A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it true they allow "certified organic" produce to be sprayed with chemicals?

June 6, 1997

Dear Cecil:

I've been buying produce labeled "certified organic" because I'm concerned about pesticide and other chemical residues on and in my food. But now I've been told that certified organic food can be sprayed with chemicals too! What's the story, Cecil? Is this certified organic thing a fraud?

Cecil replies:

Face the facts, Jack. Everything grown on God's green earth has chemicals sprayed on it. For example, the well known compound H2O, known to be fatal if consumed to excess. The organic argument is merely that you shouldn't use synthetic chemicals, and that natural chemicals should be used with restraint. Fact is, with many crops, unless you want to sit there and pick bugs off with tweezers, you're pretty much obliged to take steps, shall we say, lest you wind up with something only weevils could stand to eat.

The 1996 International Certification Standards, published by the Organic Crop Improvement Association of Lincoln, Nebraska, has a long list of stuff organic farmers can and cannot put on their plants. Among the permissible treatments are bacillus thuringienses (BT), a natural insecticide used mostly on vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower; chemicals such as copper sulfate, used to control fungal diseases; "microbial plant inoculants" such as rhizobia bacteria, used to help beans and other legumes fix nitrogen in the soil; and OCIA-approved virus sprays, which typically kill a specific pest. The OCIA also allows restricted use of such things as strychnine (as a rat poison) and pyrethrum, a strong pesticide that kills good insects as well as bad ones. How come strychnine and pyrethrum are OK? Because they're natural, of course. But that doesn't make them any less lethal.

I don't want to give organic farmers a hard time. They don't spray field crops with herbicides, use artificial fertilizers, or engage in a lot of other dubious practices common in conventional agriculture. But let's be realistic. If you're a farmer, whether organic or otherwise, you're faced with a host of bugs, weeds, vermin, etc., that are trying to wreck your crops. Your job basically is to destroy the little bastards before they destroy you. (Or at least interfere big time with their life cycles.) An organic farmer tries to accomplish this in a natural way with a minimum of collateral damage. That doesn't mean zero risk. For example, excessive use of copper sulfate can cause copper buildup in soil, which is detrimental to plant growth.

Organically grown produce isn't necessarily healthier for you. For one thing, it isn't guaranteed to be free of synthetic chemicals, a lot of which are ubiquitous in the environment now and are almost impossible to avoid. In any case, some scientists doubt that the small amounts found in conventionally grown crops are all that dangerous.

You also need to consider the big picture. Excess chemical use isn't the only or even the biggest farm problem we've got. Some people are more worried about soil erosion. One trend over the past couple of decades has been "no till" farming, which minimizes plowing in order to halt erosion. Trouble is, if you don't plow, you need to rely heavily on herbicides to control weeds. So what do you do — swear off the weed killer, till your soil, and risk having it wash away, or swear off plowing and heavy up on the herbicides? Sure, some people claim they can farm organically and conserve soil at the same time. But it's not easy.

Am I telling you not to buy certified organic food? Not at all. Although organic produce accounts for only 2 percent of crops in the U.S., increasing sales in this category send a powerful signal to the agriculture industry. While it may not be practical or desirable to apply strict organic methods to mainstream U.S. farming, a related set of techniques known as integrated pest management is gaining wide acceptance. IPM doesn't condemn synthetic chemical use but downplays it in favor of crop rotation, biological pest controls, use of bug-resistant varieties, and so on — many of the same techniques organic farmers use. Some surveys say half of all farmers now use IPM techniques to some degree, and the U.S. goal is 75 percent by the year 2000. Greater consumer interest in organic food adds to the national sense of urgency regarding this goal. I'm not big on symbolic gestures but buying organic is one that arguably makes sense.

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