Pesticides in Organic Foods
Long gone are the days when organic foods were only available as luxury items at specialized health stores at three to four times the price of regular food. Today, they are affordable to millions of consumers and remain an area of growth. Most people who choose to buy organic produce are convinced that organic foods are healthier than conventional ones and that organic farming is more environmentally friendly. Organic foods are generally considered to be more nutritious and free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, this is hardly true.
Organic Farming and the Use of Pesticides
In fact, most organic crops are sprayed with insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Perhaps some small-scale biodynamic organic farms may be able to completely avoid using pesticides, relying solely on non-chemical means to control pests such as biological control, insect traps and careful selection of crops. But, larger-scale organic farms cannot grow all their crops using absolutely no chemical interventions and need to apply certain chemical solutions.
Most of the pesticides permitted for use in organic farming are naturally occurring substances normally produced by plants, bacteria or fungi, though some are also synthetic. The list of synthetic pesticides approved for organic farming in the US only includes substances that are relatively harmless to human health. However, if overused, they can cause environmental damage. For example, copper sulfate can accumulate in the soil and become toxic to plants and some beneficial worms.
When it comes to naturally-derived pesticides, there is only an exclusion list. Thus, any natural substance that is not included in the list of non-synthetic substances prohibited for use in organic crop production can be used on organic farms for pest control. Examples of popular non-synthetic (natural) substances used for pest control include Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, spinosad (derived from the soil bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa), Beauveria bassiana (a naturally occurring fungus), various antibiotics, pyrethrin (from Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium), azadirachtin (from the Asian neem tree) and formerly banned and later reapproved rotenone (extracted from the roots and stems of several tropical plants).
Furthermore, there are regulations in place regarding the use of equipment that may not have been used to apply synthetically manufactured substances for the past three years and the land used for organic farming may have not been treated with synthetic compounds for certain period either.
Organic pesticides are supposed to be less harmful to people who consume organic produce as well as to the environment because of their brief lifetime after application. This may or may not be true, depending on the type of pesticide. Likewise, their breakdown products may not always be harmless to people or the environment and, besides that, it is not actually known how long they persist in the environment.
However, the major downside of organic pesticides is their lower effectiveness in comparison with synthetic compounds. As a result, they need more applications and in higher volumes to obtain the same level of protection as synthetic pesticides. Though derived from natural sources, natural toxins are still harmful (while many of them are also carcinogenic) whereas the full extent of their toxicological effects is not known.
Organic Foods and Nutritional Value
There is no scientific proof of superior nutritional value of organic foods.
Organic Farming and the Environment
When it comes to the environment, natural pesticides may not always be a better choice. They are less targeted than synthetic chemicals so they also kill many beneficial insects like the aphid’s predators or bees. In addition, organic farms have lower yields per unit land than conventional farms. Therefore, given the lower effectiveness of organic pesticides and the resulting more intensive use, they may pose a bigger environmental burden per unit of crop.
It needs to be mentioned that many organic crops contain traces of synthetic pesticides, though they have not been treated with these chemicals. This is a result of environmental contamination (pollution of the air, water and soil). Organic crops typically live longer and ripen later than conventional crops and thus have more time to absorb environmental contaminants. In addition, they are more likely to be infected with pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella or fecal bacteria because of the use of manure in organic farming instead of artificial fertilizers.
Conclusion: to Buy or Not to Buy
Nobody is saying that organic foods are not a healthier alternative to many conventional foods. However, they are not pesticide/chemical-free and, in all likelihood, they are not more nutritious than regular foods either. Consumers should understand that organic farming cannot magically control pests without using chemicals and that food safety also depends on the dosage of pesticides used, which is often much higher on organic farms.
Sadly, many farms are organic only by certification and government agencies in most countries (and states) do not keep records of the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms. Therefore, consumers are advised to buy locally from a source they know is a genuine organic food producer.