An article in the National Post on fraudulence in the organic food industry upset me. For many reasons.
An analysis of data compiled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFA) between 2011 and 2013 recently found that 46 percent of organic produce sold in Canada had some pesticide residue and 2 percent actually exceeded the maximum allowable limits. In all, 77 percent of organic grape samples, 45 percent of apples, and 30 percent of carrots tested positive for pesticide residue. By comparison, 78 percent of non-organic produce tested positive for pesticide residue while 5 percent exceeded the allowable levels.
While the author threw around the term pesticide residue like it had no meaning, I was left with more than a few questions. Was the pesticide residue found on organic food spray drift that came from conventional farms or was it a result of fraudulent producers? Because while spray drift is inherently a problem, fraudulence is an entirely different issue. But both issues stem from oversight.
Pesticide Spray Drift Versus Organic Fraud
Dealing with pesticide drift is a complicated problem. Organic farmers who go the extra mile to produce organic crops shouldn't have to deal with pesticide drift as a result of a sloppy neighbor. In fact, Oluf Johnson, a farmer in Minnesota was sued over pesticide drift. Johnson owns a 1,500 acre organic farm surrounded by conventional farms.
In August 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that pesticide drift from one farm to another does not constitute trespassing under state law, the decision could make it harder for organic farmers to seek relief if crops are damaged by pesticide drift. Whether it's considered trespassing or not, it's an issue that needs to be dealt with so that non-organic pesticides don't end up on organic crops.
Organic fraud is a problem that's easier to crack down on, though the current system makes it difficult. According to the National Post, in 2009, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) implemented new rules for organic certification, which is performed by accredited and private agencies. The only problem is that the agencies collect 1-3 percent of the gross revenue of the producers they inspect, according to the article. This opens up the door for fraud.
In the U.S., the system is different, and in my opinion, makes fraud more difficult. The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 required that the Secretary of Agriculture define what makes foods organic, which resulted in a successful effort to lobby Congress to define a consistent list of standards. Prior to the bill, more than 40 private and state agencies had a varying list of standards.
Government enforcement is key to maintaining integrity in the organic industry. In the U.S., they recently sent a producer to jail for organic fraud. And the USDA is now requiring certifiers to do "spot residue audits" to further police the industry. That's a step in the right direction, but more work still needs to be done.Read more about USDA non-GMO labelling
Organics and Your Health
This is where the National Post article begins to go downhill. The author claimed that organics were no better for your health, but barring the questionable Stanford Study, a large swath of research has shown otherwise.
One study found that organic blueberries had a higher antioxidant density than conventional. Organic strawberries had more polyphenols than conventional. Even organic grape juice had far higher levels of total polyphenols than conventional. A ten-year study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry compared organic tomatoes with standard produce and found that organic tomatoes had almost double the quantity of antioxidants.
Though pesticide residue was the initial reason for switching to organic, there's much more to it. Organic regulations ban or severely restrict the use of food additives, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings and flavorings, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). The organic label also bans the use of GMOs, sewage sludge, irradiation, hormones, and antibiotics (in livestock). So to point only to pesticide residue is beyond misinformed.
Organics and the Environment
The author also claimed that organics do nothing positive for the environment because half of organics in Canada are imported. Yes, just because it's organic, doesn't mean it's local. When given the opportunity you should buy as much as possible from your local farmers. And yes, you should support the local food movement by establishing a relationship with local farmers markets and asking farmers questions about the way their foods are grown. That's actually a sure way to get foods that are largely free of pesticides.
But even still, organics are MUCH better for the planet than conventional. Pesticides are responsible for a staggering amount of greenhouse gas emissions. They pollute ground water and soil and cause erosion. Biodiversity is increased with the use of buffer crops and by avoiding killing or harming insects and other wildlife that are not a threat to crops.
Organics and Food Safety
But my favorite comment of all was the following from the author:
Finally, organics can pose serious — even fatal — health risks. In their 2012 book, "The Locavore's Dilemma," authors Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu cite the case of Jensen Farms, a Colorado family farm whose pesticide-free cantaloupes caused a listeria outbreak that killed 30 people in 2011.
Let's be clear–it was not the fact that they were pesticide-free which caused them to become contaminated with listeria. In fact, the Jensen brothers had a system in place which they knew was working improperly and could lead to contamination.
Read more about contaminated meat
According to Food Safety News:
Prosecutors laid responsibility on the Jensens for maintaining equipment that would wash cantaloupes with anti-bacterial solutions to sufficiently combat contamination. According to documents, however, the Jensens did not outfit their conveyor system with the chlorine spray that would have reduced microbial loads on the cantaloupes, instead opting to wash the melons with city drinking water on a longer wash cycle.
Despite the lack of an adequate washing solution, Primus Labs gave the Jensens Farms processing facility an audit score of 96 percent.
It was the improper use of their equipment that caused the deaths of nearly 30 people and to make such a bogus statement with so little research to back it up throws the entire article into question.
So while regulation of the organics industry could always be better, as the article in the National Post points out, research points to the undisputed fact that organics are better for our health, and the health of the planet.
Image: Lynn Friedman