As a savvy consumer, you’re probably seeking out healthier foods. Eco-friendly agriculture—such as flourishing organic and fertile biodynamic farms—provides healthier foods while protecting the natural environment.
On a crisp, sunny autumn day, workers at Cropthorne Farm prepared fields for the 2016 season by sowing organic cover crops such as oats, vetch, or rye. Now that spring is in the air, these crops are thriving.
Why plant cover crops?
“We plant cover crops to add organic matter and fertility back to the soil, to reduce winter run-off, and to provide hungry flocks of snow geese nourishment after their long flight from the Arctic Circle in Russia,” says organic farmer Lydia Ryall. Cropthorne Farm cultivates 15 acres with 40 types of organic vegetables and a pastured hen/egg operation.
Following certified organic standards, the farm also addresses issues such as pest infestation by
- planting flowering cover crops to attract beneficial insects
- releasing beneficial insects into the greenhouses
- maintaining healthy soil
- growing healthy plants to fight off pests
What is certified organic farming?
The Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) describes organic production as “a holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock, and people. The principal goal of organic production is to develop operations that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.”
The CGSB’s 2015 report defines principles, mandatory standards, and practices for organic farmers. Specific guidelines are laid out for an industry that’s highly regulated and monitored by certifying inspectors and government representatives, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada. The Organic Products Regulations oversee what materials can be used on the farm and how the soil is treated. Inspectors visit yearly to check that standards are met and thorough records are kept.
Strict standards must be followed for substances such as pesticides, fertilizers, and soil additives. For example, synthetic pesticides (made by a chemical process) are not permitted. Principles such as health, ecology, fairness, and care guide healthy farming practices that are designed to protect and enhance the environment.
Organic farmers care for the environment by
- reducing soil depletion and erosion
- enhancing biological productivity and diversity
- promoting soil fertility
- recycling and using renewable resources
- decreasing pollution
- treating animals humanely
Organic farming practices
Farmers such as Ryall, who use organic agricultural methods, do so to create and maintain an ecological balance on their farms and the adjacent ecosystems.
Maintaining the health of the soil is a key organic principle. A variety of practices are used, such as crop rotation. By alternating the type of crops grown on a field from year to year, organic farmers ensure that nutrients in the soil aren’t depleted. This helps to prevent potential plant diseases. Field cover such as legumes may be planted off-season and then ploughed into the soil to introduce nutrients.
Shawna Barker, a holistic nutritionist and experienced organic farmer, acknowledges the importance of healthy soil. “Our health is dependent on the health of the soil that our food grows in. Healthier soil means more minerals, healthy bacteria, less acidification, and absence of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides/fungicides/herbicides.
“We can’t fully nourish our cells by eating plants that aren’t getting sufficient nourishment from the soil. Their root system is like our digestive system and the soil (along with sun and water) is their food. Plants can only thrive and be full of nutrients if their roots are healthy and the soil is rich,” she says.
Weed, pest, and disease control
Sustainable, eco-conscious strategies are employed to handle these threats. Organic farmers use beneficial insects, green composting, insect traps, mulches, grazing, mowing, and other methods. Only under very serious pest infestation situations, and after organic control methods have been exhausted, can certain botanical substances be applied. For example, the use of insecticidal soaps from animal or vegetable oils can be used when organic means aren’t working.
Substances such as synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides are prohibited by organic regulations. In contrast, farmers who use conventional agricultural practices can choose from an astounding 7,600 pesticide products that are registered for use in Canada.
Scientific evidence disputes the safety of products such as the herbicide Roundup, which contains the active ingredient glyphosate. In addition, pesticides such as neonicotinoids have been linked to the decline in honey bees. In contrast, on organic farms, materials such as treated fence posts—which could contain copper chromium arsenate—are not permitted.
In an extensive 2015 study, called From Crop To Table: Pesticide Use In Produce, Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center emphasizes the potential health hazards of toxic pesticides on farmers, workers, the public, wildlife, and the environment. The report points out that many of the pesticides lose their effectiveness as pests become resistant to them. This creates a vicious cycle as chemical companies must develop even stronger, more toxic pesticide alternatives.
Clear scientific evidence shows a connection between pesticide exposure and certain cancers and chronic diseases. The report’s authors conclude that eating organic foods is the best way to minimize the risk of pesticide residues.
Conventional produce versus organic
When conventionally grown produce was compared to organic, the conventionally grown strawberries, green beans, and bell peppers, depending on their growing location, were found to have very high pesticide residues.
No genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Certified organic standards do not allow for the growth of genetically engineered products, which means that all seeds and plantings must be non-GMO. Buffer zones must also be created to avoid GMO or pesticide contamination from neighbouring conventional farms that may grow genetically engineered seeds.
“The problems resulting from conventional agriculture are increasing,” says Dag Falck, president of the Canada Organic Trade Association. “The use of chemical sprays, fertilizers, and pest controls has radically multiplied with more spraying than a few years ago. GMO has become a system to sell more chemicals and to see farmers spraying more. Conventional industry says pesticide residue is not something to worry about. But savvy consumers believe otherwise.”
Humane livestock care
Animals raised on an organic farm, whether chickens or cattle, must be provided with humane living conditions, such as access to the outdoors, adequate space, grazing pastures, and organically produced feed. These living conditions promote their well-being and help to inhibit potential illnesses. Even the care of animals’ teeth and beaks is regulated. Animal breeding methods are also highly controlled. Drugs such as synthetic growth regulators, steroids, antibiotics, and hormones are banned.
Biodynamic practices originated in the 1920s with Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Translated, bio means life and dynamic means force. Biodynamic farmers work with the life force in a conscious holistic way.
Biodynamic farms must go through a certification process and regular inspections by organizations such as Demeter Canada that manages most Canadian biodynamic certification. About 30 certified biodynamic farms operate in Canada.
Biodynamic farming incorporates many of the methods used in organic farming. It’s not just about sustainability, but also focuses highly on regeneration of the soil. Farming methods such as companion planting and cover crops are used, while chemical controls are banned.
In addition to organic practices, biodynamic farmers use homeopathic non-chemical preparations. Biodynamic preparations are created from manure, fermented herbs such as camomile and valerian, or minerals such as silica. Farmers then apply them to soil and crops as sprays or compost.
According to the Society for Biodynamic Farming and Gardening in Ontario, research shows that these preparations support microbial growth in the soil. They also help plants take elements from the soil, elements missing from food grown in conventional and organic methods. This in turn may lead to more nutritious crops.
Biodynamic farmers also consider nature’s cycles of the sun, moon, and planets to determine the best times for planting and harvesting. Like organic farmers, their ultimate goal is to farm in a way that protects the health of the soil, plants, livestock, and people. [END]
Benefits of organically produced foods
- higher levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous than nonorganic foods of the same type
- higher levels of antioxidants, naturally occurring compounds associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases and certain cancers
- fewer toxic chemicals such as nitrates and pesticide residues
- no genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Problems with GMOs
A growing body of research has revealed the following about GM crops:
- may be allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts
- don’t increase crop yield potential
- increase pesticide use rather than decrease it
- have led to the growth of herbicide-resistant superweeds
- harm soil quality
- disrupt ecosystems
- reduce biodiversity
- more research into the safety of GMOs is needed
GM crops grown in Canada include corn, canola, soy, and sugar beet.
What’s in conventionally raised beef?
Conventional beef cattle are administered antibiotics—usually placed in animal feed—to prevent and manage illnesses. One category of antibiotics may be combined with a growth hormone. In Canada, growth hormones are only approved for use in beef cattle. They’re given to raise beef more quickly on less feed, while producing leaner meat.
These veterinary drugs are regulated by Health Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency randomly tests meat to check the safety levels of hormones and antibiotics. Meat that fails safety standard testing will be pulled.
A 2012 Consumer Reports study titled <Meat on Drugs> warned about antibiotic overuse in animals potentially causing resistance and the development of superbugs. Organic beef is produced without the use of growth hormones and antibiotics.
Want to learn more?
For more information, check out these additional resources:
- Organic Farming in Canada: An Overview
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency
- Canadian Organic Growers
- Society for Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening in Ontario
- Consumer Reports’ From Crop To Table: Pesticide Use In Produce
- Consumer Reports’ Meat on Drugs