6 Questions to Ask Before Buying Organic

Is organic more eco-friendly? It depends.             Image credit: fruitnet

How awesome would it be if a tidy little green and white label could tell you that your food was grown with minimal impact on the environment and evidence-based consideration for long term human and ecological sustainability? If certified organic had a 1:1 correlation with environmental and social responsibility, I would jump on the 100% organic bandwagon. Right now.

Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one. The cynical part of me sees the way big corporations have gotten in on the action and wonders: if organic growing practices have a higher cost that is passed on to the consumers, why is it so profitable that huge corporations want in? What am I actually paying for?

While I still think that more of the farmers who are paying closest attention to sustainability are organic, buying organic food doesn’t excuse us from continuing to ask questions about the impact of our food. Answers, as always, are hard to come by.

(Here I want to acknowledge how hard it is to wrench food from the earth. As someone who has managed to get aphids on indoor herbs, I have tons of respect for farmers who go out there and grow food in the face of unpredictable weather and fierce competition from insects, bacteria, viruses, and small mammals. I also recognize that, however you farm, you drastically alter the ecosystem of the area you farm. There’s no way around that. When it comes to eco-friendly farming, we’re always already talking about compromises.)

Anyway, I’ve come up with some questions to ask before buying organic. It’s more of a wishlist than a realistic set of questions to interrogate your local farmer with on Saturday mornings, but it’s a way to start thinking about these complex issues. Most of these also apply to conventional agriculture. What would you add?

Pest management strategies?                                        Image credit: kumaravel

1. How does this organic farm manage pests?

Contrary to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are allowed — the National Organic Program has a list of organic-OK pesticides that all certified farmers abide by), but it doesn’t tell you how often [natural] pesticides were used, how many different ones, how much, or how safe. Natural pesticides are sometimes less efficient than synthetic equivalents, resulting in either crop loss, higher quantities of pesticides, or both. (See this study comparing environmental impact of synthetic and natural pesticides.)

Unfortunately, natural pesticides are not necessarily gentler on animals or soil. According to Professor James McWilliams of Just Food, sulfur, which is a commonly used natural fungicide that is allowed in organic agriculture, is responsible for many farm worker injuries, is toxic to fish, and contributes to topsoil pollution. Another, copper sulfate, persists indefinitely, bioaccumulates in fish, and is classified by the EPA as a type I toxin (most toxic; glyphosate, in comparison, is a type III). Read more about pesticides used in organic farming here. Like synthetic pesticides, some are relatively safe, some are very toxic, some bioaccumulate, some don’t. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Better answers for this question would be things like crop rotation, crop diversification, integrated pest management, and cultivating beneficial predator populations.

What gets me is this: by drawing a line between natural and synthetic, the National Organic Program creates a binary based on ideology, not safety records. There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides. I would prefer to support a farmer who used integrated pest management to control pests, using the lowest effective dose of an appropriate, well-tested chemical (synthetic or otherwise) as a last resort.

2. Does the farm till to control weeds? How often?

How eco-friendly is tilling?     Image credit: ryanovineyards

Tilling seems like an intrinsic part of farming, but should it? Farmers till soil to get rid of weeds, but tilling is also responsible for increased soil erosion, moisture loss, run-off, poor soil quality, and the subsequent need for more fertilizers. No-till farming has benefits in reducing labor and machinery and improving soil quality and sustainability. However, with no-till, farmers still need to control weeds. Here are your three choices: tilling, spraying conventional toxic herbicides, or using glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant GMO crops. Pick your poison.

3. How suitable is the crop for the environment in which it’s being grown?

Growing coconuts in NorCal is probably not a good use of resources. And because it’s not economically beneficial, we don’t tend to do it. But what happens when it is profitable to grow a crop that doesn’t fit the environment in which it’s grown? The most famous example is probably tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified organic tomatoes (and basil and peppers)  is decimating local water tables. Closer to home, California’s aquifers are also under stress from both organic and conventional agriculture. Not too surprising, given that we spend 6 months of every year bone dry but grow food year round.

4.  How efficient is this organic farm compared to a non-organic farm growing the same variety under similar environmental conditions?

Here’s another of those pick-your-poison scenarios. Done well, organic agriculture can have less of an impact on soil health, local animal populations, and waterways. But many scientists (no, Rodale is not considered a scientific organization) remain unconvinced that organic can meet the efficiency levels of conventional agriculture. Water and land are also limited resources, and the more inefficient the farm, the more pressure on local ecosystems. Read more about organic farming efficiency and ways that careful management can narrow the gap to 13% (still considerable). Since efficiency difference varies by crop, maybe instead of the Dirty Dozen, we need an Efficient Eleven (or whatever) guide to buying organic. Then again, agricultural efficiency has driven massive population growth. Then again, dropping agricultural output to curb our population seems like it would be an unpopular and possibly inhumane idea. Ack!

5. How do nutrient levels compare in the same variety of organic and non-organic produce under similar environmental conditions?

Same thing, really. We do tend to see increased pesticide residues (well below accepted safety standards) in conventional agriculture compared to organic, though organic isn’t pesticide free, either. When it comes to nutritional content, studies and articles not produced by the organic industry tend to be inconclusive. (I dunno, I kind of think that Americans should just eat more fruits and vegetables and not worry about minor nutrient differences between conventional and organic.) Still, it would be interesting to see more studies and more lists of fruits and veggies in which organic does make a difference.

Got food? Thank a farmworker! Image credit: National Farm Worker Ministry

6. How does this farm treat farmworkers? 

This piece of information is frustratingly hard to find. Unlike GMOs, I can’t hop online and get a reasonable idea of which farms/products I want to avoid for ethical reasons. And tragically, farm workers are some of the most (if not the most) disenfranchised people in the country. They are exposed to the highest levels of toxic chemicals and have little or no legal recourse even when they have children with terrible birth defects as a result of illegal chemical exposure. I would gladly pay more for organic if it guaranteed that farm laborers were paid a fair wage with adequate protection from toxins and health care.

***

Whew. Sustainable food is one big, messy problem with no simple or easy answers. I think I could be reading up on it for the rest of my life and still be unsure what the best thing for me to do as a consumer. Right now, I buy a mix of organic and conventional; the percentage varies on where I’m shopping, and how much more organic costs than conventional. I really, really should try to talk to more farmers to get answers to these questions and make more decisions based on detailed knowledge, but again, there’s that whole farmers-market-phobia thing. Damn you, introversion.

Did I flub anything (I’d especially love to hear from organic farmers)? Are there any questions you would add to my list? How do you feel about buying organic?

48 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mike Bendzela on 07/16/2012 at 06:35

    Hi there. I linked to your site through Biofortified. Your piece on the Rainbow Papaya is wonderful!

    Up until as recently as three years ago, I considered myself an “organic” gardener of sorts, even though I did not subscribe to all the beliefs of the “organics” movement. I also had a very enjoyable summer job at an organic farm for three years and learned a lot about farming, but really nothing about the inherent nature of the “organics” movement. That only came about when I began to research for myself what certification means after I formed a partnership with three others to start a small subscription (“CSA”) farm in Maine.

    Since reading the manuals and handbooks, and looking up literature skeptical of organics, I’ve undergone a sea change in my thinking. My current opinion: The organics movement is a belief system founded on fallacies, superstitions, and non-scientific thinking. As a farmer, I now want nothing to do with organic certification.

    1. Organics simply systematizes The Naturalistic Fallacy. The USDA’s National Organics Program, which began with an Act of Congress in 1990, articulates the fallacy this way:

    “As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.”

    In other words, natural substances are OK, unless they’re not OK; and synthetic substances are not OK, unless they’re OK.

    “Natural” is a meaningless, useless concept. It is not just an absurdity, but this “general rule” is not even followed in practice, as the list of “allowed synthetics/prohibited non-synthetics” indicates.

    And as far as “synthetic” materials are concerned: The list of allowed and prohibited substances gives absolutely no hint of the extent to which organic farmers are addicted to plastics. From greenhouses, to irrigation piping, to polyethylene mulches, to plant pots, plastics is simply ubiquitous on an organic farm.

    2. The attitude of Organics toward pesticides is inconsistent and borders on superstition.

    For example: a chemically organic, naturally-occurring pesticide produced in Kenya,
    pyrethrum, is declared “organic” even though it decimates bees, but a likewise chemically organic pesticide native to North America, nicotine
    sulfate, is not “organic.”

    A synthetically produced, chemically organic fungicide, Captan, that is relatively non-toxic is declared not “organic,” but the synthetically produced, chemically inorganic fungicide copper sulfate, which persists in soils, is declared “organic.”

    Go figure.

    Their position on “pesticides residues” borders on the homeopathic. They ignore the concept of dose. The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list is, as you know, a sham designed to scare people into buying organic produce. This is criminal.

    3. The “organic” designation dichtomizes the farming community into “us versus them” camps.

    There seems to be no limit to the calumnies organics advocates will heap on non-certified farmers. Maine’s organic guru Eliot Coleman derides non-organic farmers as “chemical farmers” who supposedly believe that “nature is inadequate.” He rehashes the 19th fallacy of “chemical” versus “biological,” dismissing the whole agricultural discipline of plant pathology as “plant-negative.”

    Members of the Organic Consumers Association also employ the derisive term “chemical farmers” in their screeds. They even come right out and say that local foods not “organically-produced” are unsafe and that consumers should shun their local farmer who is not certified organic. Their modus operandi is to frighten people into buying organic.

    “Non-organic farmers and feedlot operators are literally poisoning us and our children….”

    The belief armor of such ideologues is so strong that the concept of “dose” doesn’t penetrate. Organics acolytes endow “pesticide residues” with seemingly supernatural powers of corruption while simply ignoring the fact that our diets are full of poisons. To them it doesn’t matter, as Bruce N. Ames and Lois S. Gold have shown, that “99.99% of the pesticides humans ingest are natural.”

    I’ll stop here. Believe me, I have more!

    SIncerely,

    Mike Bendzela
    Part-time Maine farmer

    Reply

    • Hi Mike,
      Thank you for sharing your perspective and expertise. I’m sad to hear that the farming community has been polarized over organic / non-organic. The way I see it, farmers face the same basic challenges and have a number of different tools to choose from. All of them have pros and cons. I think more collaboration between organic and non-organic farmers could actually lead to some exciting hybrid solutions that manage pests while having minimal effect on soil and water ecology.

      I’m with you on the unrealistic attitude about chemicals. I feel like I get booed every time I bring up the idea that the dose makes the poison — founding principle of toxicology, still highly applicable. I wonder if the naturalistic fallacy has gotten worse because we now live so much further away from all the totally natural things that used to kill us.

      Reply

  2. Excellent post. Here’s an additional perspective on organic farming and sustainable agriculture:

    The truth is that agriculture is a form of land development.

    As the world-wide population and corresponding demands on limited natural resources continue to grow, the necessity for identifying and implementing sustainable agricultural practices that promote both economic and environmental stability becomes increasingly critical. These demands require new production approaches that can adequately provide for the needs of today’s world population, without sacrificing the needs of future generations.

    Imagine an agricultural economy that provides a steady source of revenue generation for farm producers while promoting new local, community-based, economic development and multi-functional agri-based industrial growth opportunities:

    – that acts to restore the ecological integrity of site and regional land and water resources, including the re-development of organic-rich topsoil;

    – that isn’t weather dependent on an annual basis;

    – that involves a production process which effectively reduces time and input costs;

    – that results in the reduction or elimination of chronic growing season flooding, soil erosion, and sedimentation on a site, as well as at a regional watershed basis;

    – that protects and enhances terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitat;

    – that improves regional water quality and replenishes depleted groundwater reserves;

    – that enhances regional air quality;

    – that provides for long-term revenue generation potential without the creation of collateral economic or environmental costs to society.

    We believe that this is not only possible, but imperative, and that the process will be market driven and economically sustainable without long-term subsidies.

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/flooding-solution-land/

    Reply

  3. Thank you again, Jennifer, for another thought-provoking piece that you clearly put so much time and effort behind. You could easily churn out simplistic feel-good articles on consumer do’s and don’ts, as so many bloggers do, and probably get lots more sleep. But those who dig way beyond the surface of environmental issues as you and perhaps a few other researchers and scientists do, are to be commended. Your messages that appear in your WordPress forum, and eye-opening responses such as Mike Bendzela’s above, are not being heard enough, or being heeded to by policy makers. Sadly, I have not one shred of hope that the many proactive changes needed to substantially protect our environment will take place in my lifetime or soon thereafter. Drastic, in-your-face calamities will likely be the only catalyst for governments to finally rally behind the mandate for sustainable practices.

    On second thought, I will hold a sliver of hope that someday soon, enlightened leaders will blow up the dark-age practice of muting the voices of science in making policy decisions. And that perhaps dedicated, agenda free truth-seekers such as you, Jennifer, are put into positions of presenting to them the best of possible solutions for their consideration and implementation.

    Reply

    • Hi Donn,
      It was actually pretty late by the time I finally got this post finished and published, and I felt like death warmed over for my early class this morning. I wish I were a faster writer! I do appreciate that you notice how much time I put into these.🙂

      One of the biggest problems with not having an agenda (and I’m not sure that’s totally true for me — I want people to think more, dammit) is that no one funds that kind of communication. A lot of science communication from people who have the knowledge and independent background to make them trustworthy simply does not happen because no one is willing to pay for it. I think it’d be awesome if there were people on Twitter who were paid by some independent science organization to promulgate good information, critical thinking, and to respond to public questions. But having an educated, thinking populace is not immediately profitable.

      It’d be great to see more evidenced-based policy-making, but I think we’d essentially have to start over with Congress and make some huge differences in how both kids and adults are exposed to science.

      Reply

  4. Thank you so much for this post Jennifer! As many of us, I normally choose organic, just because I believe that this label means that the product was grown in a safe and sustainable manner… But now I see that most likely, this is not the case.. So what are our options? Getting to know our farmers? That’s great, but like you, I am an introvert and try to avoid farmer’s markets… It kinda looks like “growing your own” is a good choice for those of us who have a backyard (I don’t), but can you really grow everything you need???

    Best,
    Tatiana

    Reply

    • Hi Tatiana,
      That’s the same conundrum I’m in, and unfortunately, I can’t offer you any easy answers. I also hate talking to strangers, but if any of your local farmers are on social media, it’s a low pressure way to interact and get answers. That could be one way to go. I also think urban, rooftop, or community gardens (especially if you use gray water!) are a good option. You can swap with your neighbors or community so you don’t have to grow everything yourself! I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that everything’s a compromise; not eating meat is one major way I reduce the impact of my diet, and beyond that, I try my best, attempt to educate myself, and sometimes just throw my hands up and get my veggies without asking any questions at all. I’m definitely no paragon!

      Reply

  5. My husband and I have been using organic practices on our stone fruit farm in the fertile central San Joaquin Valley of CA since 1984. We talk about some of the same issues you bring up (though not nearly in such depth) on our blog. We can’t speak for other organic farmers, but we do our best to be as gentle on the land and the people who work the land as possible. We all make mistakes at times, though. To us farming is more of an art than a science. Thank you for asking the hard questions. We would love to continue the conversation in the off season (September – February). http://peachfuzzbuzz.wordpress.com/

    Reply

    • Hello Nori,

      I would LOVE for you to guest post on your experience as organic farmers (when you have time — I’m probably enjoying peaches grown in your area this month!). I’m very curious how you navigate these complex situations and choose your practices. I have to admit, I’m also curious about what you think of other organic farmers — are many of them likeminded, or are some just going through the motions?

      If your fruit is sold in the Bay Area, I’d like to support you.🙂

      Reply

      • Our peaches and nectarines are distributed through Venerable Vegetable in the Bay Area. You could give them a call and ask where you can get Naylor Organics’ peaches. WholeFoods will probably be carrying our Goldline peaches when they are ready.

        I (Nori) would be happy to guest post. I am relatively new to the blogging world, so please be patient as I try to figure things out.

        Mike and I were charter members of the California Clean organization. This was a group of like-minded farmers, some certified organic, all using sustainable practices. The organization no longer exists, but that’s how we know there are other like-minded farmers out there. Like any occupation, there are good and bad apples, so-to-speak. Lol. Unfortunately, the bad ones are often the only ones that make the news. And, like rotten apples, that negative publicity spreads quickly. Good farmers do it for love and concentrate on producing the highest quality commodity possible. PR does not come naturally, either. Yet, we have a lot of experience, knowledge and wisdom to share. Thanks for providing a forum for that to happen, Please don’t feel slighted if we’re a little slow in responding, though.

        Reply

        • Hi Nori,
          I love the way so many farmers are active on social media despite their hectic work schedules and loooong chore lists. I can ask a question on Twitter and get lots of different responses from different farmers. I just came across your blog article on how consumers want it all (tasty fruit that also has to be pretty) and how that results in a lot of food waste and am already rethinking how I buy produce. Usually I go by the sniff test, but I also tend to choose the perfectly round, beautifully blushed peaches, when my tastebuds would be happy with the ugly fruit you end up being unable to sell. If I lived closer to your farm, I might try to work out a deal with you. I’m interested in hearing more from your perspective & will give you a ping in off season!

          Reply

  6. Posted by Andrea on 07/17/2012 at 14:11

    All excellent points, Jennifer. I’d also ask what is used to replenish the soil, whether crops are rotated from one year to the next, and what is being done to protect the biodiversity of the area. An organic farm built on clear-cut land with no remnants of the original ecosystem sounds like an atrocity to me.

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea!
      I was just wondering if the organic palm oil in my Luna bar came from plantations that used to be rainforest. Great questions — I’d love to know the answers. I try to avoid palm oil, but it slipped through when I was in a hurry and needed something fast for breakfast.

      Reply

  7. […] from It’s not Easy to be Green has an excellent post discussing the merits about organic farming and which questions you should ask when you’re […]

    Reply

  8. Why does a consumer need to become such an expert in agriculture as to have to ask all these questions? Shouldn’t we get regulations and best practices in place? What about all the other products they consume? Conscious consumption is one thing but how far must we assume the roles of experts in fields other than our own?

    And on Organic: My understanding of Organic is along the lines of Mike Bendzela’s comment. While most people give Organic credit as a less harmful approach to agriculture is that even true? If there was a synthetic input that was better on the environment than a non-synthetic analog would Organic eschew that? What is it about conventional agriculture that they CAN’T farm more responsibly? Organic set itself limits and as technology develops and attitudes align isn’t Organic doomed to become obsolete?

    Reply

    • Hi Pythagorean Crank,

      It’s definitely problematic that most (all?) of our industries are far from transparent and that making educated decisions is so dependent upon consumer education. I think part of the problem here is that ‘best practices’ for farming are not set; they depend on lots of different factors and change depending on crop, soil, weather, etc. — and also that sustainability is a damned slippery thing to pin down into regulation. Often we just don’t know what the full impact of doing things one way or the other will be. I’m starting to wonder if it really makes a difference what we eat as long as we eat mostly plants. Any kind of farming is an environmental compromise.

      Organic is sometimes better for soil health, local waterways, animal populations. Not always, and the answer changes if you look at other things (like efficiency). Your question about synthetic inputs is something that organic farmers are better suited to answer than I am (would they be willing to give up their designation for a type of farming they had a lot of evidence to believe was better for the planet?). Maybe not, unless consumers could be educated to consider evidence over ideology. And there we go again.

      Reply

      • Hey Jennifer,

        I’ve been working on an Organic article for a while now and I was looking for organic proponents on Twitter to talk to me about some of these issues yet the few that did approach clammed up once I started getting down to brass tacks. That made me a bit suspicious. Organic is sometimes better I think by accident. The better we get at agriculture the fewer of those accidents I think we’ll see. Will consumers realize that and go with the more sustainable products or will we mire ourselves in a tar pit of naturalism ultimately causing more harm? Any Organic farmers wanna comment?

        Given the pink slime debacle and GMO labeling campaign to name a couple, I have little confidence in consumer-based change for good. I’d rather we figure out a way that people who specialize in their field can excel in a profitable yet responsible way and consumers can shop without having to read beyond the labels.

        Great post btw, thanks!

        Reply

    • Posted by MikeB on 07/20/2012 at 15:47

      PC, you might be interested in the entry on organic farming at The Skeptics Dictionary.
      http://www.skepdic.com/contents.html#O

      Reply

    • I don’t believe organic practices will become obsolete because when technology fails, all that will be left is organic.

      Reply

      • Why do you think technology will fail? Doesn’t it improve with time?

        Reply

        • Farming entails so much more than technology. Can technology determine when fruit tastes its best? Can technology get up in the middle of the night to start water so that the crop won’t be lost to frost? Can technology teach someone how to prune a tree? I think you probably get the point by now.

          Reply

          • Posted by MikeB on 07/21/2012 at 10:33

            The idea that “organic” farming is not dependent on technology is simply false. My experience working on an organic farm reveals that they are just as reliant on diesel fuel, gasoline, tractors, irrigation systems, electricity, and plastics as any other farm.

            The “technology will fail” idea is endemic in the “organics” movement and to me is one of the signs that there is more ideology than farming involved in the movement.

            There seems almost to be a longing for the failure of civilization amongst some subscribers to the organics belief system. For all I know, they could be right that technology will fail, but it’s just as likely that technology will simply evolve into something quite unforeseen.

          • My husband and I were using organic practices before there was an “organic movement.” We chose this way of farming because we believed it was safer for us, our employees, and the environment. If that’s ideological, then so be it.

          • That wasn’t my question and I never meant to imply technology IS farming just like using Photoshop isn’t art (I’m a digital artist). Technology is just a means to an end and in that sense it should be agnostic but it sounds like Organic rests upon an officially unspoken disdain for it.

            You said “when technology fails”. That’s such a broad statement I’m not even sure what that means. Can you please elaborate?

          • I agree that the term technology can have different meanings. I did not mean to imply that technology is bad. However, there are times when technology fails. Internet viruses, electricity outages, backed up sewers come to mind. We can never go back in time, nor would I want to. I think we all have similar concerns and needs. We have opened our farm to visitors in order to better communicate our thoughts and feelings about what we do. We are not fanatics. We’re just trying to farm as safely and responsibly as possible. We don’t claim to be perfect or better than anyone else. We let our peaches and nectarines do the talking, so-to-speak. Again, our concern is for the health and well-being of our family and our employees. Consumers are free to choose for themselves what they want to purchase with their hard-earned dollars.

          • Nori,

            Technology fails and breaks and we fix and improve sure. That is why I fail to understand how Organic can rest it’s foundation upon a technological practices. Can’t, through the use of technology, farming do better than Organic standard practices that eschew it?

            If there was a synthetic input or technology deemed NOT Organic and was an improvement upon the well-being of the environment and health of people would you use it and forgo the Organic certification?

          • We have worked very hard to develop a balance on our farm so that we can produce the best tasting fruit possible. We believe the practices we use help to build the soil, increase diversity, and enrich our lives. We happen to be using organic practices similar to what our grandparents did before the production of non-organic chemicals. If there was a new infestation of a pest, such as the med fly, we would certainly forego our Organic certification to eradicate the pest because that would be the responsible thing to do. Again, we are not fanatics. I sense you are lumping all “organic” farmers into one category. We cannot speak for other farmers. We love what we’re doing and welcome your questions.

          • Ah shoot, my reply got threaded wrong. Please see below, thanks!

      • Ah, and I just noticed you are an Organic farmer! Can you answer some of the questions I have?

        Reply

      • Nori,

        That is great I’m glad you would make the rational choice and forego Organic certification in that hypothetical.

        How can I not lump all Organic farmers into one category when “Organic” is itself a category! One which you willingly identify yourself as. Is there not a set of criteria for which all Organic farmers must abide? Do you think that criteria is based upon rational science-based reasons?

        Thanks for answering my questions, I do appreciate it! You have me craving peaches now!🙂

        Reply

        • Me too! Thanks Nori, Mike, and Pythagorean Crank for your interesting (and civil!) discussion on these important topics. I appreciate the shades of gray involved in people who identify themselves as organic farmers. Nori — I’ll look for your peaches when I’m at Whole Foods next, hope I haven’t missed the window!

          Reply

  9. Posted by Rosa on 07/21/2012 at 20:01

    Personally, I’d put the last question first – farmworkers/farmers aren’t always the best experts on safe practices (we all get used to the risks we take every day, I certainly know old farmers who hoard now-illegal pesticides to use on their home gardens.) But a farm where fairness to workers is a priority is going to have safer practices overall, because those with their hands on the sprayers are getting the brunt of every bad practice.

    Reply

    • Hi Rosa,

      I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thanks for your insight! Scary to think farmers might be hoarding some of the really toxic chemicals. I’m no chemophobe, but arsenic in almost any dose scares the crap out me.

      Reply

      • Posted by Rosa on 07/25/2012 at 08:09

        But my actual point was, before I got so derailed is that, if you’re trying to evaluate a producer, worker safety is a good bellwether for other kinds of conscientiousness.

        Reply

    • Posted by MikeB on 07/22/2012 at 02:35

      This comment is not just anecdotal but a pretty outrageous accusation. In Maine farmers have to be licensed pesticide applicators who know the laws and can read labels properly. The worst offenders of pesticides laws are home owners.

      Reply

      • Thanks for your input, Mike. Do you know if licensing is as strict elsewhere? I was reading Tomatoland, which had very little positive to say about pesticide use on tomatoes in Florida and worker safety. If you have any sources on home owner pesticide abuse, please send them my way!

        Reply

        • Posted by MikeB on 07/22/2012 at 09:49

          Jennifer, the source I use is the National Pesticide Information Center’s annual report.

          http://npic.orst.edu/reports/NPIC10AR.pdf

          The good stuff begins around page 30.

          For example: Location of incident.

          Home or yard 3,825

          Agriculturally related 64

          Also, reported environmental impacts.

          Agricultural crop 1
          Building –Home or office 86

          The number of animal deaths due to misapplication of pesticides is shocking: 65

          By comparison, the number of human deaths reported: 1

          Reply

          • Thanks, Mike! Do you think the low number of ag related incidents could be due in part to laborers who don’t speak English, are here illegally and don’t trust authorities, or are otherwise under-reported?

          • Posted by MikeB on 07/22/2012 at 11:19

            Maybe. Or maybe the ag sector is well-trained and the hazards are over-rated. Anyone can play the speculation game. All we have are NPIC data.

          • Posted by MikeB on 07/22/2012 at 11:24

            BTW: I think it’s hilarious that the most misused pesticide is naphthalene–mothballs!

      • Posted by Rosa on 07/22/2012 at 15:07

        dude, I’m from Iowa, where choice specimens elected to the state leg sometimes boast about how they grew up mixing pesticides with their bare hands. I’ve worked as farm labor (walking beans, picking apples) and in city parks departments, and had community garden plots next to retired farmers who liked to haul out the old Farmall to till a 25×40 plot. FFA was the second-biggest club at my high school.

        There are a LOT of people who are, or used to be, licensed to apply pesticides. Many of them become inured to the dangers, as we all do in our daily lives (how many musicians always wear ear protection? How many drivers always buckle up?) It is really easy to ignore safety rules that weren’t in force when you first started what you’re still doing, regardless of current licensure.

        Reply

        • Posted by MikeB on 07/22/2012 at 15:32

          I supplied you with the data, and you provide more anecdotes.

          There was one reported pesticides-related death in 2010, and the certainty index is indicated as “unlikely” (see NPIC report cited above).

          By comparison, there are about 79,000 alcohol-related deaths per year.

          http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm/

          The overwhelming majority of reported pesticide exposures is to naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene, which are used to control moths in the home.

          The “money” quote in the NPIC document is, I think, “Of the 4,105 known
          locations where incidents occurred, 93.2% occurred in the home or yard, and 1.6% occurred in an agricultural setting.”

          I’m getting the distinct sense that you simply distrust farmers with pesticides and are selectively quoting from memory the bad incidents.

          Reply

          • Posted by Rosa on 07/24/2012 at 19:02

            I wasn’t alleging deaths, or even “bad incidents”, just pesticide misuse. And most of it was totally kindhearted – oh, i’ll go ahead and spray that garden plot/ball diamond/ditch for you, I’ll have the sprayer out anyway. Or, I’ve got something that will take care of those potato bugs, you can’t buy it anymore but I’ve got some left.

            Most of the conventional farmers I know actually don’t follow the directions the opposite way – they use less than recommended, because they know application recommendations come from producers, chemical is expensive, and they believe they know their own business better than anybody else. But asserting that just because people very rarely die from a single pesticide exposure event, farmers are always following label instructions, is just ridiculous. That state legslator who liked to boast about stirring atrazine with his bare hands? He didn’t die of it, that was his point. That doesn’t make him a role model.

  10. Posted by David on 02/13/2013 at 07:35

    Very good article Jennifer. I recentlly became “Mr Green” been trying to do my part. However after reading your article I feel just a tad hopeless. Been spending all this money in the supermarket in the so call Organic section. There are quite a few local markets around, I think I am going to check them out this weekend, with my six questions. Anyhow thanks for the info, will def be bookmarking this blog.

    Reply

  11. Posted by John on 07/16/2013 at 15:55

    Starting your own garden and growing a variety of colorful, amazing vegetables and flowers is simply the best way to start enjoying your outdoor space. Very few people experience it and it’s time to change that. Here’s how we’re going to do it: http://www.earthstarter.com

    Reply

  12. These are good points to think about! Everyone gets so involved in how organic is always absolutely better, and that’s not always true. Maybe it was okay when organic first was only in small stores, but now it seems the best thing is to go to the local farmer’s market.

    Reply

  13. Everything is very open with a precise clarification of the issues.
    It was really informative. Your site is useful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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