How can you tell if a food has been raised or grown organically?
learn and do
build these competencies
chemistry of organic food production
The term “organic” refers to a food production method. The trend toward organic food choices has continued to grow in popularity with consumers.
Organic food is grown without synthetic chemicals, including those used in some herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, the production of organic food requires the use of natural herbicides or fertilizers like crop residues and compost manure. Organic food does not have to be “chemical-free” or “pesticide-free.” Chemicals are often used in organic farming. However, these chemicals cannot be synthetically manufactured. In other words, they must be natural chemicals.
The Canadian agencies that certify a product as organic use the Canadian Organic Standards to assess ingredients and production methods, and decide whether or not a product can be labelled organic.
These standards lay out the specifics of organic production, including:
- How livestock must be housed, fed, transported and processed
- How specific crops and produce are to be grown, extracted, processed and stored
- How pests and diseases are to be treated
- Which substances, methods and ingredients may not be used
- The environmental factors that must be taken into consideration
organic or conventional?
Canadian consumers are increasingly interested in ways to reduce the environmental impact of their dietary choices. Some may see organic food as an effective way to reduce their impact.
Surveys of consumer preferences show that the primary motivations for organic food purchases are health and environmental concerns. Organic food has the same nutrient content as food grown with conventional farming practices. However, organic foods can cost up to 100 percent higher than non-organic food. Organic food production also requires more land.
A scientific study conducted in 2017 compared organic and conventional farming across 742 agricultural systems and over 90 unique foods. These foods included cereals, pulses and oilcrops, fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs and meat.
Check the full scientific study: Clark, M., & Tilman, D. (2017). Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters, 12(6).
This study looked at greenhouse gas emissions, land use, acidification potential, eutrophication potential and energy use. Acid rain, caused by acidification, can have disastrous consequences on both the environment and on human-made structures.
The study found that there are often trade-offs in terms of environmental impact. This means that one system may be better in one area but worse in another.
- The clearest results were for land and energy use. To produce the same quantity of food, organic systems were found to require a larger land area.
- The opposite was found for energy use. The use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides use more energy, because it takes energy to manufacture them, transport them, and apply them to crops. The absence of synthetic chemicals in organic systems means that less energy is used. Organic agriculture often uses inputs such as manure and compost, which require very low amounts of energy to create and transport.
- The supply of nutrients in conventional and organic systems are very different. In conventional agriculture, nitrogen comes from the application of synthetic fertilizers. Organic farms use manure for nitrogen. The timing is also different in regards to when the nutrients are released. Synthetic fertilizers release nutrients in response to the needs of plants. Nutrient release from manure is more dependent on conditions such as the weather, soil moisture and temperature.
- Across all food types, there was found to be little difference between conventional and organic farming when it came to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Individual food types had varying results; some were better than others for GHG emissions. Overall, conventional farming produced the most greenhouse gas emissions through synthetic fertilizer application while organic farming had a large amount of emissions from manure. Manure releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which is a strong greenhouse gas.