You Say Organic, I Say Organic

09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ashley Koff Dietitian, qualitarian, author, spokesperson

On June 30th, Canada revealed its own national organic certification program and just days before an equivalency agreement with the US organic certification program was announced.

To help me better understand the impact on US organics, I interviewed Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager for Nature's Path Foods Inc. Falck, an experienced Canadian organic gardener, recently concluded a 3 year term on the Organic Trade Association (OTA) board of directors (including VP for Canada).

Koff: What are the similarities and differences between the Canadian and US organic certifications?

Falck: Mostly they are similar, but the specific language differs on some points. Equivalency negotiations established that there was one US non-negotiable difference, and 3 Canadian ones.

• "Animals treated with antibiotics not allowed in the US."
• "Use of sodium nitrate as fertilizer is not allowed by Canada."
• "Hydroponic or aeroponic production methods are not allowed in Canada."
• "Animals must be given prescribed stocking rates in Canada"

Koff: Criticism of food products labeled "certified organic" in the US includes potential loopholes for additives, preservatives, etc. Is this warranted? Do you think that the equivalency agreement will affect this? (Will CA exert pressure on US?)

Falck: No system is perfect, but organic is by far the best option we have today, far surpassing any other system both in methods and integrity. I think it would be ignorant to say that there are not issues with organic certification that need fixing, but it would also be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we walked away from the whole thing. Let's look at exactly what we do have, and what alternatives we have.

Organic agriculture provides:
• Human nutrition through rebuilding of depleted soils.
• Environmental pollution by eliminating use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.
• Global warming by eliminating the use of fertilizers made from fossil fuels. Organic is many times more effective at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

Koff: Why should we trust organic?

Falck: Organic certification is a verifiable, repeatable and effective system that has government and industry oversight.

The "natural" claim has no legal definition, no standard, and no oversight. Products grown with chemical fertilizers and toxic synthetic pesticides are commonly and legally called "natural".

The popular "local" movement often speaks of local food in glowing terms. I've been an organic inspector for 15+ years and visited hundreds of farms. Often people prefer to "know" their local farmer, and therefore trust them. They claim this is better than organic certification. I have gone out of my way whenever possible to investigate these specific claims, and gone to the farms that someone "trusted". In every case I quickly found practices they routinely used that contravene organic standards, and in most cases they had no idea (sometimes they did know). These practices can be things like using colored inks (colored newspaper mulch or wood ashes) containing heavy metals and synthetic solvents that end up in the soil or using unapproved soil amendments like slaked agricultural lime, instead of the natural dolomite lime. Sometimes however the transgressions are much more severe, I remember one time at a farmers market where a farmer sold "natural unsprayed blueberries". I was interested and struck up a conversation. Soon I discovered that indeed the "blueberries" where not sprayed, however with total innocence the farmer admitted that she did spray the bushes before the berries formed, and between the rows even when the berries where on the bushes. She just had not sprayed directly "on" the berries. The spray used? Well I was informed it was the completely "safe and harmless" Round-Up®. The active ingredient is glyphosate, the inerts are largely unknown, but known to add significant toxicity. Glyphosate is known as a carcinogen.

Koff: Is the science there in terms of organic being better for the body and the environment?

Falck: In its most basic form organic is based on absolute solid science. If you start with clean soil and you don't add a toxin to grow your food, you are not left with that toxin on your food. How sound is the science that says food is totally safe even when grown in soil where repeated applications of synthetic fossil-fuel-based fertilizer have killed the healthy soil organisms, and a cocktail of toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides have been added straight to the plants and soils?

So if organic isn't trustworthy because it doesn't have science backing it up, I say it's not science, but rather spinning.

In fact scientific studies that are based on solid scientific principles abound on the topic of how organic food excels in the areas of vitamins, antioxidants and other phyto nutrients. There are equally plenty of reputable studies showing that chemical agriculture produced food (conventional) have toxic pesticide residues that do end up in the bodies of those eating those foods. This has been demonstrated in the study by The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on Children's dietary pesticide exposure. In this study it is shown that pesticide residues found in children's urine is directly linked to their eating organic or non organic foods.