Antibiotics on Organic Apples?

You may or may not know that “Certified Organic” is a legal definition enshrined in federal law and governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.  But who decides, for example, whether a certain fertilizer or pesticide is allowed for use by organic farmers?

Twenty years ago, when I started farming, we were governed by a list of products maintained by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).  OMRI was a farmer-created thinktank specifically developed for this purpose.  All the organic certification agencies at the time were private, and they all had slightly different standards for what they required farmers to do.  But all the reputable ones used the OMRI list to determine which fertilizers and pesticides were allowed.

Now, these decisions are made by the federally overseen National Organic Standards Board , as outlined in the federal legislation that created it.   They weigh factors including consumer health, environmental protection, and economic viability for farmers.

This process allows the organic standards to evolve over time, particularly as technology leads to the development of newer, more ecologically products and farming methods.

With this process now open to the public, it is more democratic.  This has potential benefits — such as the ability for smaller dairy producers and animal welfare groups to successfully fight efforts by large corporate farms like Horizon to water down the definition of “free range”.  But democracy does not always work in the best interests of farmers, who represent less than 2% of the population.

Organic farming has always attempted to balance pragmatism and philosophy.  The use of antibiotics is a good example.  Antibiotics — whether natural or synthetic — have never been approved for use in livestock, because they eventually make their way into meat or milk that is eaten by consumers.  But since the beginning of certification, organic farmers have been allowed to a naturally occurring antibiotic called Tetracycline to fight a devastating disease of apples and pears known as Fire Blight.  Because Fire Blight destroys new shoots and flowers, a one-time infection can wipe out two year’s worth of fruit.  If it hits two or three years in a row, it kills whole trees and entire orchards.  The antibiotic is sprayed on trees during bloom, before fruit has even formed, and biodegrades in sunlight after a few days.  There is no risk of exposure to consumers.

Last week the NOSB addressed the question of whether or not disallow the use of antibiotics against Fire Blight in fruit orchards.  In response, several consumer groups mounted a campaign to generate opposition through mistruths and fearmongering.  One TFF subscriber sent me an email from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) that made the shocking and completely false claim that every time your child bites into an organic apple they are eating antibiotics.  Doctors who spoke at the NOSB hearing connected organic apple production to the general development of antibiotic resistance.

In the face of this full frontal assault, the NOSB voted to prohibit the use of antibiotics.  While they noted that organic apples will likely become more expensive and less available, and that some growers will have to tear out their orchards, they pointed to “promising alternatives on the horizon”.

Fire Blight thrives in warm, wet storms.  It is fairly rare here, where spring weather is most often either warm and dry or cold and wet.  It is more common in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and East Coast where most organic apple production is located.  We have only sprayed antibiotics on our apples and pears a few times in the last ten years.  So while I was unhappy about the campaign against them, it wasn’t on the top of my list of things to worry about.

The NOSB decision was released last week, just a few days after the very unusual spring storm that dumped rain and hail on our farm.  We were admittedly so busy checking for hail damage that we didn’t think to worry about the apple and pear orchard, and it was too wet to get the tractor in to spray it anyway.  This is what a healthy pear tree looks like after blooming.  Note the abundance of leaves.  If you look closely you can see tons of tiny fruit clusters:

For contrast, here’s a tree infected with Fire Blight.  The photos were taken in our orchard yesterday:

Thankfully, apple and pears together are just a small part of our farm’s income.  Unfortunately, the storm that brought the Fire Blight in also hit our neighbors at Coco Ranch, who grow most of the apples for your boxes.  They lost most of their crop too.  If our primary crop was apples or pears, I would be seriously considering whether or not organic farming was still possible for us in light of the NOSB’s action.

In my mind, the decision did not give adequate weight to farmers’ economic viability.  Tetracycline is a naturally occurring material that does not harm the environment.   Spraying it on apple and pear flowers does not expose consumers to residue.  And while resistance to antibiotics is an important problem, prohibiting organic farmers from using them will make no difference given their vast overuse in our society.  It is a purely symbolic gesture with no practical outcome other than to hurt farmers.  And I think that organic farmers of all stripes, large and small, are now wondering “what’s next”.

Thanks,

Pablito

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