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Planting a diverse blend of crops and cover crops and not tilling helps promote soil health. Photo credit: Catherine Ulitsky / USDA / Flickr

Here's How We Feed the World

By David R. Montgomery

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn't necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world's agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today's industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-Scale Agriculture Feeds the World Today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report, family farms produce more than three-quarters of the world's food. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare—about 2.5 acres or the size of a typical city block.

Only about one percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world's farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world's farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large Farms Are More Efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that "well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms."

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop—like corn or wheat—small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional Farming is Necessary to Feed the World

We've all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found "evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields." In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can't feed the world depends as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the U.S. alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building Healthy Soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity's ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we've oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer—and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year's supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

David R. Montgomery is a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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How to Meet the Soaring Demand for Organic Food

Despite the rapid growth of the organic food industry, U.S. production lags significantly behind consumer demand. A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows that with modest reforms to existing programs, Congress could help growers transition away from farming that relies on chemical pesticides and expand the acreage dedicated to organic agriculture.

Between 1997 and 2015, sales in the organic sector soared from $3.7 billion to more than $43 billion. This double-digit growth nearly every year makes the organic sector one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. Major retailers such as Costco report that they can't get enough organic food to meet customer demand.

Yet the gap between supply and demand means many American organic food companies have to rely on foreign suppliers for staples like soybeans, corn and rice—demand that could be met by domestic producers.

"Driven in large part by the multiple environmental and health benefits, Americans' appetites for organic food is seemingly insatiable," said Colin O'Neil, Environmental Working Group's agriculture policy director and author of the report. "The current organic trade deficit presents Congress with a unique chance to expand market opportunities for U.S. producers, while also benefitting consumers, food companies and the environment. With modest reforms to current programs in the next farm bill, Congress can reduce barriers to farmers who want to transition organic methods at no additional cost."

John Paneno, vice president of sourcing for Amy's Kitchen Inc. of Petaluma, California, said increasing the U.S. supply of organic food is essential.

"Amy's continues to see strong consumer growth for our organic products," said Paneno. "We need more programs that help our farmers transition into organic farming so that we can source the ingredients we need domestically and create new jobs for our rural communities."

The Environmental Working Group's report details how Congress can play a role in better positioning American farmers to meet the demand for organics, by increasing the number of organic farms and the amount of organic acreage. Congress has already begun discussing the 2018 Farm Bill, which O'Neil said should include the following modest changes:

  • Reform the Conservation Stewardship Program to create bundles of conservation practices specifically to help producers who want transition to organic.
  • Reform the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative to provide organic and transitioning producers with the same level of support as those in the general funding pool.
  • Reform the Conservation Reserve Program to provide greater incentives for producers to put farmland exiting the program into organic production.

"The organic food industry is now one of the fastest growing, most dynamic parts of the food sector, creating tens of thousands of jobs and producing in-demand foods for millions of Americans" said O'Neil. "Members of Congress should take any simple steps they can to reduce barriers to transition and help expand the organic farm footprint here in the U.S."

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17 Food Heroes Who Are Making the World a Better Place

From authors to chefs, business owners to activists, this list is a collection of change makers in every industry working to fix inequalities and problems in the food system all over the world. Their examples have inspired movements and changed minds. We hope their stories and work will inspire you as much as it has inspired us here at Food Tank.

1. Vandana Shiva

Scientist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva is at the forefront of the sustainable food movement. Fighting against the spread of industrial agriculture, she believes high-yield production is hurting more than helping problems of nutrition and hunger in the world. Her non-governmental organization, Navdanya, has been a proponent of biodiversity since 1991 and is currently fighting the development of Golden Rice, a Vitamin A-rich variety, claiming it's not as beneficial as it seems and could have a heavy impact on the environment.

2. Frances Moore Lappe

The revolutionary Diet for a Small Planet was just the beginning of Moore Lappe's contributions to changing the food system. Her contributions to building a sustainable food system since the book's release in 1985 are numerous, including more books, academic positions and the founding of several organizations. Her most recent endeavor is the Small Planet Institute, an organization that hopes to inspire people around the world through its research on democracy, power, culture and food.

3. Doug Rauch

Rauch is connected to one of the most popular health foods stores in the U.S.—Trader Joe's. After 31 years with the company, including 14 as President, Rauch left in 2008 and in 2012 he founded Daily Table. The not-for-profit store offers fresh produce, as well as healthy, to-go meals at affordable prices for a diverse and economically disadvantaged Boston neighborhood.

4. Christopher Bradshaw

Bradshaw is the founder of Dreaming Out Loud and an advocate for an equitable food system. In DC's most marginalized neighborhoods, Bradshaw introduced new concepts of healthy eating through West African cultural values and symbols. By instilling a sense of cultural belonging, the group hopes to empower communities to make more conscious decisions about health and provide more economic opportunities.

5. Leah Lizarondo

New solutions to food waste are popping up everywhere. Lizarondo's 412 Food Rescue is a go-between for food retailers and community organizations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They aren't a food bank; instead, they deliver fresh food that would otherwise be wasted to organizations that work with food-insecure populations. They fill a vital gap in the food production system. Lizarondo also writes about food and food policy at The Brazen Kitchen and for Pittsburgh Magazine.

6. Amber Stott

Fresh garden produce was an important part of Stott's childhood and with the Food Literacy Center, she is fighting childhood obesity with her enduring love of veggies. To bring healthy eating habits to low-income neighborhoods, Stott and the literacy center teach nutrition and cooking classes where they aim to change the negative attitudes children have toward vegetables. Bringing them closer to the growing and cooking process is the first step.

7. Emile Frison

Frison is plant pathologist at the cutting edge of research in agricultural biodiversity and its contribution to nutrition and the work of smallholder farmers. He is currently the chair of the International Scientific Committee of the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation and is a member of the International Advisory Board for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

8. Ruth Richardson

With Richardson at the fore, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food strives for equity, sustainability and security in the food system. The alliance, where Richardson is executive director, focuses on the economics of food—how much do we really spend as a society on food—and advocates for solutions to our lopsided system. "I cannot stress enough how important it will be to our future well-being to fix the economic distortions in the food system," Richardson told Food Tank.

9. Nikiko Masumoto

Masumoto recently assumed the responsibility of her family's 80-acre organic peach farm in California. But she's more than just a farmer. She calls herself an "agrarian artist" and last year she published her second book, Changing Season: A Father, A Daughter, A Family Farm, in which she shares her story and experiences as a queer, mixed-race woman in the industry. A gifted speaker, she offers a new vision for a radically changed and more open farming landscape through her work as farmer, woman, artist and activist.

10. Edie Mukiibi

Mukiibi is an agronomist from Uganda and vice president of Slow Food International since 2014. He learned early on that something wasn't working for the farming communities he worked with in his country. As a student in Kampala, he found the modern agronomy practices ignored many of the traditional methods and crops with which small-scale farmers were familiar. He eventually discovered the Slow Food movement and started a convivium to connect people and share information about crop diversity and traditional farming knowledge. His current project is to create 10,000 food gardens in Africa.

11. Lindsey Shute

Touted as a "Champion for Change" by the White House, Shute is a farming revolutionary. Her family farm, Hearty Roots, is part of a Community Supported Agriculture program. Members support the work of the farm in growing organic produce and in return receive access to its freshest products as well as other benefits of its work and location. She is a proponent of young farmers' influence on the future of farming and as such, she started the National Young Farmers Coalition.

12. Pedro Diniz

It might seem difficult to find a straight line between Diniz's former career as a Formula 1 racing driver and his current role as an organic farmer and agroforester. But the link is in the land of his family, on which he currently operates a 2,300 hectare organic produce and dairy farm, Fazenda da Toca, alongside his wife Tatiana Diniz. The operation is a major influence on the environmental stage in São Paulo state and in Brazil. The farm shares its mission to revolutionize agriculture through sustainable cultivation at its on-site learning center, Instituto Toca.

13. Pavan Sukhdev

Environmental economist Sukhdev sees a green future, green in its health and wealth. He was the special adviser and head of United Nation's Environment Program's Green Economy Initiative and study leader for the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study from G8+5, which looked to place a financial value on what we gain from nature and more specifically, its biodiversity. "I began my life as a markets professional and continued to take an interest, but most of my recent effort has been looking at the value of what comes to human beings from nature and which doesn't get priced by the markets," he said in his TED talk from 2011.

14. Miraci Pereira Silva

Miraci Pereira Silva is an organic farmer from the Roseli Nunes settlement in western Brazil. For years, members of her community have grown crops, such as lettuce, beans and papaya to sell locally. But their land is increasingly threatened by encroaching biofuel-linked sugarcane farms and their use of pesticides.

15. Miriam Miranda

Miranda assumed the role of feminist leader as a student in Tegucigalpa, where she also worked with women in poverty. She is of the Garifuna, an indigenous community in Honduras who have been forced off land by land grabs and resort development. The Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, of which Miranda is coordinator, are fighting legal battles against the state for protection of their land and rights. Despite threats on her life and even being kidnapped once, she strides forward in the fight for her people.

16. Geum-Soon Yoon

Geum-Soon is a farmer in South Korea and president of the Korean Women's Peasant Association, which seeks to empower South Korean women farmers. She is an unwavering advocate for thousands of women in communities with high rates of domestic abuse and a lack of female control over the land despite their contributions to cultivation. The association seeks to improve agricultural policies, bring back seed diversity and provide gender equality education programs.

17. Ben Burkett

Southern-Mississippi farmer Ben Burkett knows what it takes to keep a farm afloat in the deep south. While managing his family's four-generation old vegetable farm, he also serves as an advocate for several communities in the region. As president of the National Family Farm Coalition and director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, he supports underserved black farmers, family farms and cooperative farming, a necessity for small-scale farmers in the south, he said. In 2014, he was awarded the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.

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12 Fruits and Vegetables You'd Better Buy Organic

Strawberries remain at the top of the Dirty Dozen list of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, with spinach jumping to second place in the annual ranking of conventionally grown produce with the most pesticide residues.

EWG's analysis of tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that nearly 70 percent of samples of 48 types of conventional produce were contaminated with residues of one or more pesticides. USDA researchers found a total of 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on the thousands of produce samples they analyzed. The pesticide residues remained on fruits and vegetables even after they were washed and, in some cases, peeled.

"If you don't want to feed your family food contaminated with pesticides, the EWG Shopper's Guide helps you make smart choices, whether you're buying conventional or organic produce," said Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst. "Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is essential no matter how they're grown, but for the items with the heaviest pesticide loads, we urge shoppers to buy organic. If you can't buy organic, the Shopper's Guide will steer you to conventionally grown produce that is the lowest in pesticides."

Lunder said it's particularly important to reduce young children's exposures to pesticides. The pesticide industry and chemical agriculture maintain that pesticides on produce are nothing to worry about, but doctors and scientists strongly disagree.

"Even low levels of pesticide exposure can be harmful to infants, babies and young children, so when possible, parents and caregivers should take steps to lower children's exposures to pesticides while still feeding them diets rich in healthy fruits and vegetables," said Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "EWG's guide can help by giving consumers easy-to-use advice when shopping for their families."

Landrigan, dean of Global Health and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mt. Sinai, was the principal author of a landmark 1993 National Academy of Sciences study, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. The study led to enactment of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act that set safety standards for pesticides on foods.

For the Dirty Dozen list, EWG singled out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. In addition to strawberries and spinach, this year's list includes nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes.

Each of these foods tested positive for a number of different pesticide residues and contained higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce. Pears and potatoes were new additions to the Dirty Dozen, displacing cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from last year's list.

Key findings:

  • Nearly all samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide.
  • The most contaminated sample of strawberries had 20 different pesticides.
  • Spinach samples had an average of twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. Three-fourths of spinach samples had residues of a neurotoxic pesticide banned in Europe for use on food crops—it's part of a class of pesticides that recent studies link to behavioral disorders in young children.

By contrast, EWG's Clean Fifteen list of produce least likely to contain pesticide residues includes sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwis, cantaloupe, cauliflower and grapefruit. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods and tests found low total concentrations of pesticide residues on them.

"From the surge in sales of organic food year after year, it's clear that that consumers would rather eat fruits and vegetables grown without synthetic pesticides," said Lunder. "But sometimes an all-organic diet is not an option, so they can use the Shopper's Guide to choose a mix of conventional and organic produce."

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Pesticides Cause 'Catastrophic' Harm to People and Planet, UN Report Says

The chronic overuse of pesticides across the world has caused "catastrophic" harms to human health, human rights and global biodiversity, according to a report presented to the United Nations human rights council Wednesday.

The UN-solicited study on toxic chemical impacts to global food sources criticizes pesticide manufacturers' "systematic denial" of the broad harms caused by their products and calls for a transition to healthier farming methods that move away from the current dependence on pesticides.

"This report vividly reveals the harms pesticide manufacturers have caused by promoting the myth that their toxic chemicals are necessary to feed the world," said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "As this report recommends, we must move away from the industry-driven addiction to pesticides that is poisoning farmworkers, contaminating our water and wildlife and causing long-term human health problems."

The report is part of a growing body of evidence detailing the harms caused by the overuse and under-regulation of pesticides. For example, a study published last week in the journal Nature Plants found pesticide use could be heavily reduced in most situations without an impact to crop yield.

The UN report finds that poverty, coupled with inequitable production and distribution systems, are two of the major barriers to feeding the hungry.

"Far from being necessary for feeding a growing population, the overuse of pesticides has crippled agricultural ecosystems by helping to spur pest infestations," said Donley. "Nature is our ally, not our adversary. Now, governments must take aggressive action to change course and protect people and the environment from these dangerous, overused pesticides."

More than 80 types of crops are currently being grown at Bowery's New Jersey farm. Photo credit: Bowery

'World's First Post-Organic Produce' Grows at This Vertical Farm

A New Jersey farm is growing leafy greens such as baby kale, arugula, butterhead lettuce and basil all year round without pesticides, soil or even sunshine.

Bowery, a high-tech vertical farm in the town of Kearny, claims to grow "the world's first post-organic produce." The company officially launched Feb. 23 after two years of planning and development.

Like many other vertical farms, Bowery's crops grow indoors in stacked rows under LED lights that mimic the sun's rays and get nourished by nutrient-filled, recirculating water.

But what makes Bowery's operation unique is its proprietary FarmOS technology that can detect peak times for harvest and learns what the crops need to thrive, thus eliminating a lot of guesswork that's usually involved with planting food.

Co-founder and CEO Irving Fain explained in a blog post how the fully integrated software system works:

"FarmOS uses data from multiple sources, including vision systems, along with machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth, quality, and flavor, from germination to harvest. This yields insight into what each crop needs, rather than relying on instinct. By monitoring the growing process 24/7 and capturing large amounts of data along the way, we can constantly iterate on each varietal, tweak flavor profiles, provide each crop exactly what it needs to thrive, and harvest at the exact right time. This means better produce all year round."

Fain listed several other advantages to the Bowery system:

0 pesticides - Our controlled indoor environment allows us to grow the purest produce imaginable, with absolutely no pesticides or chemicals. Bowery produce is so clean, you don't even have to wash it.

95% less water - We give our crops exactly what they need and nothing more. Nutrients get precisely delivered via purified water—not a single drop is wasted along the way.

100x+ more productive - By planting in vertical rows and growing twice as fast as traditional agriculture, our farms can be more more productive on the same footprint of land compared with traditional farms.

365 days a year - Growing indoors with LED lights that mimic the full spectrum of the sun means we can grow independent of seasonality or weather conditions. In the future, this will mean perfect, local produce available in New York and other cities in the dead of winter.

Same day harvest to store - Because our farms are located close to the communities they serve, Bowery produce reaches stores and restaurants within one day—unlike traditional produce, which can take weeks or even months.

According to FoodTank, more than 80 types of crops are currently being grown at the company's farm.

The Bowery team believes its model can help address the food needs of the planet's rapidly growing population, which is estimated to balloon to 9-10 billion people by 2050. By then we will need up to 70 percent more food to feed all those mouths.

Fain also pointed out that today's agricultural system has wreaked havoc on the environment and drained precious resources.

"Today our nation depends on cheap, mass-produced food, sacrificing quality for quantity at the expense of our health and the environment," he wrote. "Agriculture now consumes 70 percent of the world's accessible water and 700 million pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. alone each year."

Another reason that operations like Bowery are important is that the world's population is increasingly urban. Today, 54 percent of the world's population lives in urban areas and will grow to 66 percent by 2050. With its location in Kearny, Bowery is less than 10 miles away from New York City, meaning produce can be plucked and packaged and on its way to the Big Apple in a day.

"We have to re-think what agriculture looks like in a world where water is scarce, people live in cities, and we're waking up to the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals in our food," Fain wrote. "If we can marry the honesty, quality, and precision of the best small providers with the scale of modern agricultural operations, we can change our food system for the better."

Its products can already be found in New York City establishments such as Tom Colicchio's restaurants Craft and Fowler & Wells and select Foragers stores. This month, it will expand to select tristate Whole Foods Markets.

Bowery's packaged greens start at $3.49, a price that's "equal to or lower than equivalent produce grown in the field," Fain wrote, adding that as the company continues to grow, "economies of scale will only drive this price down, making better food more accessible to more people."

Bowery, which recently raised $7.5 million in venture funding, says its scalable model can be replicated in other urban areas and the company is already working at planning their next farm.

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Debunking 'Alternative Facts' About Pesticides and Organic Farming

With the growing demand for organic foods in the U.S., there has been a backlash from agribusiness groups, companies and individuals who see organic as a threat to their interests. These critics accuse the organic industry of using deceptive marketing practices to get consumers to pay more money for organic food. Another line of attack has been that organic farmers use lots of pesticides, some of which are more toxic than those used by conventional farmers.

The reality is that some organic farmers do use pesticides but such products are primarily derived from natural substances, go through a strict regulatory approval process to ensure they are not harmful to the environment and human health and are only allowed to be used when other pest control methods aren't successful.

The fact is that the organic farming and food movement is based on producing healthier foods without the use of toxic pesticides.

25 Organic-Approved Synthetic Pesticides vs. 900 Conventional

However, organic farmers, like their conventional counterparts, face challenges with weeds, insects and diseases. To help address those challenges, the National Organic Program allows the use of certain natural-based and synthetic substances as pesticides. The National Organic Program's National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances details about 25 synthetic products that are allowed to be used in organic crop production. These include alcohols, copper sulfate and hydrogen peroxide. By contrast, there are some 900 synthetic pesticides approved for use in conventional farming.

There are also many natural-based substances used as pesticides that are allowed in organic farming. These include neem oil, diatomaceous earth and pepper.

"When you look at the substances themselves and not at the use rates, organic represents the least toxic set of substances," said Nate Lewis, farm policy director at the Organic Trade Association. "The difference is pretty striking."

Most pesticides allowed for use in organic farming are derived from plants or bacteria. "They have their roots in nature," said Charles Benbrook of Benbrook Consulting Services, an organic consulting firm.

The majority of organic-approved pesticides are used in fruit and vegetable production, said Lewis. Very few are used in organic grain production.

"Least Toxic Pesticides Available"

According to Lewis, pesticides approved for organic crop production must go through the most rigorous review of all pesticides. All pesticides must first be reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine their toxicity. EPA sets tolerances, "which are the maximum amount of a pesticide allowed to remain in or on a food." If it is a synthetic pesticide to be used for organic farming, the National Organic Standards Board then reviews it and will recommend whether or not to allow it to be added to the National List. Then, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or the Washington State Department of Agriculture will review the product to ensure it complies with the national organic standards.

According to Lewis, just one synthetic pesticide approved for organic farming has been assigned an EPA tolerance—spinosad, an insecticide derived from a soil microorganism. Other synthetic pesticides on the National List, as well as the natural-based substances, are considered safe enough that they don't even need an EPA tolerance.

"The EPA considers organic-approved pesticides to be the least toxic and most safe pesticides, so safe they don't even need to establish a tolerance for what's healthy or what's safe on crops," Lewis said.

One of the most widely spread myths about organic-approved pesticides is that organic farmers use Rotenone, a broad-spectrum insecticide known for its toxicity. While it has been used in the past, the current reality is that the EPA has banned Rotenone for use in the U.S, though Lewis says it is still used in some countries that grow organic bananas. "The NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] has passed a recommendation to prohibit it outright. We are awaiting NOP [National Organic Program] action on that."

Copper Controversy

Critics also cite the use of copper-based pesticides, which are used as fungicides in organic and conventional fruit production.

Copper does have issues. Kelsey McKee, OMRI's review program and quality director, cites documents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA that describe concerns with the use of copper.

"In general, these concerns include adverse effects on soil microorganisms as well as adverse effects on human, aquatic and terrestrial life during farm level application or from residuals in food," she said.

In an October 2015 review of copper, the National Organic Standards Board acknowledged that it is "both harmful in the environment when misused and absolutely necessary to grow many crops to protect against disease."

The National Organic Standards Board called for additional study on copper for the next review of the material to see if it should continue to be on the National List.

In a comment to a Scientific America article on organic pesticides, Rob Wallbridge, an organic farmer in Quebec, said that copper is not absorbed by plants and washes off "which is good for risk of consumer exposure." He also said that organic certification standards "require monitoring and restrict producers from using copper sulfate if copper is accumulating in the soil at excessive levels."

Copper is also exempt from an EPA tolerance and is an essential nutrient, according to Brian Baker, consultant at Belcairn Concerns and former research director at OMRI.

Baker emphasizes that conventional farmers also use copper. "If they think it is so bad, why don't they stop using it?"

Pam Marrone, CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, agreed. "Organic growers get flak about copper, but conventional farmers use a lot more copper than organic farmers."

She also said the copper formulations used by conventional farmers contain higher risk inert ingredients than formulations used in organic production. "The inert ingredients in organic approved copper have to be on the approved list for organic and are food-grade and low risk," she said.

Marrone, whose company develops biopesticides for organic production, said there are organic and OMRI-approved alternatives to copper on the market. These include Zonix and Polyversum and her company's Regalia. The OMRI Products List also includes non-synthetic alternatives such as biological fungicides and botanical extracts such as cinnamon oil and clove oil.

Foliar Spray Bt Not the Same as GMO Bt

Then there is the debate over organic-approved Bt insecticide versus genetically engineered Bt crops. Critics say the organic industry is hypocritical by allowing the use of a foliar Bt spray to kill insects while opposing GMO crops containing genes from the Bt or bacillus thuringiensis bacterium.

Benbrook called such criticism spin. "It's a completely different situation. Bt toxins in GM sweetcorn are inside the kernel and remain there when the corn is cooked and eaten. People who eat that sweetcorn will get a high dose of Bt toxins."

By contrast, the Bt foliar spray breaks down quickly and doesn't remain on the plant. "There is zero human exposure to foliar Bt spray," Benbrook said. "Implying that the GMO Bt is the same as the foliar spray is a lie."

Pesticides May Be Used Only as a Last Resort

Perhaps the most important point in the discussion about the use of pesticides in organic agriculture is the fact that the organic rules require that approved synthetic pesticides be used only as a last resort.

"The standards say you must apply practices like having cover crops and crop rotations and things that create health in the whole ecosystem and your farm," said Dag Falck, organic program manager, Nature's Path. "After you've demonstrated and documented to your certifier that you've done these steps, if they are not adequate to control the problem, then only are you allowed to use things from the National List."

According to Falck, many organic farmers don't even consider using synthetic substances from the National List. "They say, 'that's not how I do things,'" he said.

For many consumers pesticide residues on food are a big concern and organic foods have been shown to contain far less pesticide residues than conventional foods. Benbrook, who has done extensive work on pesticide residues in organic foods, said: "When you compare organic versus conventional food, it is absolutely inarguable that organic food reduces dietary exposure to pesticides by 98 percent."

Bluebird Hill Farm

This 13-Acre Organic Farm Can Be Yours for Just 200 Words

By Dan Nosowitz

It is, we assume, the dream of many readers (and writers and artists and gardeners and ... well ... just about everyone who's reading this site probably) to someday own a little organic farm of their own. But the costs of acquiring one—and the difficulties of certification—can all make that dream seem impossible.

Norma Burns, an architect-turned-farmer, has owned and operated Bluebird Hill Farm in North Carolina for nearly 18 years. After all that time, she's decided she's ready to pass it on to someone new—but her selection process isn't limited to, say, kids or employees. She's holding an essay contest to determine who'll be Bluebird Hill's next owner.

Bluebird Hill Farm is located about three hours east of Asheville. It is a USDA-certified 13-acre organic farm on which she grows lavender, specialty vegetables, herbs and native plants and the pictures make it look absolutely gorgeous: rolling hills, fields of lavender, picturesque barns. Our State has some more information on Burns and her farm, if you're interested.

Bluebird Hill Farm viewed from the pond.Bluebird Hill Farm

The contest is simple or as simple as giving away a farm valued at $450,000 can be: a 200-word essay laying out why you and your partner want to own the farm. Yep, partner: "Experience has shown that Bluebird Hill Farm can't be operated successfully by a single individual," she writes. Aspirants must commit to keeping the farm organic, at least one of the partners must be between the ages of 25 and 50 ("to ensure that the winning couple has the life experience and physical stamina that active farming requires"), will pay the closing taxes and fees and must chip in a $300 entry fee.

That's about it, really. Oh, and the application is extremely clear that anyone entering the contest should not, under any circumstances, attempt to contact Burns via any method besides Facebook. ("Entrants who attempt to contact Bluebird Hill Farm directly will be DISQUALIFIED and your entry fee will NOT BE REFUNDED," she writes. Caps lock is hers.)

The deadline to enter is June 1, so you can while away the winter hours hammering out your 200-word essay. Make sure each one of those words is perfect. Your future might depend on it.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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