Quantcast

Debunking 'Alternative Facts' About Pesticides and Organic Farming

Popular

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."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

View of an Ivorian cleared forest at the edge of the 35.000 hectares Peko Mont National Park on Oct. 8, 2016. The Mont Péko National Park is located in the west of Ivory Coast where the forest officers fight with illegal immigrants to protect an exceptional flora and fauna, espacially dwarf elephants. SIA KAMBOU / AFP / Getty Images

Ivory Coast's rainforests have been decimated by cocoa production and what is left is put in peril by a new law that will remove legal protections for thousands of square miles of forests, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The Apusiaajik Glacier, as seen from Kulusuk village in East Greenland. Like most glaciers in Greenland, it's retreating rapidly, changing the local landscape year by year. Photo credit: Karin Kirk

By Karin Kirk

Greenland had quite the summer. It rose from peaceful obscurity to global headliner as ice melted so swiftly and massively that many were left grasping for adjectives. Then, Greenland's profile was further boosted, albeit not to its delight, when President Trump expressed interest in buying it, only to be summarily dismissed by the Danish prime minister.

During that time I happened to be in East Greenland, both as an observer of the stark effects of climate change and as a witness to local dialogue about presidential real estate aspirations, polar bear migrations and Greenland's sudden emergence as a trending topic.

Read More Show Less

Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market. Cirou Frederic / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty Images

Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market, according to new research from the advocacy organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), which bills itself as an alliance of scientists, nonprofit organizations and donors trying to reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals during the first three years of development.

Read More Show Less
Chicago skyline on July 22 as high winds continue to push the waters of Lake Michigan over the top of the pedestrian and bike trail along the lakefront in Chicago. Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

By Daniel Macfarlane

Every fall, I take my environmental studies class camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. Some years the beach extends more than three meters to the water. This year, in many spots, there was no beach at all.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Insects like bees, butterflies and even certain species of beetle and ant incidentally pollinate our crops when they collect protein-rich pollen and sugary nectar. Rolf Dietrich Brecher / CC BY 2.0

By Kerstin Palme

Creepy-crawlies are among the oldest life forms on this planet. Before dinosaurs ever walked the earth, insects were certainly already there. Some estimates date their origins to 400 million years ago. They're also extremely successful. Of the 7 to 8 million species documented on Earth, around three quarters are likely bugs.

But several insect species could disappear for good in the next few decades and that would have serious consequences for humans.

Read More Show Less
Swedish automaker Volvo unveils its first electric vehicle the XC40 Recgarge EV, during an event in Los Angeles on Oct. 16. Frederic J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images

Volvo introduced its first-ever all-electric vehicle this week, kicking off an ambitious plan to slash emissions and phase out solely gas-powered vehicles starting this year.

Read More Show Less
Cars are queued in Turin, Italy in August. Particulate matter levels were the highest in Italy, Poland and the Balkans countries. Nicolò Campo / LightRocket / Getty Images

Air pollution in Europe led to more than 400,000 early deaths in 2016, according to the most recent air quality report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

The report, released Wednesday, found that almost every European who lives in a city is exposed to unhealthy air, Reuters reported.

Read More Show Less