Organic or conventional – or is there more to the issue?

In my last post, I wrote about an article in Forbes magazine which stated that according to testing conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA), pesticide residues are not a concern. But I also pointed to the criticism of the article due to the fact that the USDA does not track levels of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller and the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S.

No wonder many are confused about the issue of organic versus conventionally grown agricultural products. Add to this the fact that many organically grown foods have been shown to be contaminated with various levels of the very chemicals consumers are trying to avoid when they choose organic products. We know that agricultural products are not grown in isolation. While some chemicals may break down, other compounds may remain in the soil and leach into the water supply. Others still may travel through the airways, blown by the wind. The possibilities for contamination are numerous.

You might remember the rice and arsenic story of a few years back. The scary headlines warned that assorted rice products were found to contain worrisome levels of inorganic arsenic – the form that’s linked to an increase risk of certain cancers. Where did this arsenic come from? The most likely source is pesticides that have been used over the years.

Glyphosate is another pesticide being evaluated in terms of cancer risk. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently asked experts from around the world to closely examine the data from peer-reviewed studies.

Diana Dyer, a Registered Dietitian in the U.S. and author of  A Dietitian’s Cancer Story, Information & Inspiration for Recovery & Healing from a 3-time Cancer Survivor, suggests starting to learn more about  the negative impacts of the synthetic chemicals used for industrial agriculture on human health by looking at  the 2010 President’s Cancer Panel Report Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk.

In addition, responsible farming shouldn’t just be about the chemicals which are not being used. It’s also about giving back to the land – rotating crops and growing those which enrich the soil, thereby keeping it fertile. We need to promote environmental sustainability. After all, we want our planet to be there to provide food for our grandchildren and their children.

It’s time to look at the big picture of our food systems and how we grow food. Our governments can no longer ignore these issues. We need action on how to protect our food supply and planet.

In the meantime, what’s the best to select? When it comes to produce and whole grains, eating these foods is key to good health – organic or conventional and if the availability, quality or price is a barrier, then just putting them on the menu should come first.

As for nutrition ratings, many studies have shown little difference in the vitamin and mineral content of organic versus conventional produce. But science is now showing that there’s more to these foods than these traditional nutrients. Various phytochemicals – disease fighting compounds found in plant foods – may be in higher amounts in organically grown produce simply as a result of biology.

Let me explain. Phytochemicals may help to prevent disease in humans but in plants, they’re vital for survival. For example, the pigments which give plants their colour or those substances responsible for odours may attract insects that lead to pollination. And no pollination means no reproduction. Other phytochemicals are actually part of the plant’s defence systems to fight off various pests and diseases or even too much sunlight. Simply put, when plants need a defence against an enemy, if it’s not supplied in the form of a pesticide or an herbicide, they tend to produce compounds on their own. This is what contributes to their higher antioxidant ratings.

But don’t be fooled by products labelled as organic such as organic candy floss or lollipops. Nutrition tops organics.

That means choosing affordable products which result in these foods being eaten.

If organic produce is too expensive for a family, then everyone will be less likely to consume these health-promoting foods.

Be selective about what produce you buy and where it’s from to allow for lower pesticide levels without purchasing only organic products. For example, imports from certain countries may have higher levels of pesticide residues while some domestic fruits and vegetables may more often contain higher readings as well.

In addition, consider the importance of variety. Eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables can not only help to maximize your nutrient intake, it’s also key in minimizing the total amount of different compounds that you might want to avoid – pesticides, for example.

For example, if you eat strawberries on a daily basis, a fruit that may have high pesticide residues, then either go for organic some or all of the time or go for a mix of other fruits. Variety is more than simply the spice of life.

What are your thoughts on these issues? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Food Safety, Food Security, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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