Getting to the Truth About our Food: An Uphill Struggle

02/28/2017 10:18 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2017

This past weekend the Toronto Chapter of Canadian Organic Growers - one of Canada’s longest standing organizations in support of organic agriculture and food production - hosted their annual “consumer” conference downtown Toronto a few blocks away from Dundas Square. The gathering brought together organic farmers, researchers, health promoters, advocates and more to learn about many topics associated with organic food.

A young organic farmer, Martin Boettcher, asks a question at the Canadian Organic Growers Toronto chapter conference this pas
Anna Prior
A young organic farmer, Martin Boettcher, asks a question at the Canadian Organic Growers Toronto chapter conference this past weekend.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Carlo Leifert, a researcher from the UK’s Newcastle University who recently co-authored a meta analysis looking at the link between organic food and health. His main conclusion: studies out there do show how certain nutrients are higher in organic foods compared to conventional. And certain studies, like a study carried out in France that found obesity to be much lower among individuals who eat organic food, are able to show links between organic diets and better health.

Despite this favourable research, we need more health intervention studies to truly determine whether organic food is healthier, he says. Studies carried out over a longer time span (say 10, 20 or 40 years) would be able to provide us with a more accurate picture of whether eating organic is better for our health, he added. The only problem is that most scientific studies are carried out over short periods of time — like 6 months or a year. Longer term studies, although surely beneficial for determining certain casual relationships involving human health, are hard to come by — let alone get funding for.

I guess we just have to trust our intuition at times. I’ve met many people who say they just feel better eating organic foods — or foods that are sprayed less often.

Another interesting speaker was Carey Gillam of the U.S.-based Right To Know (and also a Huffington Post blogger). A veteran journalist, Gillam wrote for Reuters as an investigative journalist for 17 years and was eventually assigned food and agriculture stories. At first she had an open mind (like any journalist should, I assume) when it came to learning about the agrochemical companies and their efforts.

However it wasn’t long before conversations with farmers on the ground lead her to uncover a pile of empty promises.

Wanting to write about what was true and fair, Gillam started to challenge and investigate the false claims these companies were making with facts from the farmers she met through her work. She soon discovered how far agrochemical companies will go to tear down anyone that challenges them. She also uncovered the tactical PR and lobbying techniques the biotech industry employ — often secretly — to promote their interests.

Carey Gillam addresses attendees at COG Toronto’s annual conference (2017).
Anna Prior
Carey Gillam addresses attendees at COG Toronto’s annual conference (2017).

One of those tactics is to pay out prominent researchers, public figures, writers and bloggers to tout the benefits of biotech (see this 2015 New York Times article on the matter). Sometimes the content is written up for these individuals by the companies themselves; its waiting and ready to go. The classic arguments: GM crops are good for the environment, they reduce our pesticide use, increase yields and create more nutritious crops. And, if that weren’t enough, they “feed the world.”

But research has shown these claims just don’t stack up to the facts — and these false claims have gained a lot of media attention lately:

“... an extensive examination by the New York Times indicates that the [GMO] debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides,” wrote Danny Hakim for the New York Times in October of 2016.

What bothers Gillam about this is that the public has no idea this is going on.

“I think all sides have a place to argue positions, but when you’re hiding information, it’s just not fair,” she said.

Gillam used this image to highlight her experience as an investigative journalist covering food and agriculture in the U.S.
Carey Gillam
Gillam used this image to highlight her experience as an investigative journalist covering food and agriculture in the U.S.

Her presentation also covered pesticide residues in food, something that USDA seems to prioritize more than the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. She pointed to data released in 2016 that found residues of many types of “bug-killing pesticides, fungicides and weed killing chemicals” in roughly 85% of thousands of foods tested in the U.S.

High numbers like this have many people, including farmers, alarmed, especially from a human health and environmental point of view.

Gillam pointed out that although organic is often seen as the gold standard for reducing pesticides, it certainly isn’t the only way for farmers to reduce pesticide use. She noted how there’s a current movement towards bio-pesticides or bio-stimulants, and how many farmers she’s talked with are really trying to reduce their pesticide levels.

Gillam’s talk, and the entire conference, brought up many important questions. To what extent should industry be responsible for its actions? When is enough enough? Why are we not taking more action and stopping the spraying of potentially harmful (and ones proven harmful) chemicals onto our food, the very thing that sustains us? How can we begin to shift from a “dollars-and-cents” based food system to one that values health and wellbeing?

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