Organic standards fight over synthetics shows there’s room for a third system


Amy Hepworth tends to tomato plants at Hepworth Farms in Milton, N.Y. “We need confidence in agriculture beyond organic,” she said. “The most sustainable, responsible system is a hybrid system.” (Bruce Weiss)
June 13

Organic regulations don’t seem as incendiary as those for, say, gun control, but police had to be called to the last meeting of the National Organic Standards Board when it was interrupted by protesters representing one side of a very acrimonious debate. At the heart of it is the use of synthetic substances in organic agriculture. Currently, some synthetics are allowed, and they automatically come up for review every five years. The protest was over a rule change that would have made it more difficult to remove those items from the list. It might seem arcane, but the fact that handcuffs were involved gives a clue to its seriousness.

Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program, is quick to point out that “there’s a lot of unity in the organic community” but admits that this issue is divisive. A subset of the community believes very strongly that “if it’s synthetic, it shouldn’t be allowed,” he says. Another group doesn’t feel as strongly about the synthetic/natural divide and wants to evaluate materials “on a case-by-case basis.” (McEvoy also points out that organic programs in some countries, such as Japan and Canada, don’t make the distinction.)

The fight leaves me scratching my head. I see organic agriculture as a whole lot of people doing their level best to farm responsibly. I’d like to see both sides win, and maybe they can. Some farmers and organizations are rethinking naturalness in agriculture, and I think it’s worth looking more closely at the debate.

The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to organic agriculture, stands by naturalness. Executive Director Mark Smallwood says the mere fact that we’re talking about this “perpetuates the incorrect notion that humans are smarter than Mother Nature, and we need man-made answers. We always rely on cultural practices, methodologies and products aimed at working with nature, and synthetics throw off that balance.” He emphasizes that soil health is critical, and that building it is the way to “leave more resources for future generations.”

Amy Hepworth, an organic farmer in New York’s Hudson Valley, also believes in the importance of soil health and working with nature but says that science and technology, deployed judiciously, can help her with that, sometimes with fewer adverse effects than natural substances. “Natural doesn’t mean safe,” she says.

I asked Joel Coats, an Iowa State University professor who specializes in insecticide toxicology, about the natural/synthetic distinction, and he agreed with Hepworth. “Natural does not equal safe, or safer,” he said. “Chemicals in nature have evolved for a lot of different purposes. Some have evolved to be toxic, in most cases, for pest control.” Of the idea of Mother Nature’s knowing best, he says, “it is the chemical structure alone that determines the properties of a pesticide or any molecule.” Those properties extend beyond simple toxicity to qualities that affect how the substance behaves in the environment, including biodegradability and stability. “The source of a molecule does not determine any of its properties.”

The World Health Organization classifies some organic pesticides, such as rotenone, as more hazardous than some synthetics, such as fenoxycarb. And the least-toxic class includes compounds commonly used in both organic (spinosad, Bt) and conventional (glyphosate, atrazine) farming. While synthetic pesticides have certainly done damage (think DDT), Coats points out that arsenic, strychnine and mercury — all of them naturally occurring — have been used in agriculture. Every toxicologist or environmental scientist I’ve ever spoken with says that the idea that natural substances are inherently better for planet or people than synthetic ones is simply false.

But this doesn’t mean the natural/synthetic distinction is silly or meaningless. Far from it. Organic’s emphasis on natural substances and systems clearly taps into a mind-set of both farmers and consumers. The farmers Smallwood describes are very aware of the potentially dangerous substances they use and focus on avoiding having to use them. The USDA organic standard has codified that mind-set and, in doing so, has allowed organic farmers to find like-minded consumers willing to pay a premium for their products. That’s a very good thing.

Hepworth, who grows 350 products on the 200 acres that her family has been farming for nearly two centuries, was part of the movement that created organic, but is frustrated by the standards’ constraints, which force her to pay more for products that don’t provide benefits to her, her farm or her customers. Rye seed is an example. “I have a neighbor who isn’t certified organic, but uses many organic practices, and I could buy that rye seed for $7 a bushel.” Instead, she’s forced to pay a lot more — six to 10 times more — for certified organic rye seed that has to be shipped from the Midwest. When there are organic and conventional pesticides with the same mode of action (such as spinosad), the organic is always more expensive.

And then there are synthetics, the man-made substances used in conventional farming. “When you say pesticides and chemicals, we’re so indoctrinated that it feels like we’re saying the word poison,” says Hepworth, “but we need confidence in agriculture beyond organic. The most sustainable, responsible system is a hybrid system.” She’s working on crafting just such a system.

A hybrid system. A third way. A best-practices standard. Michael Rozyne, director of regional food distributor Red Tomato, calls it simply “something bigger.” He says that “lumping all non-organic growers into a single category, merely because they use synthetic pesticides, doesn’t do justice to the portion of those growers who are farming using many organic practices, high-level integrated pest management and all sorts of natural controls, who are paying attention to erosion, pollution, and farmworker safety.” Conditions in the northeast, including humidity and pests, make it all but impossible to grow organic fruit at marketable scale and quality, and Rozyne’s Eco Apple and Eco Peach programs have defined standards that allow fruit growers to supplement natural controls like sulphur with some synthetics — trifloxystrobin (trade named Flint) to control apple scab disease, for example.

Whole Foods Market is also looking for another way. This fall, the company will roll out a system that classifies produce as good, better or best, depending on criteria ranging from those that the organic standard addresses specifically, like soil health, to those that the standard has nothing to say about, like farmworker welfare, pollinator protection, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. Under the new system, it will be possible both for a conventional farm to rate “best” and for an organic farm to fail to rate even “good.” “We’re broadening the conversation to things that are important to our customers and to us,” says Matt Rodgers, Whole Foods’ associate global produce coordinator.

Over the past 30 years, organic has been an important counterpoint to the chemical-intensive agriculture that is the legacy of the Green Revolution, and there’s no reason to take it away. What if we were to keep organic and keep it as Smallwood would have it, but also layer a best-practices standard into our system? That would give us the chance to recognize responsible farming by another group of growers and help those growers find their customers.

It would also help disassemble what Hepworth calls the “two-party system,” in which it’s all too easy to believe that organic is good and conventional is bad. That idea has contributed to the us-and-them mentality that seems to dominate discussions about our agricultural system. “There’s been a lot of judgment of conventional growers,” says Rozyne, “as if they all farmed the same way.”

A couple of months back, I talked to one of those conventional growers, Richard Wilkins. He rotates his crops (corn, wheat, soy and vegetables), plants cover crops and pays a lot of attention to the health of his soil. When I asked him if he ever considered growing organically, he said, “I’m too much of a believer in the benefits of science and technology to go organic.”

Hepworth is a believer, too, and is working to mobilize farmers, researchers and consumers to find a better way forward. “Organic was the greatest movement in my lifetime,” she says, “except for the one I’m doing now.”

Haspel farms oysters on Cape Cod and writes about food and science. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel. She’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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