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  • Mariah Graham & Brent Deveau


Edited by: Naomi Abayomi


By: Mariah Graham

What is organic food anyways?

It is not always made clear what the meaning of organic food and agriculture is, and is often simplified to processes in the farming industry that do not use chemicals. However, it is slightly more complex than that. Organic farming was implemented as a way to promote more sustainable farming practices that are beneficial for humans and the environment. It is designed to respect the environment by using resources responsibly, and minimizing pollution, as well as protect the long-term health of the soil, and have humane living conditions for livestock(Organic Council of Ontario [OCO], 2021?). Production of organic foods vary internationally, but it is one way that consumers can have control and knowledge about the process of their food production because these farming practices are codified by law(Seufert, Ramankutty & Mayerhofer, 2017). Organic foods are considered healthier due to consumers having reduced exposure to pesticides, antibiotics and hormones which disrupt many bodily systems. Organic production does not allow use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or growth hormones for animals (OCO, 2021?), all of which are accepted in conventional farming.

Why is consuming organic beneficial?

There are two main reasons why consuming organic is a great option. The first being decreased exposure to harmful pesticides residues, and the second is the protection of the environment, that has been rapidly declining. From the conventional farming practices, the ground water is being compromised with non-organic fertilizers and runoff water used is causing disruptions in the ecosystem. It is important for consumers to note that pesticide residues are not completely removed with washing and cooking foods and a combination of pesticides may have a synergistic effect, where the effects on the consumer will be much higher than one pesticide alone.

Consuming pesticides in great quantities has impacts on almost every system is the body, that is the dermatological, gastrointestinal, neurological, respiratory, reproductive and endocrine systems (nicolopoulou-Stamati, 2016). This may look like dermatitis, increased ADHD in the population, and lower sperm count in men when consumed in excess.

Organic foods also ban the use of antibiotic hormones. The issue with antibiotics is that there is growing concern with antibiotic resistance bacteria as a result of overuse of antibiotics on animals. (Landers et al., 2012).

Both pesticides and antibiotics are used to increase the food supply.

Each year the Environmental Working Group releases a list of 12 foods called the dirty dozen which contain the highest amount of pesticide residue. If you regularly consume foods on the dirty dozen list, it is recommended that these are substituted for organic foods to reduce the bioaccumulation of pesticide residues and thus reduce the effects.

Organic farming encourages local production, because less preservatives are utilized during the process, there for produce supplied to supermarkets or farmers markets are freshly picked off the tree and ripe in store.


By: Brent Deveau

A report from Export Development Canada has estimated that Canadians will buy $7 billion worth of organic food in 2020. This makes up only 3.2% of the market, but this segment is growing at approximately 8% per year. In 2019 there were more than 7900 Canadian organic farms, which accounts for 2% of total Canadian agricultural area (1). Fifteen percent of Canadians eat only organic food as of Sept 2018 (2). Organic in Canada also means non-genetically modified organisms (GMO) (32). The author would argue that the mainstream message should be directed at eating a healthy diet and should supersede organic food marketing. The health benefits of a high fruit and vegetable diet are well published (4), however one needs to be able to afford these products to obtain benefit. According to the Government of Canada website, last updated January 1, 2021 “to date, there is no scientific evidence to show that there is a health risk from eating conventionally grown produce because of pesticide residues, or that organic foods are safer to eat than conventionally produced foods" (5). Organic agriculture is in relation to a different set of farming practices. The term organic in of itself is not a guarantee of food safety (6). Dr Paarlberg professor at Harvard University states, “it doesn’t usually pay to challenge popular beliefs, even with scientific evidence, but some have felt compelled to do so in the case of organic agriculture”(8).

Organic is a process not an outcome

Organic regulations do not stipulate the characteristics and properties of the final produce, only the standards that occur during the production and processing. Organic and conventional farming must follow the same standards of safety for human consumption. Of 172 countries from an organic farming survey from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture demonstrated that 87 had organic farming regulations (6). Many individuals view food safety in terms of pesticide and bacteria that could contaminant their products during farming. The reality is that many contaminants found on our food can occur anywhere from farm to table. This includes distribution, transport, storage, and even the way the consumer stores the end product.6

The Culture of Organic Food

Harvey and Rees quote Dutch sustainable food scientist Dr Fresco “Organic farming as a whole is a mish-mash of valuable goals and ideals that have either been insufficiently tested or are completely misguided” (9). Social ethics as they pertain to food systems has become politicized (7) The politicization occurs because what Canadians might perceive is organic may be in stark contrast to the formal definition or what is in fact organic (7). Organic food has become a savvy brand name (39). Dr Paarlberg, in his book released in Resetting the Table: Straight Talk about the Food We Grow and Eat argues that organic is in fact no safer, no more nutritious or produced on small farms contrasted to conventional farming methods as many believe (8). The culture of organic farming is perhaps perceived as small utopian farms. When in fact, most organic food purchased today comes industrial style farms, similar to those that produce conventional food (8). The majority of organic tea and ginger in America comes from China (8). Organic policy is generally autocratic, with stringent rules, that make it challenging to adhere to (7,8,39). And as we will see regardless of many of these rules there is still a lack of formidable hard scientific outcomes. Decisions are being made at the societal level as well as the individual level. Recently Montreal banned pesticide use. Pierre Petelle is the CEO for Croplife argues that this was politically motivated and believes this ban is in contradiction to the available science and could harm Quebec agriculture (22). According to their website “CropLife Canada represents the Canadian manufacturers, developers and distributors of pest control and modern plant breeding products” (24). According to the Government of Canada website “While Health Canada has the authority to register pesticides, municipalities and provinces have the authority to further impose restrictions on the use of these products” (26).

Organic Food and the Developing World

In the developing and underdeveloped parts of the world pesticides are important to safeguard crops and even increase crop yields (12). The WHO, along with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FOA) are tasked with assessing the risks of pesticides to humans, this includes from direct contact and through ingestion, along with making appropriate recommendations (12). With the worlds growing population, organic farms may be an inefficient way to grow food, as they produce lower yields.11 Most literature have shown crop losses have been shown to be higher in organic farms when comparing vs non-organic counterparts (37,39). According to the World Health Organization in 2018, there are no authorized pesticides in the international food trade that, when used appropriately, are carcinogenic (12). Half of the known authorized GMO crops are now being grown in the developing world (9). There is in fact default organic farming occurring, where farmers who intend to purchase pesticides are unable to do so because of financial or technical barriers (6). Because synthetic chemicals may outperform natural ones, the US National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances has authorized synthetic chemicals for organic use (18).

Organic Food Marketing

The marketing of organic as safer and healthier to consume is a reason why many are willing to pay higher prices (9). Premium prices are often charged for organic vegetables when contrasted to their conventionally grown counterparts (13). Organic foods generally cost approximately 50% more than non-organic foods (14). In 2017-18 1.8 million Canadian households, or 4.4 million people experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity in Canada is associated with a lower quality diet and poorer health outcomes, both physical and mental (15,16). It is argued that organic producers and advocates focus on the natural vs synthetic debate, which is not synonymous with safe vs dangerous (8). Examples of natural carcinogens include nickel and chromium. In the US Copper sulfate is a fungicide authorized as organic solely because it isn’t synthetic, however this product if not used carefully can pose real human and environment dangers (8). CBC marketplace tested 14 different organic and non-organic egg brands in Toronto and found non-organic eggs held their own in terms of nutrition. Importantly the organic eggs were more than twice the price of their non-organic counterparts. A Registered Dietician during the show highlighted that all eggs are a good source or protein, and it is important to purchase the ones you can afford.19 In a Global News report, Dr von Massow a professor of Food Agriculture and Resource Economics from the University of Guelph states that non-organic is as nutritious as organic food in terms of both crops and meat (40).

Organic Food Regulations in Canada

Regardless of the farming method employed, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) of Health Canada regulates all of the pesticides available in Canada, which includes everything from pesticides found in your local hardware store to the pesticides on your food (23). Under the Canadian Pest Control Products Act all pesticides must be registered before they can be used.20 The PMRA is governed by Pest Control Products Act (27,41). This act set maximum residue limits of pesticides that are permissible for producers (20). As stipulated within the Pest Control Products Act, food imported as well as domestically produced food are required to meet Canadian MRL’s. Imported foods are inspected at Canadian points of entry (5). If the act is contravened and this leads to personal harm or harm to the environment, someone who is convicted on indictment could face charges consisting of a fine of up to $500,000 or a prison term of up to 3 years or both (25). Croplife argues that PMRA scientists use some of the most rigorous testing methods in the world (21). The PMRA website states the approval process takes several years to complete (26). Croplife states this process can take over 10 years and must be re-evaluated every 15 years to confirm safety (20,21). It requires over 200 studies to register a new pesticide in Canada (38). According to Health Canada testing between 2006 and 2007 greater than 99% of Canadian fruit and vegetables and imported food tested were well below regulated residue limits. Products must be 100 to 1000 times below no effect levels in order to be licensed in Canada (20). Many claims have been made about surrogates of health such as various chemical compositions within plants and animals. Interestingly a United Nations Food Safety report cites literature from Ames et al that claims 99% of pesticides found in the diets of Americans are physiologically produced by the plants themselves, which at high doses themselves can prove to be a carcinogen (6). Organic does not necessarily mean no “chemicals” there are in excess of 100 fertilizers and pesticides that are authorized by organic regulators in both Europe and the United States (9). Paediatricians from UCDavies Health claims that animals that are not raised organic are often given growth hormones to promote increased milk produced and steroids to cause increased animal growth (14).

Organic Food Science

Observational studies have suggested an association between organic food and reduced risk of cancer (28) however these studies do not look for causation (26) and people who admit to purchasing organic food often have the socioeconomic ability and are more likely to engage in healthy lifestyle practices and are less likely to smoke (29,30) Organic food intake is challenging to determine (30). It will be important to tease out confounders in future studies. A large cohort study from UK in 2014 found little or no decrease in incidence of cancer in women who consumed organic food, except with a small decrease in the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (42) and a small increase in breast cancer (30). Women in the UK who reported that they usually or always consumed organic food were more likely to report that they participated in strenuous physical activity, were less likely to smoke or eat red and processed meat compared to women in the study who reported that they never consumed organic food (42). Other studies have found associations between organic food and a healthier lifestyle including lower alcohol intake, lower BMI, increased participation in sports, and adherence to dietary guidelines (31).

Organic and Genetically Modified Organisms

Organic in Canada means non-GMO (10) and although some internet sites may claim GMOs are unsafe (33) the Food and Drug oversight in the US claims that this is not true, GMO produced foods are as healthy as their non-GMO counterparts. In fact, some plants have in fact been modified for the purpose of increasing their nutritional value (34). There is no scientific literature to support any risks coming from GMO foods, and apparently 158 Nobel Laureates have signed their support towards these crops (9,43). Genetically modified foods are not permitted to enter Canada unless they are found to be safe after scrutiny from Health Canada’s scientists (35). The potential to cause any effects to people are the same as conventional foods and GMO have been part of the Canadian diet for a long time (35). The benefits of genetically modified food include possibly using less pesticides as plants can be modified to be more resistant to pathogens (36).


In summary, organic food production is about the process which may not equate to the outcomes many believe. Regardless the politics, culture and marketing have helped to be a large driver of the Canadian food market. Also keep in mind that food insecurity is a concerning issue in our society and not everyone will be able to afford organic food. It is important to consider that you do not need to be on one side or the other of the organic vs conventional farming debate. You can in fact choose both sides (39) As with many controversial things we encounter every day, let’s be tactful to those who disagree, and focus the discussion on the facts. As a Canadian consumer you can choose to be informed and purchase based on the facts, your healthy lifestyle priorities, and your financial abilities. The Canadian government heavily regulates pesticides, organic food may not always be pesticide free, and like many things in life, if pesticide regulations and procedures are followed appropriately there currently does not appear to be a significant risk to human health. GMO produced foods are safe and the overall impact on human health in an all-organic food diet is currently unclear (37) Large organizations such as Health Canada, The American Institute for Cancer Research and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations do not stand behind the hype that organic is safer (5,6,29). Current food dietary guidelines that include reducing red meat consumption and increasing a diet with fruit and vegetables regardless of them being organic or not are based on more reproducible science than studies attempting comparing organic vs non-organic food (37). It would be beneficial for Canadians to be open minded to new science and changing developments that could influence our decisions, regardless of our bias and passion.


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Organic Foods, Are they Safer? Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations; 2021. Available at:

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