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    Spending More For Organic Does Not Buy You Pesticide-Free
    By Steve Savage | May 12th 2014 12:18 PM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    There are several different reasons people are willing to pay more for organic produce, but many consumers do so believing that it is a way avoid pesticide residues.  That widely held belief is unfounded.  Here is why:

    1. There are definitely pesticides used in the growing of organic crops.  There are residues of those materials on the harvested products.
    2. Residues of synthetic pesticides are also frequently found on organic produce, even though they are not materials that are approved for use on organic.

    The reason I feel the need to challenge the "avoid pesticides via organic" myth is that it causes many consumers to feel unwarranted marketing and peer pressure to spend more for organic. The guilt tripping is particularly intense for moms.  The not-so-subtle message is, "if you really cared about your family or your health, you would spend the money for organic."  

    Whether this leads people to spend more than they should, to buy less total produce, or just to feel bad, it is a destructive outcome based on disinformation. Yes, there are low level pesticide residues on both categories of produce, but in neither case should those residues dissuade you from enjoying all the health benefits that come with eating lots of fruits and vegetables.

    Residues of Organic-Approved Pesticides on Organic Produce

    Anyone who has ever gardened realizes that there are plenty of pests out there that like to "share" the plants we grow for food.  There is no magic feature of organic that gets around this biological reality, and so there is an extensive list of pesticides that can be used by organic farmers. That list is not based on safety, but rather on whether the material is considered "natural."

    "Natural" does not automatically mean "safe." Indeed, some of the most toxic chemicals known come from nature. The organic-approved pesticides still have to be registered with the EPA because it is that agency's job to insure that these materials can be used in ways that are safe for us and safe for the environment.

    Some organic approved pesticides are very benign (low hazard) materials, but so are a great many of the synthetic pesticides used by conventional farmers.  Some organic-approved pesticides are slightly to moderately toxic. This is also the case for synthetics.  

    There are many pesticides that are used by both conventional and organic growers.  Some of the pesticides commonly used on organic crops are applied at rather high rates (pounds per treated acre).  Some are approved for use until almost immediately before harvest.  

    In any case, organic-approved pesticides definitely leave residues on treated crops by the time they reach the consumer.


    Synthetic Pesticide Residues on Organic Produce


    Occasionally, government agencies intentionally conduct specific surveys of organic produce to check for residues of non-allowed, synthetic pesticides.  The Canadian Health Authority did this in 2011/13 and they found synthetic pesticide residues on 46% of the organic produce samples.  In 2010/11, a similar survey was conducted by the USDA, and they also found synthetics on 43% of organic produce samples. Both sample sets included produce grown in the US, Canada and Mexico.

    What both of these agencies found wasn't alarming, but it definitely doesn't fit the marketing claims about organic as a way to "avoid synthetic pesticide residues."

    The presence of these residues does not generally mean that organic growers are violating the organic rules. Some of produce may have been mislabeled. Also, the testing methods are simply so sensitive that they can detect materials that got there unintentionally through something like spray drift or from harvesting or storage equipment.  In fact, the rules for organic have always allowed for the "unintentional" presence of such chemicals.  

    Buying organic does not mean "no synthetic pesticides."


    Should We Worry About These Residues?


    Since avoiding all pesticide residues is not an option, the remaining question is "Should we worry about them?"  Are the residues on organic and conventional different enough matter?  The short answer is, "No." Here is why.

    When regulatory agencies such as the EPA approve a pesticide for use on a crop, they use all the information they have about that chemical to define an amount of it which can be present at the consumer level without any meaningful risk.  

    In the US that is called a "tolerance" and in most countries it is called an MRL (maximum residue level).  These thresholds are designed to be very conservative, so that as long as the residues are at these levels or lower, they are about 100 times less than an amount that would be of any concern.  These values are based on an extensive risk assessment based on millions of dollars worth of required testing.  The regulators also restrict how the pesticide can be used (e.g. how long between the spray and harvest) so that any residues left should be below the tolerance.

    So whether we are talking about the residues on organic or on conventional, the meaningful questions are:

    1. What is the particular chemical that was detected?
    2. How does the amount of that chemical which was found compare to the crop/chemical-specific tolerance or MRL?

    Every year the USDA collects samples of produce, takes it into the lab, and looks for residues of pesticides. They publish the data, and what it consistently shows is that the residues are virtually all below or even well below the conservative tolerances.  Similar data is generated in Canada.  California does additional testing.  

    The results from these more extensive testing programs are very much like those occasional studies with organic:  yes, there are residues, but no, they are not worrisome.  



    Each year, an organization called The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list that it claims to provide guidance for consumers about which fruits and vegetables have the "most pesticide residues" and thus which are high priority for buying as organic.  In making their list they specifically ignore the data which the USDA provides about the identity of the chemical and about how its concentration compares to the appropriate tolerance.  

    EWG has never provided any justification for this absurdly non-scientific approach. They also never happen to mention the reality that there are also often pesticide residues on the organic options. The publication of this list is apparently very good for the EWG's fundraising efforts, but it is a huge disservice to consumers.

    Their "Dirty Dozen List" or "Shopper's Guide" is one of the most egregious examples of the dishonest, guilt-based marketing that puts so much pressure on moms and others.

    Just enjoy!

    Study after study demonstrate the substantial health benefits of a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.  That beneficial and delicious produce will come with some trace levels of the pesticides that conventional or organic farmers used to be able to successfully produce the food for your family.  You can enjoy it without guilt.



    Just a few links about produce and health:

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  I tweet about new posts @grapedoc.  My speaking website can be found here.



    Comments

    Hey Steve:
    Great article. No factual problems whatsoever. Bang on. But why exactly do you express the following opinion?
    "The presence of these residues does not generally mean that organic growers are violating the organic rules."
    Well sure it does. What else would it mean?
    Back when I quit performing paper-based organic inspections, I turned to field testing. And after hearing stories for years from organic activists about organic farms being contaminated by spray drifting from neighboring conventional fields, I found to my astonishment that this was patently false. Every single test I did over a 3-year period came back "effective nil." In other words, the honest organic farmers who volunteered to have their crops tested were completely clean!
    It's the failure to test organic crops in the field that leads to an overreliance in the multibillion-dollar organic industry on cheap imports from countries like Mexico, imports which are much-more likely to be fraudulent. And this in turn leads to the results you quote above: with almost HALF of all certified-organic food sold in the United States and Canada testing positive for prohibited (synthetic) pesticides.
    And this is simply deplorable, especially from an industry that purports to be "cleaner" than its competition. And the only way to improve this situation - in my humble opinion - is to call them out on it every chance we get.

    I am a mother and I buy organic food because I believe that organic practices are better for the environment. Wikipedia explains why mothers like me feed our families organic food at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_farming

    'Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based in large part on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an international umbrella organization for organic farming organizations established in 1972.[3] The USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition as of April 1995 is:

    “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."[4]

    'Since 1990 the market for organic food and other products has grown rapidly, reaching $63 billion worldwide in 2012.[5]:25 This demand has driven a similar increase in organically managed farmland which has grown over the years 2001-2011 at a compounding rate of 8.9% per annum.[6] As of 2011, approximately 37,000,000 hectares (91,000,000 acres) worldwide were farmed organically, representing approximately 0.9 percent of total world farmland (2009).[7]'

    Of course organic farmers use organic pesticides, we expect them to do that, so what? We are making the best choice for our families and for the planet Earth. More conventional farming non-organic farming practices are responsible for polluting our waterways with ever increasing amounts of phosphorous, nitrogen and herbicide and pesticide run-offs which cause more and more harmful algal blooms and toxins which bioaccumulate in our food, water and us, causing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Motor neuron Disease. In particular GMO's that are bred to be glysophate resistant mean that multiple applications of glysophate are responsible for feeding cyanobacteria with glysophate phosphates and killing normal zooplancton which are vital for the normal cycle of life see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zooplankton and inevitably causing more and more harmful algal blooms and toxins.

    Steve, it seems as though maybe you can't see the wood for the trees? Maybe some mothers buy organic food because they think that it might be healthier for their kids but most mothers with any sense know that 'organic' is healthier for the planet and what is healthier for the planet is healthier for their kids. Organic is a way of life that respects nature and avoids destroying the balance with massive spraying of dangerous chemicals.

    Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based in large part on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an international umbrella organization for organic farming organizations established in 1972. The USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition as of April 1995 is:

    “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

    Since 1990 the market for organic food and other products has grown rapidly, reaching $63 billion worldwide in 2012. This demand has driven a similar increase in organically managed farmland which has grown over the years 2001-2011 at a compounding rate of 8.9% per annum. As of 2011, approximately 37,000,000 hectares (91,000,000 acres) worldwide were farmed organically, representing approximately 0.9 percent of total world farmland (2009).

    This is why some mothers choose organic produce, they are trying to save the planet and the future for their children.

    Hank
    Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations
    Since when? There is no surprise testing of organic farms - none at all, never has been, any more than there is surprise testing to see if food labeled 'kosher' is actually kosher - and a few years ago Whole Foods produced was tested and 25% of its organic food was not organic at all, it was just regular food from China.

    There are dozens of synthetic ingredients allowed in organic food - there is nothing really organic about it except it has organic fertilizer instead of synthetic and it has organic pesticides. It isn't even better for the planet, it is more stressful to grow.
    The concept of being 'organic' is a way of thinking and acting just as maybe being a Christian, Muslim or a Jew is also supposed to be a way of thinking and acting. As you pointed out no one does surprise testing of Christian churches and their wafers and wine or of synagogues and their kosher food but if the wine is really vinegar and the kosher food isn't really kosher then the charlatans who are supplying it as such are simply charlatans. The same principle applies to 'organic' food, if some of it is not really 'organic' then those who are supplying it and labeling it as 'organic' are charlatans. America has many different states with many different food regulations and certifications, what can be certified as 'organic' probably varies from state to state as it does from country to country but the principle meaning of what is organic remains the same. “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

    Hank
    Okay, I guess that is a definition, but it has so many vague buzzwords it is meaningless. It is why the government does not use anything in its definition except a process - and the dozens of exemptions that can still be called organic, even though they are not.

    The reality is organic food does not enhance biodiversity, it harms it. Anything that needs more chemicals - and organic food does, saying they are 'natural' chemicals is not making them less harmful - and nature's idea of harmony is killing things off randomly. Without science and unnatural research, organic farmers would never have been born.
    I wouldn't group all synthetics or group all 'natural' pesticides, herbicides or fungicides as one in the same. Some are better for the environment than others, some are arguably better for our health that others (ie. perhaps it is banned in Europe but not in the US or Canada; eg. neonicotinoids).
    Although I share the skepticism with organics and the practice of regulating them, they're not entirely a bad idea. It brings a consumer eye on agriculture, and its practices; which seems to be focused on sustainability, safety and the environment.
    It is true however that perhaps the higher costs or decisive nature of what is deemed organic has a negative impact on the consumer; especially with what it is they may know or understand. Overall however, it is a better practice.

    sdsavage
    April, Look, I understand your ideals with regard to organic. I learned about those things 50 years ago from my grandfather who was an avid reader of organic gardening magazine in the early 1960s. What organic has become since then is something quite different and I will be writing a blog within the next month about that - sort of a personal story. The bottom line is that the fundamental philosophical devotion to "natural" in organic was a good approximation for "good" and "safe" early in the 20th century, but the best ways to farm for the environment and for our health don't always align with that. Add to that the way that the organic ideal has been morphed into a profitable up-selling opportunity often driven by deceptive marketing, and what organic means today betrays the best things it meant in the past. We need a best form of agriculture that can become 90%, not one that is stuck around 1% at a premium price. I've written quite a bit on Applied Mythology about what that sort of farming could be and about how we are already moving that way at a scale far beyond what organic could ever be.
    Steve Savage
    Good article. I've seen others like it and have been trying to convince several family members that their obsession with organic foods just makes it more difficult when we have family gatherings, with no practical benefit. The organic concepts sound reasonable to a point, but I agree with Steve that we need to come up with best practices that make our entire food chain safer.