Know the facts about organic agriculture... then form your perceptions
Editor’s note: This column was written by Fellow Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center, for AGDAILY. It was written in response to the AGDAILY opinion piece titled Eliminate the double standard in conventional and organic pesticide perceptions. The opinions published here are those of the writer and were unedited.
Organic food has fewer pesticide residues on it, and a wide body of research proves this fact. This makes sense, because federal organic standards prohibit organic farmers from using synthetic, toxic chemicals, and allow the use of non-toxic materials only as a last resort. This results in healthier consumers, farmers, and sustainable practices to support our environment.
A recent opinion piece, “Eliminate the double standard in conventional and organic pesticide perceptions” on this website misses the mark when looking at pesticide use on organic and conventional crops.
Yes, even organic foods can have some pesticide residues on them, but a massive amount of data that should not be ignored shows conclusively that organic foods have fewer instances of residues, and, in the rare cases where residues are found, those residues show up at much lower levels on organic than conventionally grown crops. A notable study using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, found that organically grown foods consistently had about one-third as many residues as conventionally grown foods.
These findings are mirrored in studies looking at what consumers are actually exposed to in their diet. Increasing evidence shows that choosing organic products can significantly decrease your exposure to pesticides. This is true even if you can’t eat organic 100 percent of the time; one recent study found that even eating organic occasionally can have a beneficial impact on pesticide avoidance.
The federal organic standards regulating organic production, processing, and handling in this country work. These strict standards require organic farmers to implement rigorous preventive systems to avoid pesticide drift, and to reduce the need for using even organic-approved materials to combat pests. Organic farmers are required to use non-toxic, integrated pest, weed, and disease prevention plans before they consider organically approved material application. Organic producers are allowed to use an extremely limited amount of naturally occurring pesticides when preventive practices fail, but these limited pesticide products available to organic producers are benign and have such low toxicity levels that they are considered “exempt from tolerance” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, these substances are reviewed every five years by the National Organic Standards Board for new information concerning their safety.
Food safety is a priority and concern for all of agriculture, and there are no exceptions to food safety requirements in organic agriculture. In fact, there are a multitude of safety regulations imposed on organic growers that they must comply with in addition to federal standards. For example, the National Organic Program requires organic farmers to demonstrate a plan that describes all aspects of the farm, including measures taken to prevent pathogenic contamination of crops and water. Certified organic producers and processors must also keep extensive records so they can trace their products from the field to point of sale.
The Food and Drug Administration currently has no guidelines for how long conventional farmers should wait following use of raw manure before they harvest their crops, which means that raw manure could be applied the day before crops are harvested. In contrast, no raw manure is used in organic systems without an extended waiting period between application and harvest (i.e. 90 and 120 days), and the use of sewage sludge is prohibited in organic farming. Organic rules are especially stringent when it comes to livestock and other animals, because organic standards do not allow confined cattle feeding operations, considered to be one of the primary sources of E. coli 0157. Organic standards also do not allow routine use of antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli and other foodborne pathogens.
Research shows that organic farming provides real and measurable environmental benefits. Organic does not “mean more habitat destruction and diminished biodiversity in the nation,” as stated in the article. Scientific research actually shows that, compared to conventional farms, organic farms support a greater diversity of life, including carabid beetles, spiders, earthworms, beneficial parasitoids, vascular plants, birds, bees and other native pollinators, soil microbes and fungi, and small rodents. One study even found that organic production systems not only support biodiversity within the confines of organic farms, but can also help increase biodiversity on nearby conventional farms!
Finally, the statement about the carbon footprint of organic is unequivocally false. Studies show that the proportion of farmers using reduced tillage systems in organic is the same as for conventional farms in the United States. Additionally, organic has been widely shown to be more energy efficient than conventional production, even when yields are lower.
The U.S. agricultural system is highly productive, yet many current practices are associated with degradation to water, air, soil and biodiversity. This can change. Studies show that organic farming practices can reduce negative environmental impacts and also can be applied within conventional operations to improve sustainability. Let’s be aware of the facts and use that knowledge to work together to produce food in a way that does not stress our environment, but that nourishes and fosters the health of our world and of our world’s population.