‘Chemical free’ organic industry’s unacknowledged ‘pesticide problem’

Organic farmers go to some lengths to avoid using synthetic pesticides on their products, and are required (at least in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe) to avoid a large number of these chemicals.

Organic marketers and anti-GMO activists exaggerate these efforts, making claims that organics are “pesticide-free” and don’t use “harmful” chemicals that they claim are the mainstay of conventional agriculture, and often linked in their campaigns to genetically modified crops.

Such claims are built into the DNA of organic producers and the network of websites linked to the industry. A blog by Stonyfield organic claims that “not all food is grown with the use of toxic, persistent pesticides. Organic farming is free of these chemicals by definition.” And last March, EcoWatch published a blog touting an alternate method to the USDA Organic program as an “equally pesticide-free method of farming.”A survey by the United Kingdom based pro-organic Soil Association, found that 95 percent of consumers said their top reason for buying organic was to avoid pesticides.

The phrase “pesticide free” regularly invoked by organic food proponents muddies the pesticide-in-food discussion. As Christie Wilcox noted in a well-circulated article about the myth of that claim,

[I]t turns out that there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the U.S. Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness.

Rise of organic…pesticides

A lot of food labeled as “organic” does have some pesticide residues, including pesticides that aren’t supposed to be on organic food. A 2012 USDA study pointed to possible pesticide drift from conventional farms as a contributing factor. But another problem, perhaps even bigger than this, involves the importation of organic food. These foods have pesticide residues.

Three years ago a Canadian study sent shockwaves through the agricultural community, when the government discovered that more than half of all labeled as “organic” instead had pesticide residues. The government insisted that the amounts were not life-threatening, but organic foods aren’t supposed to have any pesticide residues (outside of those allowed on organic crops). None. Instead, the study found that 77 percent of organic grapes, 67 percent of organic strawberries and 59 percent of organic tomatoes contained pesticides. This wasn’t a domestic production problem, but an import issue; four-fifths of Canada’s produce is imported.

Issues with imported food—organic or otherwise—aren’t limited to Canadians. The United States, also is experiencing unprecedented imports of organic food—and evidence pesticide residues.

The USDA reported that in 2013, the U.S. imported $1.3 billion worth of organic food, led by organic coffee. The top five imports (in terms of monetary value) were bananas, coffee, olive oil, and mangos. The top five countries exporting to us were (again, in dollar terms) were Mexico, Italy, Peru, Columbia, and France. But the fastest growing organic importer was China, where much of the organic pesticide problems appear to originate.

Sixty percent of apple juice and about half of all garlic consumed in the U.S. is from China, and that’s just a fraction of the $5 billion in food imports from the country (they’re our third-largest source of imported food). Soybeans are the second-biggest U.S. organic import, with $184 million shipped last year. India is the No. 1 source, followed by China. For corn, with overall sales of $35.7 million in 2014, Romania is the biggest seller to the U.S., followed by Turkey, the Netherlands and Canada.

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The number of FDA refusals of imports from China have been rising, due to “’filth’, unsafe additives, inadequate labeling, and lack of proper manufacturer registrations,” according to the FDA. And lately, more of this imported food is labeled “organic.” Chinese growers, enthusiastic about organic food prices, have helped the country boost its organic food exports dramatically.

Meanwhile China’s food export history is scarred by repeated scandals. In 2008, infant formula sickened thousands of babies and killed at least six. Since, then, food fiascos included watermelons exploding from too much growth chemical, borax in beef, bleach in mushrooms, soy sauce made with arsenic and from human hair, and “eggs” created using chemicals, gelatin and paraffin.

A lot of soy, grains and other organics are in processed foods, which arrive here under an organic label. And that’s getting the organic groups and federal officials concerned.

“China is a major producer of organic products, and there are continual questions about the integrity of products coming from China,” said Miles McEvoy, who heads the organic program for the USDA.

The organic industry itself is very concerned about these trends. “We don’t trust, for good reason, the Chinese to supply ingredients for our dog and cat food,” said hearing witness Mark A. Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, an organic lobby group. “Why should we trust Chinese exporters for the food that we are feeding our children and families?”

Kastel added that the USDA and FDA are only inspecting one to two percent of all the food that enters U.S. ports. And even with this small sample size, Kastel noted that a “disproportionate number of serious problems” are being found with Chinese exports, including “unapproved chemicals, dyes, pesticides and outright fraud (fake food).”

While the U.S. FDA has an office in China, most inspections and verifications of organic processes lie with third-party vendors, which may not be able to look at every product leaving China, and may also receive incentives to look the other way. The USDA lists 80 “certification organizations” which can, in theory, inspect a farm and determine its organic status.

Unfortunately, most of the time these organizations, not the least for manpower reasons, rely on farm submissions or a number of local contractors for information. For its part, the FDA is able to inspect about 1 percent of imported products the agency is in charge of regulating. The Chinese government acknowledges that fraud is a problem with food labeling and safety:

  • A USDA organic food program inspection discovered 10 companies that were using fraudulent certificates behind an “Organic” label; four of the companies were Chinese.
  • The grocery chain Whole Foods Market eventually changed its sources of organic ginger after a sample of Chinese ginger sold under its “365” label was found to contain residues of aldicarb (which isn’t allowed on organic food).

Sometimes, it’s hard enough to find out the source of imported organics. When Peter Laufer, a journalism professor of author of Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling, tried to find the source of rancid organic walnuts he’d purchased, he found that the nuts were not from Kazakhstan, as labeled. In fact, a USDA investigation could not determine any domestic walnut operations in the former Soviet republic.

Thanks to the import boom, it’s getting far more difficult to point to organics as a “pesticide-free” alternative to conventional or genetically modified food.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield

56 thoughts on “‘Chemical free’ organic industry’s unacknowledged ‘pesticide problem’”

  1. Ran across a funny story a while back about how smugglers and black marketers in North Korea preferred South Korean goods and snacks, because apparently even the North Koreans don’t trust Chinese products. The article was specifically about cosmetics, but noted that even in the worst of countries, China has a poor reputation.

  2. A solid article Andrew. But why didn’t you pin-down Miles McEvoy and Mark Kastel on whether or not they support organic field testing?

    A single, broad-spectrum herbicide-analysis costs less than $100. Meanwhile, the cumbersome record-keeping system currently being used by the USDA costs well over $1,000 a-year per-farm (or processing facility).

    McEvoy and Kastel claim to support organic field testing – which I have been calling for since I stopped performing USDA organic inspections. But they’re not doing anything to implement it. Nothing.

    What am I missing here?

        • Commodity

          Commodity crops are crops grown,
          typically in large volume and at high intensity, specifically for the purpose of
          sale to the commodities market (as opposed to direct consumption or processing.)
          The most common commodity crops in the United States are corn, soybeans, and
          wheat; some areas also grow other commodities such as cotton, sorghum, tobacco,
          sugar beets, and non-wheat cereal grains. Many commodity crops re-enter the food
          production industry in some way: as oils, sweeteners, fillers and starches, or
          as animal feed for meat, milk, and egg production. They are also used in
          industrial manufacturing processes and even as substrate for producing
          biofuels. Commodity crop production in the United States has been in existence
          since the colonies, but the first organized futures markets were established in
          Chicago in the 1840s for sale and speculation of commodity crop futures (see also: Commodity Futures Trading Commission.) Now, commodity crops are perhaps most
          recognized for their support from federal agricultural subsidies, which
          originated in during the Great Depression in the New Deal. Today, about 62 cents
          of every commodity crop dollar comes from government subsidy.

          Commonly-cited negative aspects of
          commodity crops are both environmental and economic/social. Environmentally,
          commodity crops are nearly always grown as large monocultures, sometimes from genetically-modified seeds and requiring heavy soil augmentation and
          pesticide application. Soil degradation, nutrient runoff, and habitat and
          species damage all result from these situations, which are now virtually the
          norm in the American Midwest and Great Plains agricultural regions. The economic
          and social impacts of commodity farming on farmers are also significant. Farming
          has become nearly untenable unless a farmer chooses to rely on the federal
          subsidy program and grow commodities. Commodity markets have driven crop prices
          so low that the profession of farming itself is disappearing and diminishing the
          inter-generational connections that farms once provided.

          • “Farming has become nearly untenable unless a farmer chooses to rely on the federal subsidy program and grow commodities.”

            Oh yeah? What “subsidy program” would that be?

          • I am aware of the subsidy program and unfortunately 90% goes to the large commodity farms. It was not my intention to get into an argument with anyone. I was simply making my feelings known that I would like to see more farms go back to growing fruits and vegetables.

          • I want you to explain what subsidies commodity-producing farmers in the U.S. get.

            Can you do that?

          • Direct payments, marketing loans, countercyclical payments, insurance, export subsidies and agriculture research.
            Totalling between 15-30 billion yearly, about 90% goes to commodity crops.
            Now I’m done. What good is GLP if every person is questioned like a criminal for making a comment.

          • Not like a criminal. But like someone with an attitude of arrogant know-it-all who knows nothing about either farming or biotech, has fixed “don’t confuse me with facts” responses, and lacks even the basic curiosity to ask questions.

            Glad you’re done. If you have real, genuine questions, you can look ’em up yourself, or ask here without getting defensive and pouty and petulant when you don’t like the answers.

            Again, you hate commodity farmers. You hate food subsidies. Got it. You hate non-local, but you don’t even know what “local” food is or where it comes from.

            Buh bye.

          • I don’t hate anyone. I’m not defensive and certainly not pouty. I simply said I wish more vegetables and fruits were grown in the US so we wouldn’t need to import from countries who don’t have the same standards. I never claimed to be a farmer or a scientist. You’re very good at manipulating someone’s words. I know you say you’re Sue farmer but I’m guessing you’re a politician. Buh bye to you.

          • Uh, that’s different than what you said before (about the “commodities” markets). If you really mean locally-grown fruits and vegetables instead of imported fruits and vegetables, then say that instead of making it sound “commodities (whatever the heck THAT means) vs. local farmers markets.”

            Thank you for thinking I’m a politician! That’s very funny! Vote for MEEEEEEE! And send me a huge check for my campaign, because for some reason, I keep paying seed companies for seeds, rather than them paying ME to be a shill as I’m always accused of. Vote for me and I’ll triple local fruits and vegetable productions.

            Wait; no. Changed my mind. Want more fruits and vegetables? Rely on your local markets. Believe me, if the markets are there for local fruits and vegetables, farmers will grow them. What’s wrong with demand creating supply? Works pretty darn well in the ag industry.

            If you don’t claim to be a scientist, or a farmer, fine. Nothing wrong with being ignorant (unknowing) about a topic. What is offensive is you (and others here) spouting opinions about both, represented as facts. Ask questions, and you will probably learn something.

            I will say it once again: Talk to a farmer. (Not just a lil’ gardner who shows up at your farmers market with a van full of fruits and vegetables)

          • Quit getting your “information” from Environmental Working Group. What you’re posting is incorrect.

          • There are no subsidies to the farmers anymore is that what you’re saying? According to the USDA website they’ve just changed the name but the program is basically the same. If I’m mistaken my apology.

          • I think I see what you are getting at. The problem is that the commodities (corn, soy, wheat, etc.) are grown in areas of the nation that are not the most conducive to fruit and vegetable production, so asking them to switch would not alleviate the problem.
            Most of the major supermarkets in the country have been changing their supply and distribution system to offer local first, US second and imported third. This, I believe, has been an incentive for increased local production. But, aside from CA, there isn’t anywhere on the mainland US that can produce fruits and vegetables on a year round basis. Since CA cannot supply the entire nation during the winter (and production in FL is limited to some vegetables and oranges), importing is the only means of supplying fresh produce to the nation for ~5 months.

          • I think that some R & D money should be spent on finding ways for more basic foods to be grown locally. The drought in California shows that in future they may not have the ability to grow what they do even now. There are many food crops that can be harvested and put in cold storage for winter use. Potatoes, carrots, onions, squash, parsnip will all last for months if properly stored. All season greenhouses are also being used in countries like Sweden, Iceland and others. If we want to be sustainable it’s possible but it will take money for investment to make it happen. Subsidies should be shared with all farmers willing to adapt and try new things. In the end it will be profitable for everyone.

          • GM, I say it once again: Talk to a farmer.

            Any farmer growing these so-called “commodity crops” produce them for local food. Field corn comes back as your local beef, eggs, cheese (genetically modified, by the way), and milk. Wheat comes back onto your shelves as local bread. Etc.

            So of course you eat them “directly.” Unless you mean, non-commodity crops would be like going out into the field and chewing on the wheat before it’s made into bread?

            Again, you are very confused. I repeat: Talk to a farmer.

            P.S. I’d love to get a “subsidy.” Where do I apply?

          • I do talk to a farmer and support a local one. I have no idea why my comment would upset any of you. What is wrong with wanting small farms to remain viable? To not want to support a farmer in China or Mexico but one in my own country?

          • Talk to a farmer, not a gardener. Talk to one of these “commodity” farmers you appear to loathe and fear. The ones that produce all of the food that return to your supermarket shelves. Local food. Sustainable agriculture.
            Unless you mean you just want to eat local kale and spinach for a month or two while it’s in season, and nothing else.

        • Food, to me means grown in US for consumption in the US rather than being forced to import.


          Over the last decade, there has been a growing U.S. trade deficit in fresh
          and processed fruits and vegetables. Although U.S. fruit and vegetable exports totaled more than $7 billion in 2011, U.S.
          imports of fruits and vegetables exceeded $18 billion, resulting in a gap between imports andexports of $11.2 billion (excludes nuts and processed nut products). This trade deficit haswidened over time—despite the fact that U.S. fruit and vegetable exports have continued to rise
          each year—because growth in imports has greatly outpaced export growth. As
          a result, the United States has gone from being a net exporter of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables
          in the early 1970s to being a net importer of fruits and vegetables today.

          • Not entirely. Some crops, can be grown 2 to 6 weeks earlier in Mexico than in the US. I see it quite often here in AZ, where in spring the melons from Mexico show up in stores, then a few weeks later are replaced by (more or less) local ones.

          • I was asked a question. What was my definition of commodity as opposed to food and I answered. The climate has not changed that dramatically since 1970, farming has changed.

          • No, but the availability of produce year-round has.

            My gut tells me that this change in import/export is due mostly to the availability of produce when they are out of season.

            It would be good to see export/import figures by month. My guess is that in the summer, imports for tomatoes goes down drastically.

            I don’t have the patience (or the time) to see if these kinds of numbers exist, but I am willing to bet if they do, they would back up my hypothesis.

            Then again, I have been wrong before.

  3. Define “importing” – is wheat from Canada OK, but peppers from Mexico not.. or vice versa? How far away does it have to be before it gets on the “bad” import list? You should really look at the list of what is imported and exported, and where from/to. China is always under suspicion – but how about those imports from Australia?

    • I don’t eat dairy or very little. I chose to deal with a local farmer who serves about 200 families in my area. I freeze or can in season and buy my meat from him as well. I don’t want to eat imported fruits and vegetables from countries that don’t have the same standards for growing. Buying local helps the farm thrive and it costs me less than buying in a grocery store where the products can already be weeks old when they arrive.

      • well, for some folks, freezing and canning aren’t really an option. I’m in SW FL, we can get local produce Nov-Apr. Space is a premium (no basement or usable attic space for storage), so for 6 months it is what is at the grocery store or nothing.

  4. Dear Andrew, I have compiled the Cornell Field Use EIQ for many vineyards in Santa Barbara and you might find the data interesting showing high pesticide use in organic and biodynamic vineyards compared to sustainable vineyards . Email me John Hilliard at [email protected]

  5. Smart fraudulent producers know that you can use forbidden but effective and safe pesticides early in the the growing cycle and, by harvest time, the residues will have fallen to below acceptable drift levels.

  6. It is odd that you point out the 20 approved non-synthetic substances approved for organic farming pest control and fail to mention that by contrast, there are some 900 synthetic pesticides approved for use in conventional farming. All are listed on the USDA website. For the sake of clarity, 900 is far greater (45 times, in fact) than 20.

    • Nothing at all odd about that. The story did not claim the number of conventional pesticides was equal or less. It is not the total number that can be an issue, it is the toxicity level of each substance. The organic standard approves use of copper sulfate, a truly deadly chemical. Having 900 instead of 20 choices means more precise pest control, using smaller doses that hit the target more accurately.

  7. Why is this story headlined with a current date while some of the comments here go back 3 years? Readers/supporters deserve an explanation. A lot happens in this industry in 3 years.
    Also not happy about the hyperlink to ECOWATCH about ‘outright fraud(fake foods)’ that is a dead link and that site is an enemy of science truth.

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