GUELPH, ON, Jan 23, 2014/ Troy Media/ – The organic movement was served a toxic dish recently when the media disclosed a study conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) which suggests organic foods contain high levels of pesticides.
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 as farming practices complied with Canadian-approved standards.
In this era of scepticism, 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 premiere risk communicator. Basically, the CFIA was outright undermined by a study they actually conducted themselves, 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 are double, even triple, the average price of their conventional counterparts. As an environmentally-focused niche market which offers an alternative production system for certain farmers, the findings revealed 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, fruits, or vegetables at retail 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 and most organic experts would concur.
Organic production allows the use of natural pesticides only. 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 of how our organic operations become certified. The certification process for any commodity in Canada is very comprehensive and rigorous, but our climate makes our organic industry much less efficient than in other countries.
In fact, more than 80 per cent of all organic food products purchased 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 for quite some time, 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 their surveillance of and compliance guidance with our trading partners.
Consumers ought to continue to buy organics for reasons they feel strongly about. Consumers, though, also deserve to have access to proper data so they can make educated decisions in relation to their diets, organic or not. As far as organics go, 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. But the CFIA should stop allowing the media to be the food safety boogeyman and make their studies readily available to the public.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Associate Dean at the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
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