News You Can Use: Organic Doesn't Mean "Grown Without Pesticides"


he prefers organic, too

On Saturday, The New York Times ran a piece about a woman who buys her veggies at the farmers market after getting hit with a bad case of E. Coli. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about this approach. Of broader interest, however, was the correction that appeared on the piece today, four days later:

The Patient Money column on Saturday, about ways to reduce exposure to foodborne pathogens, referred imprecisely to a requirement for organic labeling. To be labeled organic, crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides; certain botanically derived pesticides are acceptable. The label does not mean "grown without pesticides."

The claim in the original piece was written, then likely vetted by a minimum of one editor and one copy editor. To be fair, the writer seems to be someone who covers health care most of the time, not food, and the story seems to have run in the Health section of the paper, not Dining & Wine. And the piece even notes that an organic label does nothing to protect you from E. Coli. But then there's this:

On the other hand, there is something reassuring about buying from a small organic farmer at a local stand or farmers' market, even if it does cost more….most people can't help but feel that food grown and raised on a small farm is a lower risk.

The corrected error and its framing illustrate what laymen believe about organic food, and how bias can operate in a newsroom, even on non-political topics: Organic food is not somehow magically grown without a mechanism for killing the bugs that like to eat crop plants. Instead, organic farmers, especially large commercial farmers, frequently use the same mechanism as conventional farmers—pesticides. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. UPDATE: Seriously. There's nothing wrong with that. The list below are all substances that are deemed safe. But so are the pesticides used on conventionally grown food.)

Just as a handy reminder, here is an small part of the list of of pesticides and other substances approved for use on organic crop farms:

(e) As insecticides (including acaricides or mite control).

(1) Ammonium carbonate—for use as bait in insect traps only, no direct contact with crop or soil.

(2) Boric acid—structural pest control, no direct contact with organic food or crops.

(3) Copper sulfate—for use as tadpole shrimp control in aquatic rice production, is limited to one application per field during any 24-month period. Application rates are limited to levels which do not increase baseline soil test values for copper over a timeframe agreed upon by the producer and accredited certifying agent.

(4) Elemental sulfur.

(5) Lime sulfur—including calcium polysulfide.

(6) Oils, horticultural—narrow range oils as dormant, suffocating, and summer oils.

(7) Soaps, insecticidal.

(8) Sticky traps/barriers.

(9) Sucrose octanoate esters (CAS #s—42922–74–7; 58064–47–4)—in accordance with approved labeling.

(f) As insect management. Pheromones.

(g) As rodenticides.

(1) Sulfur dioxide—underground rodent control only (smoke bombs).

(2) Vitamin D3.

(h) As slug or snail bait. Ferric phosphate (CAS # 10045–86–0).