Organic Food for Thought

27 Nov, 2013

Musings from a Kelowna Kid on the McTavish Farmer’s Market and the meaning of “organic”
By Charlie Harkness


I moved to Montreal from Kelowna, a small city in the interior of the Okanagan Valley, in British Columbia’s wine country. I felt homesick living in the downtown center of an island, caged in by skyscrapers and traffic jams, and often missed certain things that could not be found in a metropolis.  Finding organic bread and fresh seasonal squash at McGill’s Farmer’s market thus came as a pleasant surprise. Skyscrapers and fresh bread, traffic jams and seasonal squash; these are not terms often used in the same sentence. At McGill, however, we have just that. With the McTavish Farmers Market I found a little taste of home and a new place to get delicious fresh organic food—or so I thought.  As I left the organic carrots and cabbage behind, the thought occurred to me: What does “organic food” really mean?

The term is often tossed around by pro-earth people as the only way produce should be grown. To others it means a little extra on the price tag for something slightly misshapen. According to the standards set up by the Canadian government, organic food is produce that is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, or genetic engineering. Certain foods require more specific guidelines, such as livestock. For livestock to be deemed organic, the animals must have living conditions that allow for normal behavioral requirements. Producers may only acquire organic certification when these organic principles and management standards are met.  With all these rules to classify something as being organic, what then is food that is not organic?

Non-organic food would be food  produced in an environment where practices that are banned in the process of growing organic food are used. These practices include  genetic engineering, and using synthetic growth hormones and pesticides. All of that can make food sound daunting, but what do these scientific buzzwords mean? Genetically engineered food is food that has had its genome altered to create a product with magnified or added traits; for example, creating a strain of leeks that resist a plant virus. Synthetic growth hormones are hormones that have been isolated from plants and synthesized for our own use.  Pesticides are chemical deterrents to keep insects away. You may be thinking, ‘are these practices bad?’ In most cases, the answer is no. We have been using these methods for long enough without a negative effect that we can conclude no major change is warranted. While there have been cases of pesticide poisoning that have harmed humans. these cases have been from using new and consequently less understood substances, or an error that led to their over use on a food product. However, genetic modification of food in the scientific community is not seen as any more harmful than consumption of conventional food and growth hormones used to enlarge foods have no ill effects on humans.

While a supermarket has a large supply of food, farmer’s markets offer fresh local ingredients as well as those from other organic vendors. The McTavish market is the nearest for students, but a number of different farmers markets, all offering a unique variety of produce, can be found across Montreal.  Regardless of whether you decide to stick solely to organic food or choose to ignore it entirely, fresh and local will always trump food that is grown and shipped from far away. Visit your local markets, find a seasonal veggie and try a new recipe! You may be surprised by what you’re missing from the farmer’s garden.

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