Dear readers, this week’s column features the third of the top 10 nutrition questions I get asked. Tune in over the following eight weeks for the remainder. If you missed it, the first week I covered soy products and those that are most and least beneficial for your health. Last week I covered nutritional supplements. Are they beneficial or risky? Today we’re going to address organic foods. Are they actually healthier?
My answer on this topic has changed over the years as I've learned more about the pesticides that are now being sprayed on almost all commercial crops, as I’ve learned about commercial agriculture and farming practices compared to more organic and sustainable practices. I’ve come to believe that commercial farming is toxic to humans, the environment, and animals. As such, I advise clients to consume organic products whenever they can. Today I’m going to do a deep dive into why.
What Does Organic Mean?
First, it’s important to know what ‘certified organic’ does and doesn’t mean. Organic foods are those that are farmed within certain parameters to protect not only the food, but also the land and the animals, from exposure to toxins.
There are things that are not allowed in organic agriculture. These include:
- Synthetic fertilizers
- Synthetic pesticides
- Sewage sludge as fertilizer
- Genetic technology to alter crops
- Additionally, organic livestock have different criteria than commercial livestock:
- No continual antibiotics or use of growth hormones
- Access to the outdoors
- Healthy living conditions
- Pasture feeding for at least 30 per cent of their nutrients, during season
- Organic and biologically appropriate food
Most people I’ve met who purchase organic do so not only for what is in the foods (nutrients), but because of what isn’t in the foods (toxins). They’re deeply concerned about the increasing use of chemical pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers in commercial agriculture and the treatment of commercial livestock. I’m not only talking about the conditions animals are raised in, but also the quality of their feed and the drugs they are given. Often, antibiotics are standard
in commercial feed because living conditions are so horrific that animals are prone to wounds and infections.
Organic farmers, on the other hand, eschew the continual use of antibiotics, saying it isn’t necessary for animal health when animals are given fresh air, sunshine, room to graze and exercise, and biologically appropriate, healthy feed.
For a shocking look into what’s allowed in commercial animal (and pet) feed, go here.
Organic farmers rely on natural methods, biodiversity, and cycles inherent in their local climate. They’re dedicated to more natural methods of production, run smaller scale operations (by necessity), and focus on regeneration and sustainability.
“Organic production is not simply the avoidance of conventional chemical inputs, nor is it the substitution of natural inputs for synthetic ones. Organic farmers apply techniques first used thousands of years ago, such as crop rotations and the use of composted animal manures and green manure crops, in ways that are economically sustainable in today’s world. In organic production, overall system health is emphasized, and the interaction of management practices is the primary concern. Organic producers implement a wide range of strategies to develop and maintain biological diversity and replenish soil fertility” (USDA, 2007). (source)
From Health Canada’s website: “Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.”
How do you know if a food is organic or not? Check for a “Canada Organic” stamp on the label. To learn more about Canada’s organic certification process, go here. For U.S. imported foods, you will see a USDA organic logo. Look closely at the label. They can say 100% organic, organic (95% organic threshold in the U.S.), or made with/ contains organic ingredients (70% threshold in the U.S.). Do not confuse “all natural” with organic.
Pesticides and Herbicides - Aren’t They Safe?
While the food industry, farmers, and consumers were all assured these chemicals were safe when adopting them, when you look more deeply it becomes clear there was a lack of long term data on long term exposure in humans and wildlife to accurately make that claim.
Let’s just look at glyphosate, for example. This is only one of the favoured chemicals in commercial agriculture today. In a 2019 article published in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information titled, “The Evidence of Human Exposure to Glyphosate: A Review,” looked at the data to date on both occupational and general exposure. It begins, “Despite the growing and widespread use of glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide and desiccant, very few studies have evaluated the extent and amount of human exposure.” That was in 2019. Glyphosate was adopted for public use in 2006.
So evidently we were told it was safe before the data existed to support the claim. This is a new theme in food and drug regulation, it seems.
More recent data shows the safety claims of glyphosate were trumped up. One 2017 study has shown that since 2006 when glyphosate was introduced, the levels we are exposed to have gone up 500 per cent. Class action lawsuits abound. In a fact sheet released in June of this year, USRTK published safety concern statements from several scientific groups:
Statement by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Reproductive and Environmental Health Committee: “We recommend that glyphosate exposure to populations should end with a full global phase out.” (7.2019)
Essay in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: “Is it time to reassess safety standards for glyphosate based herbicides?” (6.2017)
Consensus statement in Environmental Health Journal: “Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement” (2.2016)
The fact sheet goes on to list the data on cancer risks and the pressure from Bayer (formerly Monsanto) to block and redact those studies to direct favourable (to them) agricultural policy. One after another, health organizations globally have buried the concern about cancers, although lawsuit after lawsuit finds the chemical responsible in at least one form of cancer. The data set to explore why continues, despite strong pressure to the contrary. Glyphosate has been classified as a probable cancer-causing chemical by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization.
Moreover, glyphosate is a known endocrine disruptor. Fertility is an unprecedented issue here in the West now. This is only one of the data sheets that link that to growing glyphosate use.
Additionally, studies abound to demonstrate the pesticide's toxicity to fish and mammals. And we now know the soil biome is of utmost importance in sustaining healthy soil for growing healthy crops. “Soil is by far the most ecologically diverse material on Earth. Soil contains a large variety of organisms which interact and contribute to many global cycles, including the carbon and nitrogen cycles.”(source) If you didn’t know, soil degradation and desertification is considered by some top experts as the primary cause of climate change.
We also have data that show that crop health is reduced by exposure to glyphosate. This, in turn, can impact the nutrition of the plant:
“There are many similar studies that link the ability of glyphosate to inhibit the acquisition of micronutrients, such as Mn, Fe, Zn and B, in plants exposed to glyphosate, either through spray drift or root uptake. Such interactions of glyphosate with plant nutrition may potentially pose consequences on crop health.” (source)
Given all these concerns, you would think our aim would be to reduce exposure to toxins that pose risks to the soil, crop health, wildlife, and human health, and transition to more holistic models of agriculture.
Despite this, Health Canada has pushed to increase our maximum residue levels (MRLs) for glyphosate – to bring them closer to US levels – for trade purposes. The deadline for public input was last summer. Because of pushback, the proposed increases were paused, to be revisited this summer. Readers, have you even heard about this in the news? These changes would be reflected in your country's food policy for years (maybe decades) to come. It involves a very controversial chemical. Have you even heard about it?
The proposed changes would allow significantly increased levels of glyphosate in commodities such as oats, lentils, and beans. There are many more that would be impacted. For a full list and description of the changes proposed by Health Canada, click here. To review Health Canada’s response to last year’s public outcry around this issue, go here.
How This Impacts Organic Produce
The Canadian Organic Trade Association (COTA) is concerned. Why? Changes also affect the organic sector because its protocol is essentially 5% of the accepted level (MRL).
This means even your certified organic foods would contain higher amounts of glyphosate. And your non-organic foods will contain MUCH higher amounts of glyphosate in many cases.
So purchasing organic is not just a question of the nutrient density of food, it’s a question of farming practices, soil health, biodiversity protection, animal and wildlife protection, toxin exposure, and pollution. And given the wildly escalating rates of human cancers, we can’t ignore this aspect of food production if we are doing a cost / benefit analysis.
We also can’t underestimate our purchasing power. When more people started purchasing organic, the amount of organic products in normal grocery stores proliferated. And prices came down. This is the kind of impact we can have when we support organic farmers with our dollars.
But is Organic Food More Nutritious?
This is a grey area and hotly debated. Many articles will say that there are negligible differences in the food produced organically vs through chemical agriculture. I have to wonder, are these studies done on products grown in the lab and exposed to one chemical at a time or with products grown in the soil of an organic farm vs products grown in a commercial field, sprayed year after year with multiple chemicals? I think the nutritional differences would be marked in the latter scenario. And, given the difference in taste between organic and commercial produce and meat, it would seem there is something qualitatively different on a cellular level.
We do know, however, that there is some nutritional difference:
Organic produce has shown higher levels of antioxidants and flavonoids. (source)
Organic milk and meat have up to 50% more omega 3 than non organic. (source)
Organic grains have less cadmium when compared to commercial grains. Cadmium is a highly toxic metal. (source)
Which Organic Foods Are Most Important?
What it comes down to for many people is minimizing exposure to toxins. As a result, my recommendations are as follows:
Oils and fats: only consume organic oils and fats or those from organic (or sustainably raised, grass fed) animals, as toxins accumulate in fats.
Dairy and eggs: only consume organic dairy and eggs for the reason listed above.
Meat: give preference to grass fed, wild game, or organically produced meat and consume not only muscle meat but bone and offal, to practice sustainability and for greater nutritional value.
Seafood and fish: search for natural, not farmed, and sustainably sourced fish and seafood, with preference for smaller fish. Use as much of the fish as possible, again to be sustainable. If you don’t eat it all you can use it in your garden.
Fruit: organic is best unless it has a very thick skin, as fruit is largely water and absorbs toxins significantly.
Vegetables: organic when possible and always for leafy greens. For a full list of the essential fruit and vegetables to purchase organic go here.
Foods I absolutely won’t purchase if not organic: Fats and oils, strawberries, apples, grapes, celery, lettuces, kale, collards, spinach, and all my greens.
So, to answer this question, we have to think about not only our health with our food purchases, but the health of our communities, our soil, our water supply, and our livestock. As such, I fervently recommend organic produce and organic or sustainably raised, grass fed livestock wherever possible. Developing a relationship with local farmers is a good first step. Even better - growing your own food at home in organic, composted soil and raising your own chickens for eggs if your community allows it. A small backyard coop is very affordable and isn’t difficult to manage. Additionally, it’s a great way to use up kitchen scraps.
I hope this is helpful. Tune in next week for a deep dive on dairy and dairy alternatives. Which is the healthiest and why? As always, if you have a question for the column, you can write to me at [email protected]. If you want clinical care know more about what I do, you can find me online at hopenotdope.ca.