Food Fight: Organic versus non-organic

Every time you go to the grocery store, you're faced with choices. Chicken versus beef, orange juice versus apple, fruit for dessert or chocolate? And then there's the decision about how your food came to be in the first place: organic versus non-organic. It's a topic that has come up often in our Food Fight series, so we thought we'd...
Organic produce in a local market. (John Godbey/Decatur Daily)
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Every time you go to the grocery store, you're faced with choices. Chicken versus beef, orange juice versus apple, fruit for dessert or chocolate? And then there's the decision about how your food came to be in the first place: organic versus non-organic. It's a topic that has come up often in our Food Fight series, so we thought we'd get you some advice to help with the decision.

Enter Tim Caulfield and Av Singh. Tim is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. Av Singh is an organic and small scale agriculture specialist at Perennia, an agricultural research and education centre run by the government of Nova Scotia. We asked them to consider a few of the factors that would help you decide whether or not to buy organic.


NUTRITION

Caulfield: "The organic food industry is not some little mom and pop thing happening in someone's backyard. This is a huge, huge, billion dollar industry, and that's the story they want to sell. But I think if you look at the totality of the data out there the answer is pretty clear, organic food is not nutritionally better for you."

Singh: "A lot of the earlier info is based on not really understanding what an organic system is. Organic farming systems, much like conventional farming systems, do vary. A deep organic system is one that's really focused a lot about the life in the soil. And if you have good healthy soil and you're feeding the soil life, you're bound to create a much healthier, a much more nutrient dense vegetable than one in which you might be feeding three primary major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium."


PESTICIDES

Caulfield: "Health Canada has recently said, for what it's worth, that there's no evidence that there's any harm associated with the pesticides on conventionally grown food. More importantly, you have to remember that organic food still uses pesticides, they're just organic pesticides, and they're not necessarily better for you."

Singh: "We may have had more faith in Health Canada prior to the demise of public research. I think the biggest challenge right now is a lot of the testing that is done on the safety of pesticides is still funded by the manufacturer of the pesticide. Public research cannot afford to do a lot of that testing and so we actually get the producers to test it for us."


SCALE

Caulfield: "Growing organically certainly isn't as efficient as growing conventionally, so some argue that on a large scale it might even be worse for the environment because you're looking at a sort of 50 to 80% efficiency rate as opposed to growing conventionally."

Singh: "Right now, the majority of food that's being produced is being produced by small-scale agriculture. So it's more of us getting a better understanding, as we deforest Brazilian rainforest to grow soy beans to produce meat, maybe we have to take a look at how much meat we're consuming here in North America, and recognize that that's not a future for the rest of the world, and we can't continue that type of diet. If we look at it in that sense, then we'll realize that small scale agriculture is definitely what's going to continue to feed the world."

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