We love food in North America. We wonder if the higher cost of organics is worth it and just how concerned about GMO food we should be as we pick up strawberries in the dead of winter.
Dr. E. Ann Clark knows about plant science. She started the Organic Agriculture Program at the University of Guelph. Now retired she is custom grazing a herd of Red Angus cow/calf pairs, to be followed by other selected enterprises to explore the feasibility of post-oil farming at her grass farm in Warkworth, Ontario.
Dr. Clark took time out from watching her grass grow to discuss some of the concerns of GMO (genetically modified foods) and organic foods during a phone interview.
First off let's be clear. Dr Clark loves food including a nice juicy hamburger "in moderation of course."
Dr. Clark said GM or genetic modification involves the forcible insertion of alien genes into the DNA (or RNA) of crop plants. Virtually all GM crops now grown in commerce around the world have been fitted with one or two traits - resistance to herbicides or protection from insects that could harm the plant. In the beginning those in the GMO world told consumers GM would offer many valuable traits, from making corn able to fix its own nitrogen to frost tolerant strawberries. It hasn't happened yet. The safety of GM crops for humans is still up in the air. Long term studies are few and far between but some have found that there are long term risks to lab rats. Scientists who have worked on these issues and dared to publish concerning results put their careers at risk – just ask Arpad Pusztai or Eric Seralini.
"It's absurd to think that there is only one effect who you insert genes to a plant," Dr. Clark said explaining that transgenes insert randomly into the new host chromosomes, with both the number of insertions and the location of the insertions potentially affecting traits in ways that science didn't plan on. Insertion of the Roundup Resistance trait, for example, not only makes crops resistant to the herbicide Roundup but also affects the natural defense mechanisms of crops against certain pathogens.
The rigour of the current GM regulatory process in Canada does not impress Dr. Clark, who questions the meaning of a protocol that to date, appears to have accepted all GM submissions.
"Consumers are being asked to take a risk that we shouldn't have to take," Dr. Clark said adding that at this time we don't know if there are long term side effects. "There's no evidence of harm to humans from consuming GMO foods but then again who is looking?" Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, particularly when the absence of labelling means consumers have no choice in whether or not to consume GM-containing foods.
Organic food is a passion of Dr. Clark, who tries to use organically grown produce as much as possible. In Canada consumers can be confident that organic labeled food is grown under strict guidelines including annual inspections. Records kept by the farmer are reviewed by a certifying body that warrants that the crops and livestock are indeed produced according to organic standards. That doesn't however mean that all organic food is GMO-free, because GM is not containable. Certification means that all possible measures have been taken so that these farms do not yield produce contaminated by GM. GM pollen, like all pollen, is borne by wind, insects, or both, and as such can be found even on the best managed organic or non-GM farm, although the risk of contamination is much reduced.
Organic livestock also have strict rules in Canada. They have to consume a forage-based diet and have suitable grazing space.
"Most people who eat organic feel that its a healthier product for their family," Dr. Clark said adding, "It's the only game in town if you don't want to eat GMO food."
Dr. Clark said that while she is not a nutritionist her advice goes beyond just looking for organic foods, "What matters most is eating balanced food choices."
There is a higher cost for organic food but not completely because of the farming costs. Organic food can cost more because organic farmers internalize costs of production. Practices such as cover cropping and complex crop rotations serve to nourish and protect the crops, but at a cost of time out of production from profitable crops.
Organic products that come from smaller scale farms may also be unable to benefit from economies of scale.
There's another reason that organics can cost more. Grocery stores charge what the market will bear, with many people willing to pay the higher prices. On average, farmers receive only 20% of each dollar consumers spend on groceries. The rest of the costs are post-farmgate costs, such as transport, processing, refrigeration, and packaging.
Organic farming has taken off in North America but not as quickly as in Europe where it has been found that organic farming is good not only for the consumer but for the government purse as well. The downstream costs are cheaper where there are more organic farms with less water pollution and a healthier environment.
Dr. Clark concluded the interview with healthy practical advise. "Buy in season and cook at home whenever possible."
Dr. Clark will be on stage as a speaker for The "O" Word: Demanding Organic for Health presentation at the Green Living Show in Toronto on Sunday April 14.