By Saidia Green
For me, the only tolerable part of the morning is a strong organic coffee and a chemical-free breakfast to match it. Sadly, I attend the U of C, which means most of that desire goes unfulfilled if I try to achieve it on campus. Organic food is grown using farming practices that do not use chemical pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, animal hormones or genetically modified organisms. Most modern farming does use these artificial ‘enhancers’ to increase yield and production, but at the cost of environmental damage and human health. Organic products are lacking at our university, an institution which is supposed to be forward-thinking and on the edge of new ideas and practices. Apparently fertilizer isn’t just for plants.
Pesticides are chemicals designed to kill living organisms and though intended for insects, they also inadvertently affect many living things like birds, amphibians and humans. Pesticide poisoning affects five million people per year according to the World Health Organization and chronic exposure to small doses of pesticides has pesky effects like cancer, birth defects and interference with child development. DDT is possibly the most well known pesticide, earning its discoverer a Nobel Prize in 1948. DDT was used extensively as a defense against mosquitoes until it was banned in the 1970s for preventing bird reproduction and causing cancer in humans. Makes you wonder what we might be using today and what amount of highly effective pesticide is on the food you eat that someone in 10 or 15 years will discover is a carcinogen or neurotoxin.
The solution is to go back to farming methods that were used since the dawn of agriculture up until WWII–organic farming. Tests on organic food have consistently shown that organic food contains more nutrients and secondary metabolites–things that help prevent cancer, illnesses and malnutrition. There’s the added bonus of knowing your food wasn’t grown with extra chemical surprises. And let’s not forget the environmental benefits. Killing off insects, an extremely vital part of food chains, leaves fewer food sources for predators and those that do remain can be contaminated, an effect that moves from the smallest of animals up to apex predators. Interference with these food chains in Western Canada has in part led to the endangering of animals like the burrowing owl and the northern leopard frog. Because these toxins can travel freely through air and water, they easily contaminate neighbouring systems or even remote areas such as the Arctic, which are far from agricultural activities. Bioaccumulation is the accumulation of toxins in animals like polar bears and whales that eat a great deal of smaller animals that have traces of toxins. Of even greater risk is the contamination of air and water that can occur as the result of pesticide or fertilizer run-off that’s washed away by natural water cycles into water sources–not just for animals and plants, but for humans as well. The deaths of seven people and the E. coli poisoning of 2,300 others in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000 was the result of farm runoff.
It’s a common myth that the world’s population is too large to rely on farming without chemical enhancers and that the yield and rate of production must stay high to ensure everyone can stay fed. The world’s food supply is more than adequate, and hunger results from an inequality in distribution and political policy, another Nobel Prize winning idea. While the United Nations states over 800 million people in the developing world suffer from chronic hunger, in developed nations food is wasted on a daily basis, produce is rejected from markets because it is not visually appealing, and millions are overweight or obese.
Clearly food production is an issue that has global health, economic and environmental impacts, but locally, it is your choice that is important. The most important actions you need to be responsible for are your own. You can buy organic food at many supermarkets and organic food stores across Calgary like Sunnyside Market or Community Natural Foods. While these products can have higher prices than conventionally grown food, many are comparable, and if you want the biggest value for your dollar, focus on foods that would use the most pesticides in their production: fruit and vegetables. On campus you can at least find organic tea and coffee from Good Earth, Poughboy’s, and the Coffee Company (the Stör is currently considering switching to organic fair trade coffee). As for food, students simply need to create a demand. Contact your Students’ Union vice-president operations and finance or a commissioner, it’s what they’re for. Contact Chartwell’s, the company which handles U of C food services through their website. When you ask for something at a U of C food location or at the dining center, ask if there are organic alternatives available, even if you know there aren’t.Yet.