When people say that something is “organic,” they mean that it is healthy, clean, and chemical-free. But is this true when organic farmers are allowed to use synthetic pesticides?
The USDA Certified Organic has high standards for farmers who want to call their produce, meats, and dairy “organic.” But even organic farmers are allowed to use about 25 synthetic and non-synthetic pesticides. This issue has caused some mistrust with organic products.
But most people don’t know that conventional products, meaning everything not organic, uses more than 35,000 pesticides; many of which have been scientifically and even legally proven to cause harm to humans, yet the EPA insists these pesticides are safe for humans and continues to allow us to consume them.
Standards For Labeling Food “Organic”
The USDA has to approve a farmer’s methods before they can use the USDA Organic Food label on their products. The “approved-methods” the USDA requires mainly regulate how the crops and animals are treated.
Standards for the USDA Organic Label
- Land must have had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop
- Farmers must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available
- The use of genetic engineering (GMO’s), ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited
- Omitting artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors from multi-ingredient, processed foods with some exceptions, like baking soda in baked goods
- Animals must be raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones
This all sounds pretty good, right? The only one that really seems a little shady is
- To manage pests, weeds, and crop diseases, first try natural means but if these are not working, it’s OK to use a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for Organic Farming
Organic and Conventional farmers both have issues with pests, fungus, and disease ruining crops. When the completely natural methods are unsuccessful, the organic farmer can choose a botanical, biological, and/or synthetic substance from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and still use the “organic” label.
The USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances actually permits the use of certain botanical, biological, and synthetic substances when certain criteria are met.
The Synthetic or Non-Synthetic Substance:
- Would not be harmful to human health or the environment
- Is necessary to the production or handling of the agricultural product because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitute products; and
- Is consistent with organic farming and handling
For organic crops to still be called “Organic” and use synthetic substances to fight off pests, these are allowed when more natural means are unsuccessful.
These are about 25 naturally-derived substances that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have shown through medical research to pose no risk to the humans who eat them.
A few of the Substances are
- Hydrogen Peroxide
- Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)
- Calcium Citrate
USDA Organic Oversight
USDA Certified Organic is the government-approved organic certification program. They are overseen by the National Organic Program which is part of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and enforces the organic regulations. The NOP, ensures the integrity of the USDA Organic Seal, follows strict production, handling and labeling standards and goes through the organic certification process.
“Organic” Doesn’t Always Mean 100% Organic
There are 4 Types of USDA Certified Organic Labels and some of them allow non-organic ingredients. To truly avoid pesticides in your food you need to be choosing 100% Organic labelled products. Only 100% Organic and Organic carry the USDA Organic Seal.
100% Organic Product must be made with 100% organic ingredients, be labelled with the Certifying Agency, may have the USDA Organic Seal, and is allowed to represent the product as 100% Organic.
Organic Product and ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which allows 5% or less of non-organic Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
Made With Organic Ingredients At least 70% of the product must be certified organic ingredients, the organic seal cannot be used on the product, and the final product cannot be represented as organic, but up to 3 ingredients can be represented as ‘organic’.
Specific Organic Ingredients Product has 70% or less certified organic ingredients, do not require organic certification, and do not carry a USDA Organic Seal
Alternative Organic Certification
Applying to become USDA Certified Organic can take a long time and cost a lot of money. For small farms, this may be enough to stop them from applying even when they meet the requirements.
Participatory Guarantee Systems
Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) are alternatives to USDA Organic Certification. Instead of having government oversight, PGS are “peer-reviewed organic certification programs that are locally-focused and carry out oversight through peer inspections, usually by farmers in the area.”
PGS are accepted worldwide and used by more than 50,000 farmers in more than 50 countries. In some of these countries, PGS have gained official government recognition and entered into organic regulations. The Certified Naturally Grown label is a popular alternative to USDA Organic labelling.
Certified Naturally Grown Label
The Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) is a PGS that “offers peer-review certification to farmers and beekeepers producing food for their local communities by working in harmony with nature, without relying on synthetic chemicals or GMOs.”
When you see something CNG Certified you can be sure it has
- No GMO’s
- No Synthetic Chemicals
- From a Local Farmer
While organic farming allows about 25 synthetic and non-synthetic substances to be used as pesticides, conventional farming allows more than 34,000 pesticides.
Over the last 60 years pesticide use has more than quadrupled. This is largely due to new pesticides being introduced to farmers, new GMO seeds, increased acreage, new pesticide regulations, and crop prices. When farmers use more pesticides on their crops they have an increase in output, which means more money.
The Guardian, a British news outlet, reports
- One billion pounds of conventional pesticides are used annually in the US
- Pesticides contaminate animal feed which causes Americans to drink milk and eat meat saturated with harmful pesticides
- Pesticides leach into American rivers and streams causing up to 60% of aquatic life to be contaminated with chemicals in agricultural areas and 90% in urban areas
- 50 million Americans are drinking groundwater potentially contaminated with pesticides
- The World Health Organization (WHO) calls pesticides “intrinsically toxic” to human health
- Residues of pesticides are in up to 70% of produce sold in the US
Common Conventional Farming Pesticides
More than 34,000 pesticides derived from about 600 basic ingredients are currently registered for use in this country by the EPA. Farmers are allowed to use over 20,000 types of these pesticides in conventional farming. These include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, disinfectants, repellents, and biopesticides.
For most pesticides, even consuming small amounts, like pesticide residue left on produce, over many years has been linked to health problems.
- Used as a pesticide since 1965 in both agricultural and non-agricultural areas
- Used on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, brussel sprouts, cranberries, broccoli, and cauliflower, and other row crops (in 2000, use on tomatoes was banned by the EPA)
- With high exposure, it can overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion
- August 2018, the EPA was ordered by the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to ban chlorpyrifos, the EPA requested a re-hearing which happened in February 2019 and the EPA agreed to re-evaluate pesticides on a 15-year cycle. Chlorpyrifos is still being used on crops with the EPA insisting “pesticides will not cause unreasonable adverse effects…there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from dietary and residential exposure.”
- Most used herbicide in conventional farming
- Controls weeds and grasses on land with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and glyphosate-resistant field crops such as corn and soybean
- Agricultural uses include corn, cotton, canola, soybean, sugar beet, alfalfa, berry crops, brassica vegetables, bulb vegetables, fruiting vegetables, leafy vegetables, legume vegetables, cucurbit vegetables, root tuber vegetables, cereal grains, grain sorghum, citrus crops, fallow, herbs and spices, orchards, tropical and subtropical fruits, stone fruits, pome fruits, nuts, vine crops, oilseed crops, and sugarcane
- In 2018, a $2 billion settlement was ruled against Monsanto, the company who manufactures Roundup, proving that farmers and workers who were exposed to glyphosate developed cancer.
- Roundup has been banned in some US cities since the correlation between cancer and the pesticide was made
- The EPA continues to find that there are “no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label. EPA also found that glyphosate is unlikely to be a human carcinogen.”
- Widely used herbicide that controls weeds
- Used in aquatic sites, forestry sites, and a variety of field, fruit and vegetable crops, and citrus plants
- One of the two herbicides in Agent Orange
- Moderate toxicity to birds and mammals
- Slightly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates
- Herbicide that controls weeds
- Used mostly on corn, sorghum, and sugarcane
- Under close monitoring for seeping into drinking water
- Linked to cancer
- Control weeds in cotton and soybeans genetically engineered to tolerate dicamba
- A benzoic acid used as an herbicide
- Used on corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and other crops
- The EPA says dicamba offers a “reasonable certainty of no harm to people”
- Organophosphate insecticide used mostly for aphids, leafhoppers, and Japanese beetles that attack crops
- Used as an aerial spray to control mosquitos when they are spreading diseases to humans
- Low doses are probably OK but when exposed to enough Malathion, symptoms are nausea/vomiting, muscle tremors, cramps, weakness, shortness of breath, a slowed heart rate, headache, abdominal pain and diarrhea
- The EPA says there is “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential by all routes of exposure.”
- Used on field vegetables like lettuce, orchard crops like oranges
- Extremely toxic if ingested
- Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, confusion
- The EPA has canceled or reduced use since 2015 requiring companies to cancel the use on barley, oat, and rye;limit its use on wheat to Idaho, Oregon, and Washington; reduce the number of applications for corn, celery, and head and leaf lettuce; and
reduce the number of applications and the seasonal maximum application rate for peppers
Paraquat Dichloride (Gramoxone)
- One of the most commonly used herbicides
- Banned in many countries, but still legal in the US
- Highly toxic to people; one small sip can be fatal and there is no antidote
- Linked to Parkinson’s Disease
Short-Term Effects of Pesticide Toxicity
The risk that a pesticide can pose depends on both the toxicity and the exposure.
Acute Toxicity from pesticide exposure can happen to farmers and workers who spray the pesticides but the residue left on food and bought in grocery stores also poses a risk to those who eat them.
- Respiratory tract irritation, sore throat and/or cough
- Allergic sensitisation
- Eye and skin irritation
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea
- Headache, loss of consciousness
- Extreme weakness, seizures and/or death
Long-Term Effects From Pesticide Exposure
Long term pesticide exposure from conventional products have been linked to:
- Development of Parkinson’s disease
- Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Cancer, including leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
To Sum it Up
Even though organic farmers are allowed to use about 25 synthetic and non-synthetic pesticides to protect their crops it is still vastly better than the more than 35,000 pesticides used in conventional farming. Many of these are linked to health problems and, frankly, it is shocking that pesticides are still permitted in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the air we breathe.
Buying USDA 100% Organic and Certified Naturally Grown products ensures that the foods you put into your body are free of harmful pesticides.