What does ‘organic’ really mean?

by David Kitai

These days any interest in food tends to centre around a few key buzzwords. Terms like ‘natural’, ‘GMO-free’ and, above all, ‘organic’ are omnipresent in the restaurants and grocery stores we frequent. As students, with all our desire to do good and eat ethically, we’re especially taken in by them. They comfort and convince us that we’re not eating factory-farmed pork or mutant eggplant. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these labels are (in this writer’s opinion) nonsense, selling a product rarely worse or better than its non-organic counterpart for a 50% mark-up.

‘Natural’ is a totally unregulated term and means—quite literally—nothing. ‘GMO-free’ as well, means very little. We’ve been genetically modifying our food since the first Mesopotamian farmers started harvesting wheat. Without some GMO foods like Norman Borlaug’s dwarf wheat billions of people would not be alive today. My biggest issue though is with the latter of these three particular terms: organic.

Here’s why.

Organic is a label. Duh, you answer. What I mean is that in order for a product to be certified organic a licensed third-party certification agency has to inspect and approve that product. These agencies are for-profit and paid by producers. According to statistics Canada, those agencies typically charge individual producers at least $1,000 per year. Even though an organic label means you can mark up your prices some producers elect to skip the fee.

It’s also important to know that in Canada, excluding Quebec, each agency sets its own standard. The approval of ambiguous practices like the use of natural pesticides varies between agencies. In comparison, American and European standards are more regulated.

This is all to say that when you’re shopping, the organic label is a better indicator of price than a product’s health value or ethical merits.

None of this is to say that the bad guys of food don’t exist. Monsanto does do evil things to farmers and consumers. Cargill pigs are essentially tortured. The good guys are out there too. Farms like South 50 in Port Hope, Ontario are raising grass-fed beef and pastured pork the absolute right way.

But if we can’t trust the labels, how can we tell what’s a genuinely good product? Here, dear readers, is the hard part. You’ve got to do some work of your own. Ask your grocer or butcher who their suppliers are and check them out online. When buying meat look for darker colours and yellow fat. For poultry specifically, choose cuts with firm flesh and more fat. When it comes to veggies, avoid the stuff that all looks identical. Variety is a better indicator of natural origins than any label. Most importantly, shop seasonally. Stop eating strawberries in February and switch to root veg in autumn.

What does %22organic%22 really mean?
Put down the strawberries in February and nobody gets hurt

The best bet is to find specific stores you trust. Toronto and other major cities are rife with food stores and restaurants catering to an ethically-minded clientele. In some cases they set their own standards for suppliers, eschewing organic food for specific farms they know well. Shop at those places, they’re helping us all be more morally sound people.