In the Blog
Reflections on the Mainstream Organic Movement in Canada
Photo: Dave Brenner
Today the terms, ‘Organic’ ‘GMO’ and ‘Chemical-Free’ carry important meaning for consumers. Sixty percent of consumers say they buy organically grown foods occasionally, and most supermarkets now feature an organics section . Until recently, mainstream popular culture interpreted eating ‘organic’ foods as part of a fringe movement unlikely to spread further. However, over time eating organic foods became a part of a much larger cultural movement (think ‘foodie’ culture today) that tied to politics, regulatory issues and agricultural practices. . As more information about the serious dangers of growing food using pesticides, GMO’s and other dangerous substances become available, the more people are interested in learning more about the food they eat and its provenance.
From the thrust of the organic movement, many corporations are integrating sustainable practices into their industries – even if the actual ethics of these practices are sometimes murky. As well, the mass spread of interest in the organic movement changed many cultural attitudes towards meal preparation practices. When I was 21, I was friends with a woman who told me that she convinced her family to throw out their microwave because she had read about the negative impact of radiation on people’s health. Although the market-rate price of a standard microwave has gone down during the past five years, I was shocked at my friend’s story. I could not imagine asking my parents to do the same practice. Although my family barely used their microwave to begin with, the purchase and maintenance of a microwave in my home was seen as a status symbol of life in Canada.
The issue in how the organic movement is interpreted can be deconstructed in two ways. First, there is understanding that there is are people who choose to take more care of their environmental situations as result of gaining knowledge from the Organic movement. Then, there are folks who in their excitement about the lifestyle changes brought about by the Organic movement end up glossing over serious problems with it. The first problem being that the organic movement as it manifests in the West generally ignores the cultural roots of where most foods come from. The recent trend towards drinking coconut water and bone broth provides a good case study. Coconut water and bone broth are currently two very popular nutritional trends which are said to have many properties that can help people with digestion, normalizing their blood sugar, fatigue and thyroid concerns. As a part of many South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, coconut water and bone broths have long been used for thousands of years to prevent common ailments such as indigestion, common colds, bronchitis and high blood pressure. However, you would not know that if you walked into a local Whole Foods, where these two food products have entire aisles to themselves. Instead, you will find overpriced, inaccessible versions that may or may not contain the natural, beneficial properties they are said to contain.
Recently, my mother and I placed a bet to see which of our cultural foods would be marketed as a super food. We bet on turmeric, okra, corolla (bitter melon), dates, cumin spice and mustard seeds. Like clockwork, we watched popular wellness websites like ‘Healthy Living’ and ‘Dr. Mercola’ highlight each of these products for sale but at a much higher cost than what you could get at the local Bangladeshi food store on the Danforth. I even had a well-meaning friend try to tell me about the wondrous benefits of turmeric (curcumin). She went on for a while about how I should put it in my milkshakes before I told her that I already ate it everyday, but in my curries.
Truthfully, the cultural appropriation of foods is not as annoying an issue to me. While it is certainly problematic to watch as western media spokespeople appropriate my cultural foods as if they are magical things that no one knew about before they were sold in Whole Foods, the resurgence in popularity for my cultural foods has complicated implications for certain racialized communities. For some diasporic peoples who do not have the privilege of accessing communities of colour, the wider availability of certain cultural foods means easier access to their cultural foods, or a renewed knowledge about these foods. For example, one of my friends is South Asian and grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in North Toronto with limited access to brown people or South Asian foods. Her parents had a difficult time immigrating from Pakistan and when they arrived in Canada, they opted to assimilate into mainstream Canadian culture. My friend did not have any relatives to engage in South Asian communities with either, and so there was no one outside her family with whom she could access her ancestral culture. So when a Whole Foods opened up in her neighbourhood, she was excited to finally to try the cultural foods that she never got a chance to try out when she was younger.
There are powerful stories like that – and then there is the fact that much of what is marketed as an ‘organic remedy’ lack the safety standards for human consumption. I once bought a box of red maca pills to help with handling stress because I had read on a few natural food forums and free PubMed articles that red maca was right for me. When I received the box, intake instructions informed me to take 6 – 12 pills per day to experience the full effect of the maca. Not only did I get chronic nausea and heartburn for 2 weeks after starting the recommended dosage – but my family doctor told me that had I continued ingesting the pills my health might have gotten more serious. Similarly, in a similar trial and error process, one of my former co –workers applied olive oil on her eyelashes to get them to grow longer only to have it fire back and give her sties, itchy eyes and redness for 3 weeks. The bottom line is, there needs to be more guidelines on how to be more media savvy on media regarding organic wellness. Becoming savvier to media content addressing organic wellness is important because it can help you determine what works and what could potentially harm you – increasing the quality of the information you receive.