Where does your food come from? It’s a loaded question. Food has become intensely social and political: less about the egg than the hen that laid it and the farmer who raised the hen.
This shift isn’t just about where you shop or what you choose to buy. The business news focuses on Canada’s merging mega-grocers; our smartphones offer us countless food-themed apps; reality TV serves up more types of cooking shows than ever imaginable; books like Wheat Belly and The Omnivore’s Dilemma are bestsellers. And who isn’t a little tired of seeing tweets of everyone’s meals?
Food has become a cultural driver in North America. We’re being asked to think about our food a lot more, to think before we eat, and that is leading people down two very different paths.
There’s been a clear movement to create connections and community around food. The United States Department of Agriculture tracks the number of domestic farmers’ markets, and counted over 8,100 in 2013. Compare this to just over 3,000 markets 10 years ago, and it is clear that something important is happening. In British Columbia, there’s been a 147 per cent growth in farmers’ market sales since 2006, and a five-fold increase in organic sales at those markets.
But just as the “foodie” movement is on the ascendant, there seems also to be a counter-movement, one long championed by adolescent boys and the corporations that excel at hyping “supersized” death-defying meals.
The source of this summer’s unfortunate outbreak of food poisoning at the CNE in Toronto, the Cronut burger, is but one of many over-the-top, highly processed and fundamentally unhealthy foods being marketed today. The recipe seems to be equal parts bragging rights, indulgence and a willful ignorance of what we’re actually eating.
But organic food market trends, the continued popularity of the locavore movement and the success of the many chefs who embrace local, seasonal and organic food demonstrate that most Canadians are eager to know more about their food.
It’s an aspiration that can prove challenging.
First, think about where your food comes from. If something is grown “close to home” does it mean much? It might; it might not. Knowing where something was grown and made is certainly the first step to understanding more about the product and the practices behind it.
But knowing where your food is raised doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. Do your local farms use pesticides and herbicides on your vegetables that you wouldn’t use on your own front lawn? Do they raise their animals in conditions that would be unconscionable for your family pets?
What about packaged foods: do their ingredients include canola, soy, corn or sugar? Are they fried in “vegetable” or canola oil? If the answer is yes, unless the food is certified organic, you’re almost guaranteed to be eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That’s your choice, but chances are that the information wasn’t disclosed on the package, and what kind of choice is that?
How is your food grown and made? Do the farms use sewage sludge for fertilizer? Do they use pesticides that are known toxins, hormone-disruptors and neuro-development inhibitors? Are the animals kept in cages away from the sun and fresh air? Are otherwise healthy animals fed antibiotics to promote weight gain? Are products made with artificial flavours, preservatives, colours, nitrites, GMOs or other new (and unpronounceable) additives and “ingredients”?
It is sometimes very difficult to find the answers to these questions. But if your food is organic, you can rest assured that Canada’s government-regulated organic standards and inspections forbid any of these practices on organic farms or additives in organic products. And the government’s “Canada Organic” logo makes it easy to spot them.
So when you remind yourself to think before you eat, as many of us are doing these days, think Canada Organic. Ninety-eight per cent of Canadians polled think they will increase or maintain their current purchases of organic this year. What do you think?
By Matthew Holmes, Executive Director
Canada Organic Trade Association