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By Andy Hammermeister Ph.D., P.Ag.
Every day we make choices about what we eat and how we live. Will it be a salad or a burger? Should I drive my car or walk? Now we ask ourselves, “Should we be buying organic food?” As consumers we have great influence on every business through the food chain, from the farmer to processors to local grocery stores. So every time we buy organic we are, in effect, voting with our dollars. Most shoppers say they buy organic food for reasons of personal or family health, the environment, and/or animal welfare. Are these valid reasons for buying organic?
Let’s face it, everything we do in our lives involves some level of risk, whether it’s crossing a street or running with the bulls. The rules or standards for organic agriculture and food are designed to take a precautionary approach. That’s not to say that non-organic food isn’t safe. Our food system is carefully regulated, whether it is organic or not. However, just as crosswalks are used to reduce the risk associated with crossing the street, organic has developed standards intended to minimize risks associated agriculture and food.
Until recently, claims could not be made about the benefits of organic
production systems or products. In the UK, however, the British Code
of Advertising has now accepted 22 claims that can be made about organic
food1. These claims cover everything from
pesticides, food additives, fats, antibiotics, vitamins and minerals,
genetic engineering, animal welfare, wildlife and the environment. These
claims are supported by a growing body of research that has been designed
to compare organic foods and production systems with other systems2.
Agriculture in general has a big impact on the plants and animals that would naturally live on the land. We can’t entirely avoid these impacts but we can try to minimize them. Compared with conventional farming, organic performs at least as well as non-organic and in many ways better. Synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and confined livestock operations are not permitted in organic production. This means that there is lower risk of pesticides, nutrients, manure, and antibiotics affecting the soil, ground water, rivers, lakes, atmosphere and the life within them6. It still means that farmers must be responsible for managing what happens on their farm. Overall, organic farming also supports more wildlife than non-organic farming7.
Organic farming also uses much less energy than conventional agriculture,
mostly because it doesn’t use nitrogen fertilizer8.
The Rodale Institute has reported that organic farming systems use 30%
less fossil fuels than other farming systems9.
They have also found that organic farming tends to hold more carbon
in the soil, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is an
important greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change10.
We as consumers face difficult choices every day. Many of those choices involve balancing the risks and benefits of our activities. Research is increasingly showing that buying organic reduces many risks associated with agriculture and food while also providing benefits. Farmers and food processors will respond to consumer demand; they will use fewer pesticides, fertilizers, additives, antibiotics etc. if that is what the consumer wants. It is our responsibility as a consumer, however, to be prepared to pay more for our food so that farmers can change their practices.
1. Soil Association Information Sheet 11/24/2005 (version
This article was originally published in Reader's Digest and is reproduced here with permission.
Posted May 2007
© 2012, Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC)