Thursday, July 16, 2015 11:47 AM

The Organic Myth

I will freely admit I am a HUGE fan of a good local farmers market and feel incredibly blessed to regularly have the opportunity to score some of the freshest, best tasting produce on the planet just blocks from my humble abode. 

Of course one of the biggest selling points to buying from one of the local farmers markets is how readily available and accessible organic produce is.  Proponents of eating organic will preach the virtues with several selling points like “Organic farms are pesticide free” or “Organic farming is better for the environment”.  Sure it will cost you up to three times more to eat organic versus eating produce farmed in a conventional manner but if you buy into the advertising that is out there you will eat better, improve your nutrition and save the environment from the perils of conventional farming all at once!  Did I get your attention yet?  Now before you get too fired up and ready to storm the Employee Fitness Center with pitch forks and torches let me say that I am NOT saying organic farming is bad; far from it.  It’s not hard to find studies and articles talking about how crop rotations and mix planting are better for both the soil and environment for instance.  My goal isn’t to give organic foods and farming a bad rap.  My goal with this blog post is to dispel a few myths that surround the organic industry so that you can make an educated choice based on fact when you are making your weekly pilgrimage to your local market.  Keep in mind that in the last couple of years certified organic food sales has jumped to about $52 billion worldwide!  So yes, with that kind of coin on the line the organic industry is pretty content to let you believe some of the propaganda that is out there. 

So when you are in the grocery isle and you see something labeled as ‘organic’, what does that mean?  Most folks see that and assume it means natural, pesticide free and locally grown.  Not so – according to the United States Dept of Ag’s (USDA) definition of ‘organic’.  Here are few highlights:
 

  • No irradiation, GMOs, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers or prohibited pesticides were used.
  • Pesticides must be derived from natural sources.
  • Pesticides may not be applied with any equipment that has been used to apply any synthetic materials in the previous three years
  • Land being planted must not have been treated with any synthetic materials for the past three years.
  • Livestock animals must be raised under conditions met by animal and welfare standards, free of antibiotics or growth hormones, fed 100% organic feed and given access to the outdoors.


 

I am guessing that if you were paying attention you caught the word pesticide mentioned a few times in the USDA’s guidelines for what is organic.  I am also guessing it might have caught some of you by surprise too!  We are often given the impression that organic farming is done pesticide free by those that promote the virtues of eating an organic diet.  That would be a lie of omission my friends.  If I were wrong there would be no reason for USDA to create a list of pesticides allowed in organic farming practices.(1)   

I can hear those die hard organic supporters screaming now, saying “But, but, those are natural pesticides!”  You are correct, they are.  They have also been individually reveiwed and approved for use and they are STILL pesticides.  They are still designed with the same purpose as their distant synthetic pesticide cousin and there is still no guarantee they are any safer.  The next rebuttal you will hear is that they are safer for the environment.  Are they?  Let’s take a closer look at this, shall we? 
 

            “A recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan.  Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a “soft” synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects).  It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone- pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2 applications of imidan.”(2)
 

So, would seven applications versus two applications be any better for the environment?  Let’s not forget to figure in the carbon foot print difference due to five more passes of a deisel gussling tractor to apply the less effective pesticide by the way.  For those that are still grasping to the fact that rotenone is a NATURAL pesticide and therefore must be better, let it be known that it is extremely toxic to fish and aquatic life. Poor little Delta Smelt.

Often when those natural pesticides are used it is like using a scorched earth policy to the crops.  You maybe trying to target aphids let’s say but your application of a natural pesticide will also wipeout any predatory insects that maybe hunting those annoying aphids ie., ladybugs will be victims of collateral damage as well.  Synthetic pesticides can be engineered to be species specific and eliminate the bad population but preserve the good.

Rotenone was used for decades and thought ‘safe’ due to its natural origin occurring in stems and roots of a small number of subtropical plants.  Key word here is ‘was’.  Research showed it was alhighly effective at killing mitochondria.  You know, mitochondria, that little powerhouse in your cells that gives you energy to burn.  They are kind of a big deal.  When research in 2005 found that rotenone caused Parkinson’s disease like symptoms in rats it was removed from the list of approved organic pesticides.(3)   

Let me guess, right about now you are wondering why you have not heard any of this information.  Well let’s think about this in business terms from the three factions that are vested in some way; organic farmers, pesticide companies and conventional farmers.  Of course the organic farming industry isn’t going to readily admit any of this.  Remember world-wide they have $52 billion reasons to keep quiet about it.  It might be a little tricky to justify charging us up to 3xs the price of regular produce if the facts were well known.  The pesticide makers don’t care at all.  They will be selling pesticides no matter which type natural or synthetic.  The money is lucrative and green no matter which they sell.  That leaves the conventional farmer who honestly, he who lives in a glass house shall not cast stones, if you know what I mean.  Basically nobody will profit from it so there is no reason to talk about it. 

One would think that whatever organic food you are eating would be 100% natural as well. Mmmm…better rethink that.  In actuality it only has to be 95% organic to sport that organic label in the store.  For instance organic sausage may have completely organic stuffing but the sausage casing may not be organic at all – yet it met minimum guidelines so it earns the coveted organic label. 

You might also think any fresh fruit that has an organic label would be 100% natural, right? Not so much. Especially if it is an off season fruit. It more than likely was picked green or ‘commercially mature’ and shipped half way across the globe, then stored and exposed to a forced air cooling system using a catalytic generator to produce ethylene gas from liquid ethanol.  Yes ethylene gas occurs naturally in produce as a ripening agent and no there have not been any harmful effects found on human health.  The point is the compound maybe natural but has been added after the fact artificially and may or may not be synthesized or natural.  Yet it will still earn a sticker that proclaims it is organic.

Again I am not trying to bash organic food or farming I am just trying to point out what is really going on.  To be quite honest with you I do not discriminate and personally eat produce from both conventional farms as well as organic farms.  I can also regularly be seen on Friday nights during the summer on Pollasky in Old Town Clovis shopping for my dinner!    

  1. http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=9874504b6f1025eb0e6b67cadf9d3b40&rgn=div6&view=text&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.7&idno=7
  2. http://dontwastethecrumbs.com/2015/03/14-facts-the-organic-industry-doesnt-want-you-to-know/
  3. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/
  4. http://www.frontlineservices.com.au/Frontline_Services/Fruit_ripening_gas_-_ethylene.html