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Organic and Pesticide Free…Not So Fast

Organic and Pesticide Free…Not So Fast

Ask anyone worth their weight in organic food what the definition of organic is, and they will probably say something along the lines of, “food that is made without chemicals, pesticides, or additives.” This seems accurate and reasonable enough, but it is not entirely correct. I found this out a few months back when I was interviewing a farmer – a farmer who was, by the way, a huge advocate of organic farming practices, and he gave me an earful. He told me about copper sulfate (a heavy metal) being liberally poured onto organic tomato crops to stave off blight, and something called PyGanic, which is a natural form of insecticide, but also a neurotoxin that is especially bad for the farmer or farm worker (not to mention the consumer). I had heard much about stray bits of pesticides blowing over organic crops, or circumstantial pesticides in the water feeding organic vegetables, but this was something decidedly different. Seems our widely accepted definition of organic is something completely different.

This is not conspiracy theory stuff, these are just the facts. With organic produce you are getting decidedly fewer chemicals and pesticides than with conventional produce, but the amount is decidedly not zero. The USDA (who sets the standard for Certified Organic in the U.S.) has an official list of substances that can or cannot be used for organic farming on their website, and as reported by NPR, it turns out that a key factor in chemicals being cleared for use on organic crops is whether they occur naturally. Spinosad, for example, comes from the soil bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. It can fatally scramble the nervous systems of insects. It’s also poisonous to mollusks. That said, it poses a very low risk to humans and other mammals, as long as it is used in low concentrations. Synthetic compounds can also make it onto the list as pesticides (like copper sulfate mentioned above), if they are relatively nontoxic combinations that include minerals or natural elements, such as sulfur or copper (copper can accumulate in the soil and eventually become poisonous to plants and even worms at high concentrations).

Without a doubt, some organic loyalist will read this and be unsurprisingly turned off, if not alarmed. The USDA did a survey of produce last year and found that nearly 20% of organic lettuce tested positive for pesticide residue, and these kinds of findings just do not sit well with anyone who has passed over the conventional iceberg at $1 a head in favor of $7 for a ½ lb of tatsoi. But before you give up on “organic” entirely, it is important to note that, while there are some loose rules concerning pesticides and such, most farmers who are using organic practices are exceptionally good stewards of the land, especially the smaller scale farmers. There are also other options out there besides Certified Organic. There is the Certified Naturally Grown designate, which is a peer-powered certification that appears to be a bit more rigorous and transparent. All in all, it is probably best to talk to your local farmer, if you have access, and ask them how they manage their crops. You may be surprised by what you find out.

If you are an organic adherent, does this impact your feelings and actions when it comes to buying organic? Is this sort of information important to you, or just too nitpicky to seriously worry about?

Read more: Basics, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, Natural Pest Control, Nature, Raw, Vegan, Vegetarian, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

88 comments

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8:48AM PDT on Mar 10, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

10:43PM PST on Mar 9, 2013

Thanks

11:41AM PST on Feb 7, 2013

Please will you or we the people -- before it is all gone -- have designated organic farm land -- if at all possible -- like we have designated open space areas, wilderness areas, national parks, state parks. Pastoral places are often peaceful for many people and they are therapeutic -- especially the ones withe the people who do good and have lived on these farm lands for all their lives, and continue to maintain good farm land.
Thank you for your consideration. Please sign this petition -- with the hopes that some people -- who have the connections will help with this. Please, please. To honor the heirloom farmer and the organic farmer.

4:25PM PDT on Mar 30, 2012

Interesting. Thanks.

2:45PM PST on Nov 16, 2011

thanks

12:15PM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

If Monsanto gets its way using GM, nothing will ever be truly, purely organic again.

1:48AM PDT on Jul 8, 2011

We do as best as we can. Just like the farmer does.

8:04PM PDT on Jul 5, 2011

I used copper sulfate to kill roots in my sewer drains. I'm looking for an alternative. Anyone have them?

8:50AM PDT on Jul 4, 2011

interesting to know, but still will spend the extra for organics...being organic doesn't mean I still shouldn't clean food and be safe with it....

7:44PM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

Thanks, it's good to know that.

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