In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.

Pesticide warning

Ms. Bendrick,

I have a question about pesticides and organic food. I buy organic both to encourage the right kind of farming and to avoid eating nasty chemicals. I was listening to the Food Chain Radio podcast (MP3) and suffice it to say that this show’s guest expert questioned whether the pesticides organic growers are allowed to use (!) are any better for us than the ones conventional farmers use. He said that Rotenone and others are just as toxic and noxious, and that in the supermarket where you can’t ask the farmer, it’s probably just as well to buy conventional and save the buck.

Where do you stand on this slippery slope?

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With best wishes,
More Toxic Than I’d Like to Be

Dear Mr. (or Ms.) More Toxic,

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Please, call me Lou. Thanks for the great question. I can see by your use of punctuation (!) that you might be shocked that organic produce isn’t pesticide-free. Pesticides are allowed under USDA organic standards, given that they are from organic (i.e., naturally occurring) substances rather than synthetic (lab-made) ones.

Is industrial organic produce — the stuff from large-scale operations, which some critics say is to small-scale organic as Twinkies is to homemade cupcakes — just as bad as the conventional stuff when it comes to pesticides? Well, that is a slippery question indeed.

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In terms of keeping bad stuff out of your food, the USDA’s organic-certification program represents a move in the right direction. But it doesn’t guarantee that your food will be grown or raised using what you call the “right kind of farming,” if what you mean by that is free of toxins.

Ideally, organic farmers control critters without critter-cides: through crop rotations, crop diversity (not planting too much of one thing in one place, so there’s not an endless feast for an insect like, oh, the cabbage looper), and by providing comfy habitat for beneficial insects (read: cultivating flowers amid the crops to attract insect-scarfing insects to sic on plant-scarfing ones).

But for farms of all sizes, in the fog of the growing season and under pressure to pay the bills, the ideal sometimes flees out of reach (as the pesky ideal tends to do in this fallen world). Hence the availability of organic insecticides.

How much of a problem are they, in practice? Before we get deeper into it, there is one thing I can ease your mind about, More Toxic. According to both of the experts I contacted for this article, organic farmers have voluntarily stopped using the nasty (though natural) pesticide you mention, Rotenone.

That’s a good thing. Rotenone is a broad-spectrum insecticide, meaning it kills beneficial insects as well as crop-eating ones. Worse, it can be quite deadly to aquatic life when it seeps into waterways and causes symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease in rats — so you probably wouldn’t want it sprayed on your food.

That said, to get a grip on just how bad the organic-pesticide problem is, I talked to two experts — one a conventional-ag scientist who works at a land-grant university (which get lots of agribiz research dough), the other a sustainable-ag scientist who works at a research group funded partly by Big Organic companies. Here’s what they told me.

Organically groan
Organic growers, if they want to, can use environmentally insensitive organic pesticides irresponsibly, warns Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the department of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches courses on nursery management and pesticide use. (More Toxic, you may recognize Gillman’s name — he’s the expert from the podcast you listened to).

Gillman said that when he goes to a large grocery store such as Wal-Mart, he chooses conventionally grown stuff over the big organics. To explain why, he used apples as an example. Apples, he says, are a high-maintenance crop prone to pest problems and difficult to control without sprays.

“Most of the time the large organic orchards are going to need to apply organic pesticides,” he says. “These organic pesticides need to be applied more frequently than the synthetics, in most cases.”

The repeated applications of these different organic compounds, contends Gillman, can have a worse environmental impact than synthetic compounds. Note that Gillman’s assessment applies to large orchards. On small, diversified farms, apple pests are much less likely to gain enough of a foothold to cause big problems.

Gillman also believes that some of the organically sanctioned pesticides are just as bad as the synthetic ones in terms of environmental impacts. “Copper Sulfate … is one that builds up over the years, and you have copper building up in the soil,” he told me. “It’s a bad player and one that you don’t want to see used a whole lot.”

Then there’s Spinosad, which is toxic to bees, those vital pollinators that are already imperiled.

Because my word count is mounting and my editor is frowning at me over the rim of his fair-trade, triple-certified, raw-milk double latte, let me recommend Gillman’s book, The Truth About Organic Gardening for more information, including EIQs (environmental impact quotients) for both synthetic and organic pesticides.

Don’t panic about organic
However, before you turn your back on the organic produce at your supermarket, know that not everyone agrees with Gillman. Charles Benbrook, the chief scientist at the Organic Center, who travels to organic farms throughout the U.S., says that it is unlikely that organic farmers are going to overdo it when it comes to organic pesticides.

One practical reason: organic pesticides are just too expensive to overuse.

“If you’re going to be a commercial organic farmer you may think you can farm like your chemical neighbors with organically acceptable products,” he says. “But you soon find out that that’s a prescription for bankruptcy, in effect, because it just won’t work.”

Moreover, the naturally occurring substances used in organic pesticides are generally much less toxic then the synthetic stuff, Benbrook says. He points to sulfur, which he says is, pound-for-pound, the major pesticide used by both conventional and organic farmers. “It’s also a natural element and it’s really not terribly risky,” he says. “It can cause skin rashes — I’m not saying it is not without risk, but it’s not even in the same ballpark as the conventional fungicides that are applied for the same reasons on certain crops.”

Solid ground
Where am I going to stake my ground on this slippery question? After talking to these experts, I’m more committed than ever to buying sustainable and local produce from growers I can look straight in the eye.

When I can’t buy locally, I will sometimes buy industrial, conventional produce that’s not on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List and scrub the heck out of it. Otherwise, I’ll pony up for the certified big organic stuff even though I remain unimpressed by its trucked-in taste, skeptical of its nutritional value (produce starts to lose nutrients as soon as it is harvested), and regretful about its carbon footprint.

Of course, I am particularly cautious because I have young children. Benbrook told me that the science is “very strong” on the ill effects of conventional pesticides on children and women of child-bearing age. Read more about that here.

I hope this helps, and good luck with lessening your toxicity. I hear an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Just make sure it’s the right apple. Or scrub the heck out of it.

I am,
Lou Bendrick