Organic Agriculture Needs More Government, Fewer Pesticides

By Matthew Cameron

Blogging at Scientific American, Christie Wilcox offers an informative smackdown of several common misconceptions about organic agriculture. In particular, she takes on the myth that organic foods are produced without the use of any chemicals:

[It] turns out that there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives. […]

Just last year, nearly half of the pesticides that are currently approved for use by organic farmers in Europe failed to pass the European Union’s safety evaluation that is required by law. Among the chemicals failing the test was rotenone, as it had yet to be banned in Europe. Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foodstuffs produced in 2007 and tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels – and these are of pesticides that are not organic.

These are significant shortcomings, but they are not reasons for abandoning the concept of organic agriculture altogether. Rather, they reinforce the point that good governance is key to setting and enforcing agricultural standards that protect the environment. If the USDA and the EPA are aware that certain organic producers are using large enough quantities of nonsynthetic pesticides to negatively impact the environment, then the solution should involve setting more stringent regulations on the types and quantities of pesticides that may be used in organic production. Similarly, if the European Food Safety Authority is finding synthetic pesticides in organic food products, then it should implement more robust enforcement mechanisms to ensure that producers aren’t skirting the rules.