Having kids changes your perspective on health and awareness completely. I first started really being concerned about the food that I ate when I got pregnant, realizing that everything I digested goes to the baby. Learning about dirty dozen and the importance of organic food shifted my values towards healthy living.
I am so excited to share this article on the importance of organic food by Holistic Nutritionist Rejan from Whole Harmony. She has been my go-to for inspiration in exploring culinary creations that benefit the entire family.
You may have heard at one point or another that you should include more organic foods in your diet. Maybe you’ve thought of “organic” as being just a buzz word, one to get you buying more of the health food companies’ products, and something reserved for hippies and the rich. What if I told you though, that once upon a time, there was only organic food. That’s right, before the days of monoculture (mass production of only one crop – more on that later), factory farming, and an overpopulated planet demanding WAY more food than we can even eat – food grew the way nature intended – without chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, and without big corporations (*cough* Monsanto) getting in the way.
Today, the majority of our food is being produced conventionally, and we are starting to see the ramifications of this non-traditional way of “farming”. Organic food goes SO far beyond the label at the grocery store, and I’m here to explain to you not only the importance of incorporating more organic foods into your diet, but also how those choices at the supermarket affect local farmers, the environment, wildlife, and even our future.
What is organic food?
Organic food is food which has not been grown with the addition of chemical pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and is without genetic modification. In today’s world, food that is labelled “organic” must adhere to specific regulations, depending on the country of origin. In Canada, for instance, in order for a food to obtain the Canada Organic logo on the label, it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. For produce to be labelled as organic, the use of synthetic pesticides (defoliants, desiccants, fungicides, insecticides and rodenticides), wood preservatives, or other pesticides that are not on the permitted substances list are prohibited during production. This includes in the water, soil, and of course – on the plants. However, this doesn’t completely guarantee that there will be absolutely no pesticide residues on your organic fruits and vegetables – and this could be for various reasons. Sometimes there is cross-contamination from conventional foods during shipping, or maybe an organic farm is close to a conventional farm and pesticides can make their way over through wind and rain. Sometimes, and this is less likely – conventional foods are falsely labelled as organic in order to reap the associated profits.
Producing organic food means the use of natural methods of pest control and traditional methods of farming to ensure healthy crops, soil, and biodiversity.
Growing food organically is much more sustainable. Study after study shows that this way of farming is cost effective, better for our health, better for the planet’s health, produces more nutritious food that also stores better, provides more jobs, keeps bee populations thriving, and overall makes the food taste much better.
Why chemicals aren’t the answer?
When humans first started growing their own food for consumption, many different types of plants were grown together. It was soon discovered that certain crops grew better together, and others did not. Many of these plants also provided natural insect repelling qualities, or specific attributes that could assist in the growth of the surrounding crops, such as providing shade or acting as a “pole” to grow up. There is a real science behind organic farming. And if it’s done in this way, it is far more sustainable than conventional farming.
Organic farming incorporates practices such as companion planting, crop rotation, cover cropping, and use of beneficial insects and plants for natural pesticides. These practices enrich the soil with important and bio-diverse microorganisms and nutrients, and ensure that when crops are planted, they are able to thrive and produce plenty of nourishing food. There is a beautiful synergistic flow to all the working components of an organic farm.
However, most of the food crops across North America are grown as monocrops – meaning that mainly one type of crop is grown, in mass amounts, over a large farming area. This type of farming was originally introduced to meet the growing demands for common crops such as wheat, corn, soy, cotton, etc, and pump out as much of this one product as possible. However, growing food this way comes with a whole set of problems.
Because there is only one type of crop being grown, and grown in the same spot year after year after year, the soil becomes depleted of its nutrients. Specific plants require specific ratios of nutrients, and if you are only growing one type of plant across a vast area, those nutrients are going to be used up very quickly. Of course, that then introduces the need for synthetic fertilizers. These chemical fertilizers are required to keep the plant growing, and eventually reach its potential as food. However, the more monocropping happens, the more fertilizer is needed. And keep in mind, our food gets its nutrients from the soil in which it is grown.
The lack of diversity also runs with other components of conventional farming. Different insects are attracted to (and repelled by) different plants (and insects), so one type of crop may mean that one type of pest community is able to grow and decimate that one and only crop. And so then what? Well that of course creates a need for synthetic pesticides. And as these insects become increasingly resistant to those pesticides, more and more is needed. Biodiversity in the soil is also lost with monocropping, as lack of nutrients means that fewer species of microorganisms and bacteria have food to survive on. This is especially true when pesticides start being introduced and kill off any beneficial bacteria in the soil. What we are left with is dead soil.
Health effects of chemical pesticides
You may think that just because government organizations have approved the chemicals used in conventional farming as “generally regarded as safe”, that they are in fact safe for you to continually consume. However, consuming foods with pesticides regularly can cause an accumulation of related toxins in your body, leading to a plethora of health problems you would probably rather live without. First of all, pesticides can cause acute toxicity, which means that you experience symptoms pretty much right after you consume them. Symptoms can include allergic reactions, skin irritation, headaches, general weakness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even respiratory irritations such as sore throat or coughing. Though those cases are few and far between, long term toxicity is definitely something we should all be cautious of. Synthetic chemicals used in conventional farming can cause harmful effects over an extended period – and yes, even if you are just consuming it on your food. Long term exposure is linked to asthma, depression and anxiety, gut permeability issues like leaky gut and irritable bowl disease, hormonal imbalances – which can lead to more serious complications such as PCOS, endometriosis, and fertility issues, plus ADHD, certain types of cancer, and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Your endocrine system is comprised of all of the glands in your body that regulate, control, and synthesize hormones. Hormones are the chemical messengers of the body that are required for regulating many different functions, including reproduction and growth. Endocrine disruptors are substances that interfere with hormones and hormone balance. They work by mimicking natural hormones that our bodies rely on and can either alter their function, enhance their effect, or disable them all together.
Endocrine disruptors can wreak havoc on the body, and yet they are found in SO many of our conventional products. You name it, they’re in it. I’m talking deodorant, soap, body lotion, scented candles, cleaning products, air fresheners, plastic, your BED, and so much more – including pesticides. Being constantly bombarded with endocrine disruptors, it’s no wonder that we see so much hormonal imbalance in our lives. Common symptoms of hormonal imbalance include:
These imbalances can lead to more serious complications, such as:
One way we can reduce our exposure to these harmful compounds is to eat organically grown foods. We can also opt for natural products, especially the ones that we put on our bodies and absorb into our bloodstream. These chemicals are not readily excreted during our detoxification processes, and are oftentimes stored in fat cells – which is why we see an accumulation over time and our bodies become overburdened with toxins.
Organic vs. Conventional
So now that we know the dangers of overusing chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the benefits of organic farming practices – how do the facts stand up when it comes to quality of food? First of all, we know that conventional agriculture introduces contaminants into our food chain, and so we see the associated health affects of consuming these foods. But studies also show that organic crops contain fewer nitrates, nitrites, and of course pesticide residues. Additionally, organic crops provide more dry matter, and are richer in vitamin C, phenolic compounds, essential amino acids, and have more total sugars (the good kinds!) than conventionally grown crops. Statistically, organic foods also contain more minerals. I mentioned earlier that organically grown produce also stores better, and typically has longer-term storage qualities, and this is because of their significantly higher antioxidant content. And guess what? That crop rotation thing I talked about earlier that’s practiced with organic farming? Well that allows for nitrogen in the soil to be far more available to crops, which can directly impact both the nutrition and taste of the plant.
You may think that conventional farming is necessary to feed the world and that the associated negative health effects are worth the benefit of cheap, fast food. But think again. A study was conducted over a 40 year period which compared conventional and organic farming and revealed that the yield between the two was actually not much different. There was a 10-20% less yield in organic farming, but this didn’t hold true in extreme weather conditions, such as drought, when organic farming started to out-perform conventional. And with climate change continually rearing her head, we are likely to see such extremes more frequently.
Organic farming also provides more jobs, conserves more water, preserves soil quality, is better for the environment, reduces soil, air, and water pollution, reduces soil erosion, and overall uses less energy.
There are TONS of studies that show that organic agriculture can produce more than sufficient yields, too. And this is to be profitable for farmers, and protect and even improve the environment.
And if you just can’t fathom buying all of your groceries organic (I get it – it can be a bit pricier, but keep in mind what your money is supporting!), you can always refer to the Dirty Dozen’s List – a list of 12 fruits and vegetables that are the most affected by pesticides, and ones that you should always buy organic. They’ve also conveniently added a “Clean 15” to the list recently, too – which are the top 15 produce items that are the least affected by pesticides, so you can feel better about buying those ones conventional.
Another good way to ensure you’re getting maximum nutrition, taste, and quality is to buy locally grown foods when they are in season. Food that is in season and can be picked at it’s ripeness (rather than being picked well before this and shipped halfway across the world to get to you) is FULL of nutrients, antioxidant, minerals, and FLAVOUR. Plus, these crops require less pest control because they are growing the way nature intended. You’ll also be supporting your local farmers – which you should always be thinking about every time you eat!
Knowing what I know and dealing with the health problems associated with a poor diet lacking in nutrients and likely full of chemicals, I can wholeheartedly appreciate the benefits of an organic, whole foods diet. This is something I do not compromise on anymore, and neither should you. I’m not broke because of it, and I truly think I end up saving money by purchasing locally grown, in season produce as often as I can. I also love shopping for food where I KNOW that the owners have the same opinions and thoughts about these subjects as I do.
A word from Rejan: Hi, I’m Rejan! I’m a Holistic Nutritionist who grew up in beautiful Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and if the Island life has taught me anything, it’s the pleasure of preparing and eating the food grown in my direct vicinity. For years, Whole Harmony Nutrition has been my outlet for sharing the things that I learn, as well as all of my proudest culinary creations. I want this to be a place for you to explore nourishing (and delicious!) recipes, find out the latest word in nutrition and *hopefully* gain some inspiration to help you live the healthy life you want!