How Toxic Are Organics?

More often than not, Americans are facing a choice in produce shopping aisles — organic or not organic. But is one any safer, or better, than the other?

Hard data on whether residues from any pesticide are harmful remain scarce, but many people assume that organic means food that is healthier, and was not grown with chemical pesticides.

But a new report released by the Center for Global Food Issues has sounded a note of caution: Organic food may be grown with pesticides, too, and not only are organic pesticides widely used, they can pose as many risks as synthetic pesticides, according to the report.

Although organic brands now make up less than 3 percent of the global food market, surveys show that share is growing at a rate of up to 20 percent each year.

"I think there is a perception that what's natural isn't toxic," says Alex Avery, author of the report, 'Nature's Toxic Tools.' "But organic pesticides are also toxic."

Organic Pesticides Top the List

Avery points to data from the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy that reveal the most commonly used pesticides on U.S. farms in 1997 (the most recent year data were available) were oil and sulfur — substances which are considered organic pesticides.

Both of those organic pesticides are included on the list of acceptable substances for farmers abiding by the National Organic Standards Board, as issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last December. All foods labeled as organic will need to meet the new standards by the summer of 2002.

"Everything on that list [of acceptable pesticides] had to pass muster in terms of not posing certain health and safety risks," says Carolyn Brickey, a member of the National Campaign for Pesticide Policy Reform and chair of the National Organic Standards Board.

The kind of oil used on crops is commonly derived from petroleum or rape seed and works by forming a gummy barrier that tiny insects can't poke through. Sulfur, an organic fungicide, is derived naturally and keeps away fungus.

Avery argues both substances are toxic to people and animals at high doses. He further argues that, when using substances like oil and sulfur, farmers generally must spray more to have an effect.

"Many organic pesticides are used more intensively per acre," Avery writes. "This is due to the lower effectiveness of organic pesticides compared to their synthetic counterparts."

Brickey acknowledges that sulfur, at high levels, "could be considered toxic." But, she adds, "I've never seen any reports of health problems associated with it." And Adam Goldberg of the Consumer's Union points out none of the organic board's acceptable pesticides are categorized as "high risk" by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Just what effects organic pesticides may have — if they have any effect — remain to be proven since such findings require long term studies.

"Frequently the ill effects are difficult to trace, other than circumstantial information," says Richard Ashley, a plant scientist at the University of Connecticut who favors spare use of both organic and synthetic pesticides. "But no matter how much residue you have, there is always some risk associated with it, even if that risk is negligible."

Pesticides as a Last Resort

Organic farming advocates point out that organic farming is not just about using organic pesticides. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, says organic farmers are encouraged to try all other means possible to rid their crops of pests and disease before resorting to pesticides.

"Using pesticides is considered a last resort under organic farming standards," says DiMatteo.

Rotating crops is a common way organic farmers try to break pest patterns and keep their crops healthy. Other ploys include planting decoy crops that attract pests and draw them away from commercial crops as well as encouraging natural insect predators like birds and bats.

Because organic farmers use other ways of fighting pests and because organic farming uses only about one percent of total farming acreage in the U.S., DiMatteo argues it's mostly conventional farmers who are using the reported high amounts of organic pesticides. The problem is no one knows for sure just how frequently organic farmers rely on pesticides.

A 1998 survey by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, a nonprofit foundation supporting organic farming, found that fewer than 12 percent of organic farmers reported using sulfur or copper regularly. And less than 9 percent of the more than 4,500 organic farmers surveyed use oil or other insecticides regularly.

The survey, however, is voluntary and conducted by a foundation that supports organic farming. Until the USDA's standards were established last December, organic farmers hadn't been required to meet national standards or report their methods of insect and disease control. DiMatteo says in just over a year that should change when the new USDA organic standards have in effect for a year's time.

"Then we'll know what methods farmers are using on their fields," she says.

Until then, Goldberg suggests people simply "be more careful" and use a very simple but effective practice to reduce their chances of consuming harmful residues: whether you favor organic or not organic, wash all fruits and vegetables before eating.