Organic certification is a lot more complicated than most consumers realise. Under the USDA system, a range of what are known as ‘organic pesticides’ may be used whilst farming organic produce and there’s lots of controversy over what’s allowed and what’s not. Here’s a small glimpse of it –  

Is industrial organic produce — the stuff from large-scale operations, which some critics say is to small-scale organic as Twinkies is to homemade cupcakes — just as bad as the conventional stuff when it comes to pesticides? Well, that is a slippery question indeed.

In terms of keeping bad stuff out of your food, the USDA’s organic-certification program represents a move in the right direction. But it doesn’t guarantee that your food will be grown or raised using what you call the “right kind of farming,” if what you mean by that is free of toxins.

Ideally, organic farmers control critters without critter-cides: through crop rotations, crop diversity (not planting too much of one thing in one place, so there’s not an endless feast for an insect like, oh, the cabbage looper), and by providing comfy habitat for beneficial insects (read: cultivating flowers amid the crops to attract insect-scarfing insects to sic on plant-scarfing ones).

But for farms of all sizes, in the fog of the growing season and under pressure to pay the bills, the ideal sometimes flees out of reach (as the pesky ideal tends to do in this fallen world). Hence the availability of organic insecticides.

How much of a problem are they, in practice? According to both of the experts I contacted for this article, organic farmers have voluntarily stopped using the nasty (though natural) pesticide, Rotenone.

That’s a good thing. Rotenone is a broad-spectrum insecticide, meaning it kills beneficial insects as well as crop-eating ones. Worse, it can be quite deadly to aquatic life when it seeps into waterways and causes symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease in rats — so you probably wouldn’t want it sprayed on your food.

That said, to get a grip on just how bad the organic-pesticide problem is, I talked to two experts — one a conventional-ag scientist who works at a land-grant university (which get lots of agribiz research dough), the other a sustainable-ag scientist who works at a research group funded partly by Big Organic companies. Here’s what they told me.

Organically groan
Organic growers, if they want to, can use environmentally insensitive organic pesticides irresponsibly, warns Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the department of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches courses on nursery management and pesticide use. Gillman said that when he goes to a large grocery store such as Wal-Mart, he chooses conventionally grown stuff over the big organics. To explain why, he used apples as an example. Apples, he says, are a high-maintenance crop prone to pest problems and difficult to control without sprays.

“Most of the time the large organic orchards are going to need to apply organic pesticides,” he says. “These organic pesticides need to be applied more frequently than the synthetics, in most cases.”

The repeated applications of these different organic compounds, contends Gillman, can have a worse environmental impact than synthetic compounds. Note that Gillman’s assessment applies to large orchards. On small, diversified farms, apple pests are much less likely to gain enough of a foothold to cause big problems.

Gillman also believes that some of the organically sanctioned pesticides are just as bad as the synthetic ones in terms of environmental impacts. “Copper Sulfate … is one that builds up over the years, and you have copper building up in the soil,” he told me. “It’s a bad player and one that you don’t want to see used a whole lot.”

Then there’s Spinosad, which is toxic to bees, those vital pollinators that are already imperiled.

Don’t panic about organic

However, before you turn your back on the organic produce at your supermarket, know that not everyone agrees with Gillman. Charles Benbrook, the chief scientist at the Organic Center, who travels to organic farms throughout the U.S., says that it is unlikely that organic farmers are going to overdo it when it comes to organic pesticides.

One practical reason: organic pesticides are just too expensive to overuse.

“If you’re going to be a commercial organic farmer you may think you can farm like your chemical neighbors with organically acceptable products,” he says. “But you soon find out that that’s a prescription for bankruptcy, in effect, because it just won’t work.”

Moreover, the naturally occurring substances used in organic pesticides are generally much less toxic then the synthetic stuff, Benbrook says. He points to sulfur, which he says is, pound-for-pound, the major pesticide used by both conventional and organic farmers. “It’s also a natural element and it’s really not terribly risky,” he says. “It can cause skin rashes — I’m not saying it is not without risk, but it’s not even in the same ballpark as the conventional fungicides that are applied for the same reasons on certain crops.”

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