Opinion: When is organic not organic?

Projecting Change Film Festival documentary takes on organic label and suggests hitting the farmer's markets instead

Resistance is fertile.

A poster with this slogan caught my eye on Edible Vancouver's Facebook page. The accompanying image has a clenched fist holding a shovel and a pick (in Soviet hammer and sickle style). Beneath it are the words Grow a Revolution: Plant Food with the suggestion: "If you want to fight the system, whatever you think that might be, a great place to start is by growing your own food."

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This call to arms (or rather shovels and hoes) could well have been the tag line for the documentary In Organic We Trust, which screens Wednesday night as part of the fifth annual Projecting Change Film Festival (April 17-22 at SFU Woodward's). The American documentary dissects the term "organic," the government's involvement (via the U.S. Department of Agriculture), describes how big agri-business has muscled in on the lucrative "organic" brand and dispels a few myths, including the one that organic food is not sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. Yes, it is. Where the divide happens is based on what is in the sprays and the spray's synthetic or natural source.

Like many of you, I buy some organic food believing that it's not necessarily nutritionally healthier but that it is tainted with fewer toxins and chemicals, which over time accumulate in a body and cause damage. I do it for my children whose immune systems are still a work-in-progress. I fear for their food future and the impact all the toxins in our food systems (from pesticides to antibiotic use in animals) will have on their young bodies. (There just seem to be a lot more people getting sick at younger ages with terrible diseases and learning problems. If it's not our food and the environment, what is it?) I don't know if it's too late for me, which is why I take a daily low-dose aspirin to ward off dementia and various forms of cancer. (If I'm compos mentis at 110, it worked!)

Like many families, however, I'm on a strict budget. If I bought all the produce I needed for my family at a farmer's market, I'd go broke. So I stick to a larger grocery store chain for the bulk of my food purchases (including organic products). After watching In Organic We Trust, I'll probably buy a few more-even though I might not be able to trust the organic labeling after all. Sigh. I'm so confused.

Much of Kip Pastor's documentary will be familiar to Vancouverites, given our decidedly pro-green attitudes, growing numbers of schools with vegetable gardens, flourishing farmers markets and a city council that believes so much in local eating it's given grants of $5,000 to wheat-growing initiatives in front yards.

Pastor rightly notes that people are getting fatter, diabetes is on the upswing, our children are likely to die at a younger age because of it and health care costs are ballooning due to an increasing number of what Pastor believes are food-inspired diseases. "We can no longer stomach our food system," the film notes. His view is that we need to pay a bit more now (by purchasing healthier foods from local farmers) than paying much higher health costs later from eating cheaper, nasty foods (i.e. big agri-business products with lengthy, hard-to-pronounce ingredient lists) that also harm the environment.

Pastor cites many compelling statistics and studies, including one by the Environmental Working Group that pricked up my ears. It analyzed fruits and vegetables for pesticide residue and came up with two lists you might want to clip to your fridge. They are the "dirty dozen," produce with an exceedingly high pesticide residue, and include celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, lettuce, kale, potatoes, grapes. The safer "clean 15" include onions, avocados, pineapple, mango, sweet corn, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, mushrooms.

Where the documentary gets really interesting is when well-known organic food critic Alex Avery, author of The Truth About Organics, is interviewed. He gives Pastor the appropriate ammunition to slam the USDA for being a toothless organization that lacks transparency given its control of the "organic" label. When Pastor arrived to a pre-arranged interview with a USDA spokesperson, it was cancelled.

As one individual points out, "There is nothing more political than farming." No kidding, given the "organic" brand had US$28.6 billion in sales in 2010.)

As I watched the documentary, though, I questioned how rules and the certification process at the USDA could possibly affect me, a Canadian. A quick glance at a Safeway flyer was all I needed. Out of seven organic vegetables on sale, five carried the "product of the U.S." label.

In 2010, 13,000 U.S. farms were certified organic while a mere 10 had their organic certification revoked. A farm is inspected once a year, which an organic farmer even says is a joke, given how complex the entire organic process is.

In Organics We Trust left me with many questions and I longed to hear more from the outspoken Avery. But I will have to agree with Pastor's conclusion. If it comes down to choosing between a food labelled "organic" versus a local farmer's product that isn't organic, I'll stick with the latter when I can.

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The Projecting Change Film Festival opens Tuesday night with guest speaker John Hunter, the subject of the documentary World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements. Hunter is a passionate advocate of teaching children to be citizens of the world by exposing them to complex issues of the greater geo-political environment. For more festival information, go to projectingchange.ca.

fhughes@vancourier.com

Twitter :@HughesFiona

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