September 29, 2011

Organic pesticides - don't drink.

Today, Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce voluntarily recalled their organic grape tomatoes due to possible Salmonella contamination. Samples from the Michigan processing plant tested positive for the bacteria, but no public illnesses have been reported in connection to these tomatoes.

Why does this matter?

I’m going to be upfront with you and just get this out of the way: I don’t believe in organic fruits and vegetables. This doesn’t mean I like to eat things with pesticides, but I don’t like the marketing scam that ‘organic’ has become. The public has been lulled into spending more on products that they think are safe and better for them, but may not actually be. Those Fresh & Easy organic grape tomatoes just purchased from Whole Foods are organic and are just as likely to become contaminated.

Let’s start out basic: what does it mean to be organic? Organic farming does not allow modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. That sounds easy enough, but how do you know if the product you are purchasing is organic? Products are only certifiably organic if they say they’re certified organic by the USDA. There is no regulation on the term ‘organic’, so if you buy an organic product that does not have the USDA logo or that doesn’t say it’s certified organic, that company could be lying to you.

Here’s the main problem I have with organically produced products and the public perception: organic doesn’t mean that it’s pesticide-free or chemical-free. It just means that the pesticides must be from organic sources. For example, pyrethrin is a commonly used pesticide derived from chrysanthemum flowers. Applied as a powder, once the insect ingests the chemical it will die from complications in the nervous system. In low doses, it’s virtually non-toxic to humans – but an overdose in pets or people can cause a whole bunch of uncomfortable side affects. Furthermore, pyrethrins don’t discriminate between what insects are killed – so while a nasty pest may be terminated, the poor little honeybee is also victim of the chemical’s deadly affects.

As an intro, keep this in mind: organic fruits and vegetables are not pesticide-free and chemical-free. It simply means that the pesticides must be from organic sources. Organic pesticides tend to be better for the environment because they don’t persist in the environment and they aren’t as toxic to humans and mammals – but they can still harm humans, kill honeybees, and do terrible things to waterways.

There’s a lot to say about organics and how agribusiness has completely changed the concept that most people understand organic to be. What do I wish organic still was? Minimal, if any, chemical input and farming with sustainable practices. Stay tuned. 

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