Is a Tomato, a Tomato, a Tomato?
I’d like to consider myself a thrifty shopper, and as such I am always aware of prices and value when I shop. The other day at the grocery store I noticed some items on sale, including a very impressive rib sale of $1.50/lb per package. Before getting all excited and firing up the BBQ, I gave it a thought… what makes some foods so cheap? And are ribs really just ribs any way you shake it?
My recent blogs have been focusing on discussing the current food system and some of the concerns with the current proposals to improve it. One of the proposed strategies is adopting an “organic” food system (what does this have to do with ribs?!- I’ll get back to this in a moment). The word organic literally means “simple, healthful and close to nature”, and has become synonymous to meaning “better”…better for you, better for the environment… and some people don’t even know why it’s better, they just are… aren’t they?
The confusion around organic foods may in part stem from the fact that most people do not understand what organic labels mean. Did you know that organic foods are also sprayed with pesticides? According to Dietitians of Canada (2013), organic foods are foods grown and harvested without man-made pesticides and fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and growth hormones. It also means that the foods are less ‘processed’ meaning they have fewer preservatives like sulphates and nitrates. Foods labeled organic must contain 95% or higher organic content and meet the “Canadian Organic Standards”. Farmers may use crop rotation strategies to help increase the fertility in the soil as well as strategic planting of crops for optimal pest control. What about organic livestock? Do the cows eat grass and prance around in meadows, daisies everywhere? The livestock are hormone and anti-biotic free, have outdoor access and are grass-fed or grain fed using organic feeds. Phew that’s a long definition!
So what are some of the perks of organic farming (and eating)? Organic farming produce contains fewer pesticides, whereby pesticides may be harmful to small animals eating the foods (not to mention our guts!); the livestock may be healthier and leaner due to their diets and potentially increased activity, which in turn produces leaner meats. Some say that organic foods also taste fresher because they do not contain preservatives that make them last longer. Furthermore, organic farming practices are less harmful to the environment because of less pollution created, wastes less water and energy, and increases soil fertility… many experts such as David Suzuki and Michael Pollen agree that these farming methods are more environmentally sustainable. Organic foods however, have not been proven to be more nutritious and the evidence is unclear currently. That’s not the only factor that is unclear however, and there are some other concerns facing the current organic practices.
Some people may question the system of regulating organic practices as Mark Bittman, food journalist of The New York Times, makes reference to the question of whether it really make sense that the organic salmon we are eating are fed genetically modified feeds? Furthermore, while the term organic usually brings to mind happy images of animals in fields doing animal like things, organic does not necessarily mean free range and further free range doesn’t necessarily mean that animals have lots of space and are in clean quarters.
Producing organic foods may arguably be more expensive because of the labour involved but also in purchasing the “organic” certification label. The fees in purchasing the “organic” label may actually prevent some small- scale farmers from entering the huge market as larger farms provide more competitive pricing. Finally, while there is progressively less evidence towards this argument, some argue that organic farming practices produce more food waste as they aren’t as resilient as GMO foods and thus suggest that we cannot produce enough food to feed the world this way.
Back to discussing those ribs… $1.50/lb sounds like a good deal, but it also makes you wonder about the concept of value. Great value for food should be weighed against the actual costs involved; such as whether your food is organic or not, grass fed or not, running free or not and so forth as well as with your own personal values. Furthermore, just because “organic’s” appear to offer many advantages such as helping conserve the environment, my short introduction of some of the concerns with our current organic practices suggest that you should never accept main stream opinions but rather inquire specifically about the foods you buy and where it is coming from.
The industrialized approach to our food system often disconnects us from all these decisions we make about our food on a daily basis and all we see are packages of meat with deceiving pictures of grass grazing cows with different prices, ribs for 5.99 or 8.99? So is a tomato, a tomato, a tomato? I think not. People are demanding a transparency about their food like never before and we deserve to know where our food is coming from, how it is grown or how livestock is kept… and wouldn’t it be relieving if we could find this information from someone that doesn’t have a marketing interest?
This blog was written by Elis Halenko.
Canadian Organic Standards: http://www.cog.ca/about_organics/organic-standards-and-regulations/
Canadian Inspection Agency: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/certification-and-verification/eng/1300366596306/1300366657966
Scientific America: Will Organic Food Fail to Feed The World ?