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Buying organic vegetables supports local growers

Summer is a time of abundance on the prairies. The gardens yield up an endless cornucopia of vegetables—lettuce, spinach, peas, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes and finally carrots and corn—each in its turn. We wish desperately we could scoop up all this goodness and spread it out over the entire year—the so-called “fresh” tomatoes, broccoli and cucumbers we buy from supermarket bins in winter don't quite meet garden standards.

Thus while most consumers would choose a freshly picked tomato or newly dug potatoes over produce that has spent several days or even weeks on the road, there's another choice to be made: organic or conventionally-grown.  Some people are confused by what “organic” actually means since the term is often used loosely to create an image of a healthier product in order to increase sales; others realize the difference between organic and conventional produce but consider it insignificant and so choose the non-organic since it is usually cheaper than the organically-grown counterpart. A growing number of consumers, however, are buying organic products when available—and can cite good reasons for doing so.

Chances are if vegetables have been harvested from local gardens or purchased at a farmers' market, they have been organically raised whether labelled as such or not. Crops that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and genetically modified organisms—which is the case for many home gardens—can be said to be organic.

Choice isn’t easy

Now let's look further afield. When farmers or market gardeners begin raising fruit, vegetables and grains to sell for cash they have to make a choice—whether to raise crops organically or not, and the choice isn't always easy. Pests, blights and disease commonly enter the picture when any crops are grown and the easiest solution may well be to apply a chemical pesticide to take care of the problem. In order to boost productivity to increase the bottom line, it's very tempting to feed the plants commercial fertilizers.

When growers decide how they will do pest control and optimize productivity of their crops, their philosophy of how a healthy ecosystem is sustained kicks in. How does one best protect the environment, minimize soil degradation, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health for everyone?

For many growers, the answer becomes clear. To produce crops organically, however, is often more time consuming and thus more expensive. Controlling pests and increasing productivity means planting cover crops, doing crop rotations and spreading composted manure. It means constantly being on the lookout for improved genetics and pest-resistant crop varieties, and using organically approved pesticides which may be more expensive. Many crops are hand-picked which means extra labour costs. It's no surprise that organic produce is more expensive to purchase than conventionally grown produce.

Formal process

Many producers follow all the principles of organic farming, but have not gone through the formal process of being certified officially as organic since this is another expense. This is true of many small farms—those that sell their produce at local farmers markets or at the farm gate, for example. Organic goods sold in supermarkets are certified organic and marked as such with an official logo. That is, they have met the regulations of a certification board accredited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

So why buy organic? Some people are concerned that the food they buy and eat has been raised in enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment. Others want to support local market gardeners and like the concept of knowing exactly where their food comes from. While conventionally-grown produce purchased in the supermarkets is also regulated, studies have shown residues of various chemicals used in pest and disease control may remain on the surface of the vegetables and fruits after they reach market, especially problematic being apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, strawberries, kale, potatoes and sweet peppers. Some of these chemical residues are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors and neurotoxins.