Chemical Use: The Distinction that Makes Organic Food Better?
Chemical Use: The Distinction that Makes Organic Food Better?

Chemical Use: The Distinction that Makes Organic Food Better?

Agriculture Myth Busting

 Over and over, the term ‘organic’ is used as an umbrella for a variety of qualitative features in food. There is an assumption that all organic products are healthier and safer than conventionally produced food, especially when considering the practices used. However, as exhibited nearly a decade ago, organic foods are not pesticide-free, much to the chagrin of consumers who perhaps purchase organic for exactly that reason. This seems counterintuitive for an industry that can broadly classify its products as “low-input.” Therefore, to be as informed about food options as possible, it is important to first understand the real restrictions of organic production.Chemical Use: The Distinction that Makes Organic Food Better? 1I want to make it very clear that this blog is not anti-organic, as the ethos of organic production is very similar to regenerative agriculture: reduce external inputs wherever possible. Canada is not organic-averse either. While just looking at Saskatchewan figures, where there are no provincial organic regulations, one would assume organic is a venture from which farmers are deterred, as the provincial agricultural position in the organic space conceals the declining (but slowing) trend in certified farms. In reality, the number of organic acres across Canada has quadrupled since the turn of the century. In the last five years alone, the value of Canadian organic products has increased by 145%, which is used to suggest the high price organic products garner from the grocery store offsets the lower yield as a result of localized inputs. But it is not a stretch to suggest that the certification rigour may put farmers off from officially moving from a conventional to an organic operation. 

A Very Technical Label

The underlying justification for an initial four-year and repeatedly detailed organic certification process is to assign authenticity and ensure traceability across the supply chain. Not only is the organic production stream heavily regulated in the field in terms of the processes and inputs that can be used, but every step along the manufacturing supply chain must also reliably follow organic limitations. As a result, regulatory officers must inspect sites for compliance every year following certification. The operating understanding of organic production boasts non-genetically modified seeds, physical considerations to prevent potential cross-contamination, and the use of pesticides as a last resort. However, farmers must ensure they have been following these regulations for at least three years before selling a product as organic.
Multi-ingredient organic products labelling restrictions
Figure 1. Summary of labelling requirements and prohibitions for multi-ingredient organic food products (Source)
In order for organic to be present anywhere on a Canadian label, certification and inspection are mandatory. That is part of the reason the phrase ‘certified organic’ is prohibited – because anything labelled organic inherently has been certified. The challenge then comes with multi-ingredient products, which have restrictions as to what can and cannot be classified as organic (Figure 1). If it is suspected that products claiming to be organic are not, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) may investigate, with subsequent punishments for offenders ranging in severity. 

Chemical Conundrum

Levels of soil organic matter, a fundamental factor of agricultural productivity, can be improved with external inputs, like chemicals and fertilizer. In organic crop operations, however, it matters much more what those inputs are, and so the availability of approved chemicals is heavily regulated. For instance, pesticides may still be used in organic operations but must conform to a much stricter list of ‘bio pesticides’ – a term used to describe the type of pest intervention present. While chemical intervention is avoided, when possible, the prevalence of pesticide use undercuts the narrative that organic products are automatically pesticide-free.Investigations completed in 2014 unearthed an industry conspiracy. The Canadian report revealed that 46% of organic produce is positive for chemical residue; a similar report out of the United States found 21% of organic samples positive for residues. The official response from the Canadian Organic Trade Association was that the high organic contribution is a direct effect of environmental contamination, further encouraging the narrative that organic products are safer for consumers than conventional products. While organic residue values in both surveys were dwarfed by conventional results, tests used to assess residues are typically ill-equipped to detect organic-approved pesticides. Further, the degree to how blatantly chemicals are sprayed is largely based on the income dependency of the country, rather than whether the farm is organic or conventional.These results also called into question the general safety of agrochemicals. Although regulations and consequences to the contrary exist, consumers focused on the presence of residues in organic as opposed to the overall assurance that should come from CFIA inspections. Across food products, both imported and produced domestically, Canada has a 96.6% compliance rate, meaning nearly all available food falls at or below the maximum residue limits set by Health Canada. Maximum residue limits consider not only the quantity of chemicals used in production, but also how safe they are to handle, the product on which the substance was used, the consumption risk (to humans), and how easily the substance can be washed/removed from the product. It is the responsibility of the CFIA and Health Canada to ensure any substances involved in food production – in both organic and conventional streams – are safe for consumption, safe for the environment, and safely applied to fields. 

Concluding Remarks

One of the main reasons for limiting organic pesticide options is because of the uncertainty surrounding agrochemical use. The concern that the research on which approval is based does not adequately investigate human consequences is a major source of fear that should not be ignored by regulatory agencies, policymakers, or even producers. If consumer trust in chemical use can be enhanced, and if chemical research and development can meet the environmental concerns of organic producers, then organics and associated low yields may be advantaged by new (organic-appropriate) chemical options. However, for this to be a reality, the narrative surrounding organic pesticide-use needs to change, and production transparency, regardless of production ethos, needs to be improved.
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