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Can pesticides ever really be ‘organic’?

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Organic Pesticides

R.D. Offutt Co. farms lead agronomist Nick David examines potato plants. The company cut pesticide use by 30 percent last year.

Credit: Dan Gunderson/AP Photo/Minnesota Public Radio

As consumers and regulators do soul-searching over how much pesticides mean to the economy and their grocery bills, chemical companies are racing to develop the next big organic pesticide. That’s not an oxymoron. There are a lot of misconceptions about what you’re getting when you’re buying organic foods.

Organic does not mean pesticide-free. The majority of shoppers say they choose organic produce to avoid pesticides. But all “organic” really means is that the pesticides come from naturally occurring substances. Sulfur and copper are two of the most common organic pesticides. There are some limitations: Arsenic is naturally occurring, but that’s not allowed.

Organic does not mean less toxic. Many times it does, but not always. Take rotenone. It comes from the roots of subtropical plants and works by interfering with cells’ energy-making mechanisms – mitochondria. The problem was that it seemed to give rats symptoms that looked a lot like Parkinson’s disease. So in 2005, chemical companies making rotenone withdrew it from Environmental Protection Agency registration for all uses except as a piscicide. That means it can’t be used at home, on food crops, on pets or on anything except fish. But other countries still use rotenone on their organic crops, and some of those crops – even those bearing a “certified organic” label – make their way into the United States. (Read more on the status of rotenone from the Organic Materials Review Institute.)

Organic does mean you are ingesting less pesticide. A 2014 study from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom found that food grown conventionally is four times more likely to have pesticide residue than organically grown food, supporting previous studies with similar findings.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean conventional produce is covered in dangerous amounts of pesticides. Maybe you’re familiar with the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen – the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue. Scientists at University of California, Davis looked at the 12 fruits and vegetables on the list and tested them for residue of the 10 most frequently detected pesticides. They found that in every single case, the pesticides detected were below the maximum exposure level set by the EPA. (That level typically is about 100 times more than the exposure level a lab animal can handle before showing negative health effects.) Their 2011 study further found that 90 percent of the samples tested had pesticide residues 1,000 times lower than the EPA limit.

Organic doesn’t necessarily mean the food is healthier. Scientists still are debating this one. A much-discussed Stanford University study in 2012 collected more than 200 peer-reviewed studies about the nutritional differences between conventional and organic produce. The conclusion? There is no measurable nutritional difference. The Stanford researchers found no consistent evidence that organic products have more vitamins, with the exception of phosphorus, nor did they find evidence that conventional products have higher levels of contaminants, such as bacteria or fungus.

But a July 2014 analysis of nearly 350 peer-reviewed studies came to a different conclusion – that organically grown crops are more nutritious thanks to higher concentrations of antioxidants. They theorize that because organic produce is left to defend itself against nature without the help of pesticides, it produces more compounds – antioxidants – for that defense. The team of international scientists that conducted this research, however, stops short of saying organic produce is actually healthier for you. The study simply doesn’t address that issue, one author told The New York Times.

So are organic foods healthier or not? It depends on how you define “healthy.” As food columnist Mark Bittman points out in The New York Times, vitamin content isn’t the only quality that makes a food healthy. Nor does having more antioxidants necessarily equate to better health.

Organic can mean safer conditions for farmworkers. There certainly are toxic organic pesticides, but overwhelmingly, the pesticides with the most health effects are conventional.

“It’s just common sense that workers on organic farms are going to be exposed to fewer of those really dangerous chemicals,” said Gail Wadsworth, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies.

But, Wadsworth pointed out, corporate conventional farms often are able to provide better benefits and wages to their workers because they have more money. A 2006 story from the environmental website Grist echoes this: “Workers on organic farms are treated as poorly as their conventional counterparts,” the headline reads.

Workers on organic farms benefit from less pesticide exposure. That means fewer opportunities for poisonings and a lower likelihood of chronic effects, which can be as serious as cancer, birth defects and long-term respiratory problems.

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This story was edited Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Rachael Bale can be reached at rbale@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachael_Bale.