When we reported on the use of antibiotics to control disease in organic pear and apple orchards this week, the information that shocked readers the most wasn’t the news itself. Even though the USDA’s National Organic Program has approved tetracycline since 2000, consumers were largely unaware of the practice.
With the debate over the use being reported here and elsewhere this week, there’s an increased literacy among informed buyers, but that knowledge will have a short shelf life. That’s because of the new news from Tuesday’s story: The National Organic Standards Board met in Portland this week, and the group decided not to extended the exemption that growers and scientists had lobbied for. Certified organic growers won't be allowed to use the antibiotics to control fire blight after October 21, 2014.
“We were pleased with that outcome, obviously, because we didn’t want to see an extension,” Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, tells TakePart. The nonprofit was one of a number of food safety and consumer advocacy groups, including the Consumers Union and the Center for Food Safety, which lobbied the NOSB to uphold the 2014 expiration date decided upon in 2011.
But this wasn’t a pure victory for the anti-antibiotic crowd: Emergency use will be allowed in orchards affected by fire blight through 2017. “We aren’t thrilled by that, but we understand the need for transition,” Lovera says of the provision. “We’re in a bind, so there has to be a plan for folks so they don’t bailout on organic entirely.”
That’s the very concern raised by those advocating for an extension: Since there’s no proven alternative to antibiotic treatments for handling fire blight, growers might spray their trees and forego organic labeling rather than lose their orchards to the disease.
The logic behind exemptions for synthetic inputs like antibiotics in the organic standards is to give growers the necessary protection while alternative means are developed. That has not been the case when it comes to protecting against fire blight: The first potential substitute, Blossom Protect, is only coming on to the market this year, 12 years after the antibiotic exemption was first granted. Growers will only have one year to fine-tune the use of Blossom Protect, but as we previously reported, the results of field trials have been mixed—especially in Michigan, a major apple-growing state.
Phasing antibiotics out of organic orchards and off of the National List of Allowed Substances appears to put the real world of organic farming more in line with the philosophical ideal the label represents to consumers. But in the larger debate over the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics in agricultural production—namely in animal husbandry—it’s a symbolic victory, at best. There appears to be no residue of antibiotics in the crop itself, and the major concern is that fire blight, an arboreal disease that can’t infect humans, will become resistant to tetracycline over the course of time. The stakes of antibiotic use in livestock are far higher.
And it’s not as if the National List will be free of any questionable, dangerous inputs after 2014. The use of copper-based fungicides, for example, is allowed without any exemption or expiration date. The practice can present a risk to farm laborers and adds heavy metals to the soil—both of which seem to be at odds with the Platonic ideal of organic. Should a fungicide that can cause lung-tissue lesions and scars, as the copper-based Bordeaux mixture does, be a common application in organic vineyards?
Consumers should know if antibiotics are being used in apple and pear orchards. Likewise, organic practices should be acknowledged for what they are—an informed, pragmatic set of standards (that's not without its flaws), not a pure ideology.