Certified organic agriculture has been through a lot of media scrutiny in the past year. Many shoppers aren’t sure what to think. Last fall the Consumer’s Union conducted research that showed that many conventionally grown vegetables and fruits contained pesticide levels dangerous to young children; and they recommended buying organically gown foods. In the winter of ’00 the TV program 20/20 televised a news story that implied organically grown food may not be safe to eat. These two opposite opinions presented by the popular media make it difficult to decide whether or not to buy organic. In this article we will demystify organic agriculture, and make it easier to decide whether buying organic is right for you.
The official definition of organic is as follows, “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”
What does this mean? It means that when you see a product labeled as “certified organic”, it has been grown using specific farming practices that minimize pollution to the air, soil and water. It is sustainable, and does not harm the environment in the process. The primary goal of these farming practices is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people. In other words, the practice of organic farming does not result in the killing of birds, fish, beneficial insects, beneficial microorganisms, reptiles, and other wildlife. It does not present a hazard to farmers or consumers. On the other hand, pesticide use in conventional farming killed—wildlife last year. The Monsanto company, which manufactures pesticides, admits —-people were killed by pesticide exposure last year.
You may notice that the definition refers to “off-farm inputs”. These are certain pesticides which may be used and are not harmful to the ecosystem. They are strictly regulated. This is a way of referring to pesticide management practices that do not use persistent, toxic chemicals that stay in the environment and move through the food chain. Approved pesticides, are nontoxic, like—-.
When a farmer is “certified” every aspect of their farming practices is scrutinized in great detail. They are visited by an independent inspector who not only inspects the farm, but requires detailed logs of farming practices, documents, and invoices that prove the claimed organic practices. It is a very thorough and reliable process.
So what about the safety of organic foods? Specifically the claim made on 20/20 that it is contaminated with the bacteria E.coli (Escherichia coli) as a result of manure use? To understand the claim, you need to know a little about E. coli. First, E.coli are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of animals, including humans, and is present in the ecosystem. There are approximately 100 strains of E.coli, most of which are beneficial. In fact, the presence of E.coli and other kinds of bacteria within our intestines is necessary for the human body to remain healthy. However, not all E.coli are beneficial, there also are strains of E. coli that are known to produce toxins, particularly the rare strain E.coli O157:H7, a pathogenic strain isolated from manure from cattle, sheep, pigs, deer and poultry. This strain can cause severe illness or death. However, Dr. Michael Doyle of the University of Georgia, the researcher who conducted the tests cited by 20/20, has said the produce was tested for a “generic” E.coli screen, and as such, “does not differentiate between pathogenic and non-pathogenic E.coli.” Therefore, the tests cited by 20/20 reveal no scientific evidence about danger in regards to organic foods.
The show erroneously implied that only organic agriculture uses manure. In fact, conventional and organic agriculture both use manure as a part of regular farm soil fertilization programs. Certified organic farmers must maintain a strict farm plan detailing the methods used to build soil fertility, conventional farmers do not. Certifiers and scientists recommend the use of well-composted manure, which reduces the presence of E coli. The process of certification imposes strict control on the use of manure on farm fields.
However, wash all fresh fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating, even if organically grown. Your produce could have ridden in an open truck traveling dusty country roads or handled by a worker who didn’t wash his or her hands properly. Any contaminated water source or contaminated person can contaminate vegetables and fruits no matter how they are grown.