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Is Organic Food Better?

There was a time, not so long ago, when Internet articles debated the supposed merits of organic foods.

Ok, fine. Perhaps those days are not exactly behind us. If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that the Internet likes to quarrel. A quick Google search will prove that there are highly opinionated voices on both sides, with no shortage of snide remarks and cherry-picked data.

Organic food ‘not automatically better’, study finds

Is buying organic worth the extra cost?

The benefits of organic food

But let’s just say that in the circles I run with, it now seems to be generally accepted that organic food is, in some way, better. It certainly sounds better. And the numbers don’t lie: more Canadians are buying organic than ever before.

Canada Organic Food Sales Surge

The question remains, however: how important is going organic, really?

Should I Go Organic?

Food choices
Does choosing organic really make a difference?

Even if we agree that organic food is, in some way, healthier than non-organic food, how important is it, really? We also agree that fruit is healthier than candy – but that doesn’t tell us if we need to reduce our candy-eating habits, or give it up all together; nor does it tell us what horrific tragedy may befall us if we eat marshmallows for breakfast and chocolate bars for lunch.

And honestly, I can’t tell you how important it is for you personally to change your eating and food purchasing habits. You may be one of the lucky ones who will live to be 100 no matter what you eat. Or you may be someone with a myriad of life-threatening ailments that all boil down to the fact that you’re ingesting poisonous pesticides on a daily basis. The only way I can begin to determine that is if you book an appointment with me. In which case, you would be my patient, and this would be the sort of thing we could talk about.

But for all you out there on the Internet, as well as any patients of mine who would like to know more about why I may be asking you to buy organic plant or animal products, here is a summary of why I think organic food is important – and how important I think it is.

Pesticides are bad

If there’s one thing most people know about organic food, it’s that it’s not sprayed with pesticides. And this is mostly true. In Canada, certified organic products cannot be grown with synthetic pesticides, though they may use certain biological bug and weed repellents (see here for a full list of substances organic farmers in Canada can use to repel pests).

What organic certification can’t guarantee is that your organic produce won’t contain any traces of pesticides. Unfortunately, contamination happens: it’s in the water, it’s in the soil, and it may be wafting in the air from the farm next door. However, organic food is tested regularly, and if significant contamination is found, it is investigated. And Canadian organic standards are designed to reduce the likelihood of this happening in the first place.

Pesticides are poisons

Pesticides are super safe – just make sure you wear your biohazard suit when handling them.

Why do we care so much about pesticides? Well, to start off with, pesticides are poisons. They’re designed to kill weeds and insects. And it just so happens that, as we are also living biological beings, we have some things in common with insects and plants – even those that are considered weeds. The chemicals that instantly kill pests may not have exactly the same effect on us; at least, not in the amounts we’re ingesting them. It would be a different story if you drank a bottle of it. But even the trace amounts left on our food aren’t exactly good for us, especially in the long-term.

Many of these chemicals build up in our bodies over time, because we don’t have an efficient way of excreting them. When it gets to be too much to handle, our body stuffs them into fat cells and other nooks and crannies where it’s hoped they won’t cause too much harm – only to be released again when we try to lose weight or start breastfeeding our infants. That’s right – fat-rich breastmilk is, unfortunately, one of the outlets for these toxins.

Pesticides and cancer

Now, for a long time, pesticide companies have argued that their products are completely safe for human consumption. They’ve published peer-reviewed articles attesting to that. But recent court cases against Monsanto, the chemical company that makes RoundUp, have demonstrated otherwise. The company has been forced to pay out billions of dollars in damages to people who have developed cancer from their pesticides.

I could go on quite a rant here, but I won’t. Pesticides are bad. If you want to do some more research, I suggest

Nutrients in Organic food

This is one of the more controversial subjects. Most people agree that pesticides are not healthy. But if we push that issue to the side, are organic foods more nutritious than conventional ones?

Perhaps not always. Organic foods aren’t regularly tested for nutritional content, so it’s hard to say if that organic apple has more vitamin C than the conventional one. There are several different factors at play, here. But in general, yes: organic fruits and vegetables tend to have higher levels of nutrients in them.

Why? Because plants get nutrients from the soil they’re grown in. On conventional farms, these nutrients often come from chemical fertilizers. Organic farms, on the other hand, use natural fertilizers, including manure, compost, and other traditional soil amendments. These fertilizers are much more well-rounded, giving the plants the nutrients they need to grow healthy food for us.

Organic = Non-GMO

One of the biggest health concerns I have today involves GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms.

What’s in your apples?

GMOs are plants and animals that contain genes from other species. These genes haven’t been introduced naturally, through breeding programs. They have been artificially forced into the germline, from vastly different organisms. Fish genes in tomatoes, bacterial genes in corn – you get the picture. And we have no idea how this bastardizing tinkering with nature will affect our health. Well, we do know that it causes huge rates of cancer in lab rats – but that’s completely different, right?

Which foods are genetically modified? Since they don’t require labelling, it’s hard to know for sure. Some of the most genetically modified crops include corn, soy, and good ol’ Canadian canola. But new GMOs are popping up all the time – from apples to fish. It’s hard to keep up with them all. One of the reasons I like an organic label is because, in Canada, organic also means non-GMO.

Organic Farming: Better for the Soil

Healthy soil is more than just dirt

One of these days, I’m going to write an article dedicated to soil. Because ladies and gentlemen, that’s where it all starts. Healthy soil grows healthy plants. Healthy plants feed healthy animals. And between the poisonous pesticides and caustic chemical fertilizers, our soil is essentially dead.

Soil is supposed to be alive. It’s not just dirt. Yes, it’s sand and clay. But it’s also fungi and microorganisms. It’s compost and manure and earthworms. Without these living components, soil does not perform its life-sustaining role in the ecosystem. It has nothing left to give. It dries up. It blows away. And it’s gone forever. The chemical fertilizers that have allowed us to grow more crops on less land are slowly killing that land, turning it into deserts.

Organic farming guidelines encourage soil enrichment, rather than degradation. Yes, the degree to which this is attained differs from farm to farm. Which is why, in an ideal world, you would know the farmers that produce your food. But when you can’t, choosing an organic product is certainly better than nothing.

Organic: does it matter to you?

I can’t tell you how important these things are. I can tell you that I think pesticides, GMOs, and chemical fertilizers are some of the major reasons our health in western countries is horrifyingly bad. That they’re contributing to our dramatically declining fertility. I can tell you that they’re killing the planet we depend on, and therefore, ultimately killing us. But I can’t prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Believe it or not, there is no ‘consensus’ when it comes to science – ever. I could post a bunch of scientific articles that prove my point of view, but there are just as many published articles that would say the exact opposite. Because science is done by people, and people are not infallible. They make mistakes. They have biases. They lie.

Thankfully, God has given you a wonderful gift: a mind. With which you can look at the evidence and the arguments, and make your own decision. I don’t get to make that decision for you. And I don’t want to.

What I hope I’ve done is made you think, and given you a starting point. Go ahead and do some Google searches of your own. Look at both sides of the arguments. And figure out if this is something you care about.

Only you can decide if these things matter to you. Only you can decide if they’re worth spending more for your groceries, or going to farmers’ markets, or actually speaking to the people who grow or raise the food you put in your mouth. I think it’s worth it.

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