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?