see an even more robust organics presence in Ontario (as you may wherever you live), and that’s not going to happen if the farmers are going under. As the demand changes, the farmers will change with it if they’re given the chance. We can already see it in Ontario where more and more acreage is going to organic growing every year (as well as organic pasturing for organic dairy cattle). Second, I have 5 kids and a limited grocery budget. While I can justify spending a little more, I’m not able to buy an organic product that costs 3 times more than the conventional product.

So what do I buy Organic? I start here, with The Dirty Dozen. I also favour organics with fruits and veggies where you consume the skin, since it is likely to have direct contact with synthetic pesticides in conventional growing. Anything that gets peeled is put on the back burner – no organic bananas, onions or garlic for me. Organic apples are my biggest organic expenditure, as my kids will eat 6-8lbs. of apples a week easily. And even here, when apple picking season arrives we tend to buy conventional apples from an orchard here in Brampton. I try as hard as I can to buy organic Celery, but it’s not easy to find and it’s almost always a product of the USA (I avoid american produce whenever I can). If the organic peppers are from Ontario, I’ll buy them too. Same thing for nectarines and peaches. If produce is not available locally because it’s out of season, we avoid the imported alternatives as much as we can.

As seems to be the case so often, I’m in the middle of the road. I do support the increase of organic products in our stores, but even more than that I support the education of the consumer. I look forward to the day when I can approach someone picking up an organic cabbage and ask them why they’re buying it – and get an answer based on the truth.

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September 14, 2012 Posted by | Products | 2 Comments