Thursday, December 31, 2009

Organic Does Not Mean Pesticide-Free

James McWilliam's book "Just Food" is an eye opener for me. Here he discusses the myth that organic food is chemical-free food:
"This very common declaration [organic food excludes pesticides] is simply not true."

"If the risk of synthetic pesticides has been overstated by organic advocates, organic's own reliance on chemicals has been vastly understated to perpetuate a marketable image that what's going on in organic agriculture is "all natural."

"[Organic growers] might refer to [pest-control chemicals] as "botanical extracts" or "biorationals," but according to Ned Groth, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, these toxins "are not necessarily less worrisome because they are natural."

"The fact that these botanicals break down so rapidly means that they have to be applied in heavier doses and more often than synthetic compounds."
That last point appeared to be at play in this study:
Effect of Botanical Insecticides the New York Apple Pest Complex

Where the authors concluded:
"A question that arises from doing this type of research is whether the organic approach is more environmentally sound than an IPM* approach using soft chemicals. Does 6 applications of rotenone-pyrethrin have less impact on the environment than 2 Imidan applications? These questions need to be addressed if botanical insecticides are continued to be allowed in organic certifiable programs."

*Integrated Pest Management
Rotenone and pyrethrin are organic pesticides but are very toxic to honeybees as well as other non-target insects. According to McWilliams, pyrethrin is also toxic to some fish (bluegill, trout) and birds such as mallards. He notes the EPA classifies the organic pesticide pyrethrin as a "likely human carcinogen."
________
Photo of aerial apple spraying in Washington State from National Geographic.

12 comments:

Perovskia said...

Ack! But.. but.. maybe I'm ignorant, but I thought organic meant pesticide-free! *tries not to freak out*

Jim Purdy said...

Nothing is what it seems.

Bix said...

Ack is right!
I'm just discovering the extent of this too, P. I'm not a farmer and I haven't read much research, but it does look like chemicals are used on organic farms. "Natural" chemicals, not synthetically manufactured. But, as I've read, many of these natural chemicals are just as toxic as the synthetic ones, and many haven't even been extensively tested. A presumption being natural was safer.

I find the impact to the environment particularly troubling. What are all these "organic" pesticides doing to insect populations? Bees?

Anonymous said...

Sobering post. We're grocery shopping in the Matrix. Bix, has this book affected your views on GMO's?

Check out Michael Pollan's beautiful new film http://www.pbs.org/thebotanyofdesire/ I watched it streamed on Netflix.

Bix said...

GMO's ... It might. I haven't read his argument yet.

I might be more comfortable supporting genetic engineering if I understood it better - if production and research were transparent, if anyone who wanted to study these new organisms could, and if findings were public.

From what I've read, organisms produced by our current means of genetic modification contain mutations in their DNA, mutations that are capable of producing proteins that are foreign to our bodies.

Our immune system protects us from foreign proteins that we consume or to which we are exposed. But that comes at a cost. I don't fully understand the health-related costs of GE. But I know that allergies and autoimmune diseases stem from an undesirable immune response such as occurs during exposure to foreign proteins. Chronic, low-level inflammation (an immune response) is at the heart of many of today's diseases: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis. How do we know that GE is not contributing?

None of that addresses the risks to the environment.

If I could see that the benefits of GE outweighed the costs, I might warm to it.

Just looking at Botany of Desire site now. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

You're right, we should be equally suspect of organic foods. With regard to the dirty dozen and lack of transparency in the food system, perhaps these foods are best eaten in small quantities? A new strategy is needed. I do expect GM foods to one day be the most efficient, safe way to produce new food. I simply don't believe Monsanto is there yet. Imagine the progress the day clinical trials are reliably simulated on computers.

Dr. Mel said...

Humph--I think your posts have always been good, and I've been following a LONG time! But certainly the current ones are excellent as usual!
I look forward to reading this one re organic pesticides in more detail. I don't believe that our CSA farm uses any pesticides at all--hence the small holes, etc, in the produce, and the occasional slug, gnat, etc. that needs to be removed in washing the stuff.

Anonymous said...

I just came upon this blog from a Google alert. I'm surprised by the ease at which this article tries to sway people to think that organic is suddenly as bad as conventional. There is a massive over simplification of what is happening on an organic farm, and I think most people will agree that it is not wise to jump to conclusions without understanding first. Simply put, actually toxic organic "pesticides" are very rarely used, but when they are they are generally not synthetic. The fact is that a "pesticide" is by definition toxic to the pest, so no surprise that organic uses "toxic" pesticides. Water spray used to rinse off aphids on roses is a horrible pesticide (to the aphid). Almost all plants have natural pesticides and pest repellents in their skin, these are called natural pesticides, or when we eat them they are called antioxidants and phyto-chemicals, and they are all the rage for health seekers.
Actually toxic pesticides allowed under exceptions in organic agriculture are very rarely applied, and it must first be demonstrated to the certifier that inspects the operation that all other organic methods have been applied. In those rare cases pyrethrin or BT for instance may be used in a limited way. Most organic farmers never use any because the other methods work so well.
To compare this to the tons of toxic, synthetic and often non biodegradable chemically produced and often fossil fuel derived pesticides seems like the result of poor research.
I'll bet that the picture of the helicopter spraying is not some organic farm spraying pyrethrin. Also looking at the EPA classifications of substances, it would be good to actually compare apples to apples- Why didn't the article list off the type of EPA warnings on most synthetic pesticides? It might shock you. "likely human carcinogen" is actually a very mild warning and non conclusive, as in, it has not been proven if it actually is a carcinogen.
It seems pretty clear that the article is written to discredit organic, and the critisisms are actually poorly thought out and researched.

indianyarn said...

one of the organic pesticides used by my grandfather who was a farmer was cow dung - antibacterial -

ame said...

It is like anything else. If you are getting your "organic" produce from mass farming then you will have heavier usage of pesticides. Simply because it is the only way they can produce at that level and still remain profitable. Most large agri-businesses are going into organic produces because the market has become significant enough to be profitable.

Bix, I think you pointed out in one of your past posts that the Bush administration reclassified some pesticides/products as organic even though they had non-organic/natural ingredients.

I have found that eating local and knowing my producer tends to make it much less likely that I will eat things I do not want in my food. My local farmers do not use pesticides. And, while this works brilliantly in summer - it's not so great in winter. Living in Chicago, I don't have much of a choice on produce for the winter months. I’m thinking of saving up funds to put together a green house so that I can grow tomatoes and such throughout the winter months. But in the mean time, I tend to eat what I can get as far as organic goes and hope for the best. *shrug* I think the only way we can control our food is with money. But, I haven’t still figured out how not to let agri-business get my money in the winter. If anyone has any solutions for winter with produce, let me know! :)

Sorry for the ramble against agri-business, but I think once we got to food as a large scale business we lost sight of the fact that it is food. Not a product to make as much money as one can.

Bix said...

I'm beginning to see that the organic label is a ruse. Or it's becoming that. Maybe not for small plots, but as ame said, the larger the farm, the more likely it is to use chemicals. And as the market for organic grows, the size of the farms grow. I don't know ... how small can you keep them and still put out the amount of food we're eating?

gerald said...

I think this is misleading...
How many natural chemicals are being used and what are the names. How long have they been used? But,just give me the names and I'll find out for myself.
Now, how many created chemicals are being use, what are their names, and how long have they been used.
You absolutely know the organic farmer is giving something up, and operating smaller.