In ‘Food for Thought: Organic Grub Worth Buying?’ we hear that as US organic sales increase, so do consumer questions about what ‘organic‘ actually means. Answers to this same question in the UK met with surprise early this year, as a report explained that organic does not mean ‘pesticide free’ – perhaps as shocking to some as an earlier report published by the UK Food Standards Agency, claiming that organic food ‘has no health benefits‘ over conventionally grown produce. Essentially this is good news for the consumer – you can receive the same health benefits from conventionally grown (and mostly cheaper) fruits and vegetables.
It is true that organic farmers, faced with the loss of their crops, often use ‘conventional’ pesticides, but there are more tools in the organic farmers toolbox, so called ‘organic’ pesticides (sometimes referred to as ‘green’ or ‘ecological’ pesticides). Organic pesticides are claimed to be naturally derived rather than synthetically produced, but this does not tell us anything about their relative safety or impact on the environment. We must also remind ourselves that the most toxic substances known are found in nature: in other words, natural does not always equal safe. Steve Savage, who keeps a blog at eatdrinkbetter.com last week posted ‘The “Pesticide From Hell” (oh, by the the way, its “Organic”)‘, an interesting article on one the oldest and still most used ‘organic’ pesticides – Sulphur (sulfur). Steve points out that sulphur compounds must be used in considerably higher quantities than effective and highly targeted ‘manufactured’ crop protection products; in addition to being one of the most common causes of pesticide user health complaints, there is also an association with bird mortality. Copper sulphate, another commonly use organic pesticide, combines copper and sulphur in a form that is permanently destructive of soil if overused. In terms of the regulation of use of crop protection measures, in the European Union organic pesticides are subject to the same strict regulations as conventional products.
The fact that organic farming often makes use of pesticides (of the organic and conventional varieties) is largely overlooked or poorly communicated – reinforcing misconceptions about crop production and crop protection. Recent media coverage of organic agriculture does suggest that the public is beginning to question their understanding of the term ‘organic’. The current economic crisis will have no doubt contributed; with less disposable income it is perhaps no surprise that consumers pass on some of the more expensive items on their shopping list. Rightly or wrongly, organic is often considered something of a ‘niche market’ – with products being more expensive than their conventionally grown alternatives they are unlikely to feature in a ‘recession diet‘.
The reality of agriculture is that pests must be managed to avoid devastating loss to crops, something independent of the ideology of farmer or consumer. Whilst some loss is indeed expected, without crop protection measures a loss of over 40% yield is possible – this is unsustainable.
An ecological way
Integrated pest management (IPM) is a good practice approach to crop protection. IPM is an integrated strategy for crop management, designed to solve ecological problems when applied in agriculture. Performed in three main stages: prevention, observation, and intervention IPM combines pesticide use with biological and sophisticated management techniques to manage pest populations in an ecological way. IPM can be used by both conventional and organic agriculture.
In the video below, Professor Sir Gordon Conway of the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, explains Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and how it helps farmers. He goes on to tell us how pesticides can be used in conjunction with natural enemy controls, such as parasites and other predators, to help protect farmers’ crops from losses.