For better and for worse, the popular understanding of organic agriculture in America is inseparable from the environmental and human health risks associated with pesticides. This is certainly for the better because, fifty years after the clarion call of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, public recognition that pesticides pose significant risk has motivated millions of people to embrace organic alternatives with their food choices and lawn, yard and home pest control practices.
Ms. Carson changed history by empowering people to see through the placid official assurances about pesticide safety and take risk assessment and mitigation into their own hands. Specific to agriculture, consumers have consistently identified the avoidance of pesticide residues as their principal incentive for purchasing organic foods pretty much as long as such surveys have been taken.
Consumers seeking to minimize exposure to pesticide residues invest wisely when buying organic because the best available data confirms that certified foods contain significantly fewer and generally less toxic residues than conventionally produced alternatives. For example, in 2011the USDA completed a study entitled Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce (PDF) which applied state of the science analytical techniques to identify residues of the 195 most suspect pesticides from 571 samples of apple, broccoli, tomato, green pepper, potato and strawberry.
Of the more than 110,000 specific product/residue tests conducted, the organic product tested free of any residues a remarkable 99.6% of the time. While a total of 413 residues were found, only 21 of them exceeded 5 percent of the residue level for that pesticide legally allowed on the same variety of conventional produce. Drawing on data from the USDA’s long-running Pesticide Data Program, the noted pesticide expert Dr. Charles Benbrook determined that conventionally produced fruits and vegetables tested were 3.47 times more likely to contain residues than organic products.
If concerns about pesticide toxicity are real and consuming organic food effectively reduces our exposure to their residues, then where is the downside in equating the two so closely? First of all, recognizing that pesticide residues come with risk is too simplistic a basis for deciding that we must avoid them at all costs. That would be analogous to saying that since we risk tripping and falling every time we take the stairs, we should arrange our life to live exclusively on the first floor.
The question isn’t whether there will be risk involved in taking an action – there always will be – but rather whether that risk, when intelligently managed, is appropriate to the potential reward. Pesticides are most dangerous at the place and time they are applied and we shouldn’t confuse those risks with exposure to the residues that may remain on food long afterwards. Farm workers, farm communities and farming ecosystems have always borne the brunt of pesticide toxicity and going organic pays its biggest dividends by reducing the risks of those exposures.
Secondly, framing organic agriculture as antithetical to the use of pesticides obscures the limited but legitimate role that pesticides have always played in certified production systems. It is true that the organic paradigm prioritizes a proactive and preventive approach to pest management. This approach requires that farmers raise crop varieties and livestock species adapted to local conditions and provide them with optimal nutrition and other conditions (for example, no overcrowding of animals) which impart vigor and promote immunity.
However, organic farmers have always been allowed to employ a limited number of pesticides which have been reviewed by the independent certifying body and found to be both safe and necessary for a specific production challenge. Such allowances are neither short cuts nor loopholes but rather reflect the practical necessities of raising the quality and quantity of wholesome food we count on organic farmers to provide.
Life on Earth has never had a more prescient nor potent advocate than Rachel Carson, but we can trace some of our lingering confusion about the risks and roles of pesticides to her pioneering work. Ms. Carson courageously and correctly postulated that the acutely toxic, highly persistent and broad spectrum (affecting many varieties of organisms) pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin and chlordane widely and indiscriminately introduced during the 1940’s and 50’s amounted to ecological time bombs. However, Silent Spring also included a clear and reasoned defense of using safe and suitable pesticides (Bt insecticidal sprays derived from naturally occurring bacteria were specifically cited) when supported by a scrupulous analysis of their potential risks and benefits. Unfortunately, Ms. Carson’s brilliant insight – to understand the risks associated with pesticides and not to use them recklessly – has too often been misunderstood as an admonition to not use pesticides at all.
Wisely if belatedly, the worst pesticides cited in Silent Spring have disappeared from use in America. To be certain, many of the compounds which have replaced them impose significant environmental and human health risks of their own, but we have also developed many genuinely softer and safer pesticides and a far better sense of how to reduce our exposure to them. These advances have led to the development of many biologically-based pest management systems incorporating pesticides with the limited, targeted and ephemeral toxicity which Ms. Carson heralded in the Bt insecticides. It is critical to recognize that these biologically-based, reduced-risk systems are by no means limited to organic production practices and that many non-certified farmers have made equally commendable progress when it comes to doing more with less when it comes to pesticides.
There is a third downside to conflating organic agriculture with pesticide- or residue- free agriculture which comes directly at the expense of organic farmers themselves. Strident if ill-informed public reaction threatens to rescind allowances for several low risk yet critically important pesticides which have been part of organic production since standards were first established. This reaction is characterized by a no compromise, zero-tolerance perspective on pesticides rather than the systems-based approach of weighing the risks and benefits of using pesticides as part of economically and ecologically practical enterprise which has always been central to organic certification.
Trying to make the world free of pesticides runs the very genuine risk of making it free of organic farmers, too. In our next column, we’ll explore an extremely high stakes example of the pesticide conundrum which will unfold front and center when the National Organic Standards Board convenes in Portland between April 9 and 11: whether to extend the allowances of antibiotics used as pesticides to suppress the bacterial disease known as fireblight which can devastate apple and pear production.
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.