Melissa Beck, editor
“You can’t afford not to eat organic.” I heard someone say this at a recent gathering of farmers, most of whom call themselves “organic” if not actually “certified organic” and it took me aback. Of course, since I was a guest at the event I just sat there with my blank-face, I call it my “chopping broccoli face” and wondered how on earth we got to this point where alternative producers are denigrating “commercial producers”. What are we doing tearing our industry apart from the inside, when there are plenty of people on the outside of food production willing to do it for us?
Given the opportunity I would like to rephrase her comment and point out, “We can’t afford not to eat” period. We are facing a serious world food crisis. By 2050 the world population will be over 9 billion people, and we will need 70 percent more food to feed them. Couple this with concerns that climate change could decrease production by 25 percent and the problem seems insurmountable.
Keeping that in mind, there’s a lot of confusion about what the word “organic” on a label means. Here’s the USDA definition:
“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”
Here is a USDA fact sheet that sums it up nicely.
I want to make it clear, I’m a fan of consumer choice. I love that there are people willing to grow crops and produce livestock that qualify for the “organic” label for consumers willing to pay for it. In fact I defend your right to this market niche. What I’m not a fan of is the fact that there is misinformation, and often times open hostility towards what has been called “factory farming” or “conventional farming” etc. but I digress.
Many consumers are under the impression that the “organic” label means no pesticides are used in the production of “organic” food. That is actually incorrect. There are certain pesticides that have USDA approval for organic production. Here’s the list of synthetic substances allowed in organic production and here’s the big USDA document with all the allowed/prohibited substances listed.
In this recent editorial by Forrest Laws, Delta Farm Press, Dr. Adrianne Massey, managing director, science and regulatory affairs, Biotechnology Industry Organization, says “In my experience, most people are shocked to discover organic growers do use pest control chemicals – just not chemicals that were developed by people and don’t occur in nature,” she wrote “Because they are allowed to use ‘natural’ substances, often the toxicity value of the “allowed substances” is significantly greater than synthetic pesticides.”
When discussing my frustrations over this debate with my husband, we played a little game I’ll call “it’s natural, but is it safe?” We started our game with naturally occurring toxins in plants, like nitrates and prussic acid, and then we got serious.
Here’s our list:
1. food borne pathogens: botulism, listeria, etc. here’s a list of the most deadly food pathogens.
2. mercury, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.
4. anthrax (here we lump together other virulant diseases that occur in nature)
5. castor oil plant, which contains ricin (and to be fair, tons of other plants)
6. apple seeds contain cyanide, potato skins contain solanine
7. snake venom, batrachotoxin in certain frogs,
9. tetrodotoxin (deadly poison found in marine life)
10. carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other naturally occurring gasses
Conversely one could, if they cared to, play a game called “It’s synthetic, but is it safe?” Consumers deserve choices, but it is up to consumers to educate themselves so their choices are informed. It’s time we in agriculture take charge of the debate. It’s time that we work together to come up with solutions to the coming increase in world food demand, after all, “You can’t afford not to eat.”