Protecting the Viability of Organics from the Purists

Apple Tree OrchardAlthough the principles and practices of organic agriculture stretch back thousands of years, the process of organic certification is itself a very modern phenomenon. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association offered the first rudimentary certification service in 1972 and other programs quickly sprung up across the country. A true sign of the times, organic certification arose as a quintessential countercultural response to the conventional establishment. Not only did organic farmers reject the status quo, they succeeded (some of them, anyway) by achieving what the status quo held as impossible: to farm successfully without using toxic chemical inputs.

Forty years on, countercultural elements remain a prominent constituency within the organic community but they have lots more company under what has become a very big tent. The expansion of the organic marketplace from renegade health food stores and fledging food coops to include Walmart shelves and international trade has meant adapting the underlying production and distribution systems. There is no glossing over these adaptations – many organic farms have grown larger, many organic products have become more commoditized and many larger commercial interests, even – gasp! – corporations are now in the thick of all things organic.

No need for surprise or concern – forty is a fitting age at which to have a mid-life crisis. As people, we go through this when we sense the world around us and our role in it changing in ways we can’t readily control or escape. Today, it’s the extended clan of farmers, food merchants, environmentalists and conscious consumers responsible for launching organic certification who are struggling to respond to a similar psychological predicament.

This anxiety surrounding the changes affecting organic certification has been the subject of considerable public hand wringing, including such New York Times coverage as “Has Organic Been Oversized?” and “Organic Agriculture May be Outgrowing its Ideals”. We explored this dilemma in an earlier Cooking Up A Story post Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized: Avoiding Tragedy On Maple Street, and concluded that differentiating between organic agriculture and organic certification was a prerequisite for understanding where the movement overall stands today.

Too Rigid Organic Standards Would Pose Threat to Organic Farmers

This post delves deeper into how one false impression in particular is fueling the sense of loss behind organic’s mid-life crisis. Specifically, we’ll examine how the exclusion of synthetic materials, which some within the organic community would elevate to a cardinal principle, actually threatens to drive farmers out of certification, if not out of business entirely. As discussed in our recent post on Rachel Carson’s contributions to the organic movement, the lingering misperception that any and all synthetic materials are anathema in organic production is both historically inaccurate and dangerously inhibiting.

One hot topic material in particular – tetracycline – illustrates the longstanding, legitimate and indeed essential role for synthetics in organic production, even in this case when it’s an antibiotic being used as a pesticide. It may sound like heresy to support such an allowance, and many loud voices would like to persuade the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to prohibit its continued allowance to suppress fire blight in apple and pear production at its meeting in Portland, Oregon between April 9-11, 2013. However, close scrutiny of the facts establishes that tetracycline has been an essential tool in the highly successful transition of apple and pear production from harsh, broad spectrum pesticides to softer and more sustainable systems, whether certified or not.

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at Erwinia amylovora (PDF), the pernicious bacterium behind the devastating disease called fire blight. Prevention is the only feasible management strategy for fire blight because treatment means the chainsaw – infected limbs and branches, if not entire trees, must be physically removed and burned once symptoms appear. Variety selection and management practices can reduce an orchard’s susceptibility to fire blight but no production system has ever eliminated risk.

Left unchecked, fire blight can do more than wipe out a crop – it kills entire orchards. Using temperature modeling to calibrate the time and rate of application, farmers have reliably used one of two antibiotics – streptomycin or oxytetracycline – to suppress residual fire blight during peak periods when an outbreak would jeopardize their orchards. Allowances for these two substances in organic apple and pear production date to the very inception of certified production.

Opponents of extending the allowances for tetracycline to manage fire blight often cite the risk that applying these materials in the orchard will increase the likelihood that resistance will subsequently emerge in pathogens which affect humans. This is an alarming claim, one which merits close scrutiny because the excessive use of antibiotics in commercial livestock (which accounts for an astonishing 80% of those drugs administered in the United States annually) is indeed accelerating resistance in pathogenic organisms to which humans are susceptible.

However, the most vociferous and credible critics of the abuse of antibiotics in livestock production – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control – have never cited concerns about antibiotic use for fire blight management. Lumping application of tetracycline in orchards with the nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics fed to confined livestock in the United States annually amounts to guilt by association. The great danger here would be to allow a pastoral image of organic agriculture to deny certified farmers the essential inputs they need – even a synthetic one – to produce the quality and quantity of food we expect from them.

The Confucian scholar Dr. Henry Rosemont, Jr. has observed that there are no crossroads in Chinese philosophy as Westerners understand the concept, only ditches beside the road of life. To my understanding, this means that the course we take in life is shaped less by agonizing either/or decisions then it is by the continuous choices and actions which comprise our daily existence. It’s through tiny steps, not giant leaps that we progress in life.

Here’s hoping that when the NOSB meets in Portland next week it will have the self-awareness and courage to base its decision on substance and not image. Extending the allowance for tetracycline in organic apple and pear production won’t be the fateful crossroads decision which its detractors would portray it to be. Rather, it will be another tiny step forward safely between the ditches which bound the organic road ahead.

Mark Keating has worked in the organic, sustainable and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy, academia, journalism and conducting organic inspections. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production. He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets. Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that organically raised and locally distributed food offers the surest path to human health and planetary survival, Mark, his wife and their daughter live alongside the Pequest River in New Jersey, the Garden State.


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