The Benefits of Buying Organic and What to do When You Can't

It's not an all-or-nothing proposition
word organic spelled out with grocery produce
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Many families only start to consider buying organic food when a baby enters their world. Much like personal care products, furniture, paints, and toys, we tend to only think about what’s being used in our homes when we see little ones touching, and eating, everything. It’s easy enough to stick with natural baby care products and keep using conventional ones for ourselves. But with food, they don’t always eat separate puréed meals, so at some point we have to decide whether we’re going to start eating organic as a family.

It sounds like a good idea in theory, but with an extra mouth to feed and the higher cost of organic food, is it really practical? It’s a question I grapple with regularly.

Here’s a rundown of what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be “organic” and tips for buying organic on a budget to help you decide whether it’s achievable for your family.

What does organic mean?

Certified organic produce in Canada and the US is grown without synthetic chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers), genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic processing aids, or preservative ingredients (sulphites, nitrates, and nitrites). Organic farmers employ practices that restore and sustain ecological stability of the farm and surrounding environment.

Certified organic meat in Canada and the US is raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics, has access to outdoors and minimum space requirements for movement indoors, is under minimal stress, and is provided organic feed specific to the species.

It should be noted that growth hormones are only permitted to be used in beef cattle–so all dairy cattle, pork, and poultry in Canada are growth-hormone free, regardless of whether or not they are organic. Also, a common misconception is that organic produce is pesticide free; natural pesticides can still be used in place of synthetic chemicals.

Certification is conducted by third party organizations that verify the standards laid out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). It's a fairly complex arrangement and there is certainly room for error but the intent is that all food delivered with the organic seal complies with the CFIA requirements. This is a common argument against organic food. While it is possible (maybe even likely) that organic food you purchase doesn’t always meet all criteria, it is more likely that at least most organic food meets most of the criteria most of the time. This alone makes it a better choice over food produced through conventional practices.

Why choose organic?

Most people choose organic to reduce their exposure to synthetic pesticides. On one hand, these pesticides are governed by Health Canada and manufacturers are required to demonstrate that the amount remaining in residue on produce is not harmful to human health. Furthermore, most of the testing, and subsequent understanding, of how these chemicals behave in our bodies is achieved at concentrations far greater than typical food residues.

However, very little is known about how prolonged exposure to low amounts of pesticide residues affects our bodies. We do know that many of these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic and/or hormone disrupting at high doses, and research is suggesting that these chemicals are building up in our bodies. And so, many people choose organic because the risk of these chemicals causing harm in our bodies outweighs the reward of cheaper groceries. Children are more susceptible to higher chemical concentrations in their bodies because they eat more for their body size than adults. Also, their systems aren’t fully developed so they aren’t able to process synthetic chemicals like a healthy adult can. That being said, synthetic pesticide chemicals build up in adults as well.

There is also a concern about genetically modified organisms used in conventional food production, largely because the impact on our health and the environment is not yet known. The Non-GMO Project is working to educate consumers about what has been discovered and what is still unknown about GMOs.

Aside from potential health benefits, there are some environmental benefits to organic farming as well. Opting for supporting small, local conventional farms over large, international organic farms has its own benefit in this way, but organic farming still has the overall edge.

The downside of organic

There are a few arguments against organic food, the most common being cost (both to the consumer and the farmer), the conflict between local vs organic, and the inability to support the growing population (due to lower yields). The last issue is a much larger discussion, and there are sources that claim opposite results with respect to the ability of organic farms to feed the world.

With respect to local vs organic, it’s a tricky debate for sure. Obviously local and organic is ideal, but this is often easier said than done. We are often faced with having to choose between the two. On the one hand, if you want to support organic, buying organic demonstrates that there’s market demand. However, shipping food half way around the world comes with an increased environmental footprint. Buying local has its virtues, but your local farm's standards may not necessarily be organic.

As for cost, it is true that organic food will cost more than its non-organic counterparts. This is partially due to the cost of certification, partially due to lower demand, and also to the fact that yield cannot match that of conventional without using questionable methods.

Eating more sustainably

Ultimately, it’s an individual decision whether the potential health and environmental benefits of organic food is worth the extra expense, and sometimes effort. But there are ways that savvy families can get the most benefit out of their grocery bills while offsetting the cost and eating healthier overall, whether organic or not.

Eat more plant-based meals 

Meat is often the most expensive part of a grocery bill and beef is especially taxing on the environment.

Meal plan

Taking some time each week to plan meals will save you time in the grocery store, and will help you waste less food overall.

Avoid the inner aisles

These are where grocery stores want you to spend your money and where all the marketing is. Avoid adding items to your cart you don’t need, and stick to the outer (healthier) aisles.

Consider the Dirty Dozen

This is the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) annual rating of the fruits and vegetables with respect to pesticide residues. If you’re on a budget, you may want to prioritize the produce at the top of the list (like strawberries and apples), and realize that you can make do with conventional avocado and sweet potato, for example.

My go-to line when it comes with decisions like this is: “Do your best and forget the rest.” There are days when my family eats nothing but organic, and others when there’s not an organic item in sight. That balance works for us. Find what works for you and enjoy the foods each season brings, regardless of whether or not it’s organic.

*originally published August 23, 2016