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Eating Organic may be Harmful—The Truth Behind Organic Produce. ~ E.G.Plott~


Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron

Sugarsnap peas are ready for harvest at the Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Mass., in the summer of 2009.

Sugarsnap peas are ready for harvest at the Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Mass., in the summer of 2009.

Charles Krupa/AP

It may seem counterintuitive, but foods that are grown to organic standards can contain commercially manufactured pesticides.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of produce that found nearly 20 percent of organic lettuce tested positive for pesticide residues piqued our interest. Lots of the lettuce contained quite a bit of spinosad, a pesticide marketed by Dow Chemical under the brand name Entrust.

So we called Jeff Gillman, a professor of nursery management at the University of Minnesota, who has written about organic practices for lay readers. Right off the bat he told us:

When people are buying organic food, they often make the incorrect assumption that there are no pesticides. It's true that organic production often uses fewer dangerous chemicals, but certain pesticides are allowed.

It turns out that a key factor in chemicals being cleared for use on organic crops is whether they occur naturally. Spinosad, for example, comes from the soil bacteriumSaccharopolyspora spinosa. It can fatally scramble the nervous systems of insects. It's also poisonous to mollusks.

The USDA maintains an official list of substances that can and can't be used for organic farming. Other potent natural extracts that have been approved for use as pesticides include pyrethrin, derived from chrysanthemums, and azadirachtin, from the Asian neem tree, which was also detected on some samples of organic lettuce.

All three of these substances are considered slightly toxic by the EPA.

Synthetic compounds can also make it onto the list as pesticides, if they are relatively nontoxic combinations that include minerals or natural elements, such as copper or sulfur. But some naturally occuring substances, such as nicotine and arsenic are off limits.

Are naturally derived pesticides less toxic than synthetic ones? The answer depends a lot on the dosage, says Gillman. "To control fire blight on the same acre of land," he explains, "I could use a tiny amount of a potent synthetic that has proved safe over the last 50 years, or a much larger amount of an organic pesticide." He demurs on saying which is better, saying, "I want people to know that there are definitely tradeoffs."

In the USDA tests, there was ten times as much spinosad on organic lettuce than was found on conventionally cultivated fruits and vegetables.

Gillman wasn't alarmed by the spinosad finding:

It's a relatively new chemistry, relatively safe, and extremely effective against some pests. Now, if I heard about high levels of copper being detected, I'd be more scared than for this stuff.

Copper compounds are used to fight fungal and bacterial diseases in plants. Copper isn't very toxic to humans, he says, but it can accumulate in the soil and eventually become poisonous to plants and even worms at high concentrations.

The seeming contradiction between organic labeling and potentially harmful pesticide practices may lie in the relative leniency of the USDA organic guidelines, Gillman says. Various organic certification agencies, such as the Oregon Tilth, have tighter rules. (Check out this roundup of acceptable and forbidden pesticides.)

Gillman says just because an organic farmer used some authorized chemicals is no reason to shun the food. But it's important for consumers to know what's going on. For him, the answer to the ambiguity around organic labeling is to go local. "I go to the farmers market and talk to the growers to see who is serious about reducing pesticide use," he says. "I'd rather buy food from someone who used Roundup once than someone who uses organic pesticides all the time."

Eating Organic may be Harmful—The Truth Behind Organic Produce. ~ E.G.Plott~

Know Your Food!

What!? How can this be?

“I switched to only eating organic fruits and vegetables years ago and feel so much better doing so.”

How can it be harmful? Organically produced fruits and vegetables are grown in an environment absent of synthetic chemicals, pesticides, unnecessary machinery, chemical growth promoters, poisoned earth/dirt and the like. “Right?”

Well unfortunately, no, not exactly…

I usually get this frantic response when I start off a conversation like the title. Most usually go on this self-pat on the back mentality about how they’re in the know or understand eating organically is inherently more healthy than eating conventionally grown vegetables and fruits. Based on what they’re told, they’re 100 percent correct. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (or a nutritionist for that matter) to know eating something that isn’t sprayed with chemicals—and is allowed to grow in a natural environment—is more healthy than eating a conventionally grown fruit or vegetable.

I know a heated conversation can be had on eating organically or eating conventionally grown food, but I’m not here to dispel organic over standard convention farming though, or the pros and cons of each. I’m in the “you are what you eat and I don’t want to eat a chemical shit storm of pesticides and growth promoters” boat, regardless of whether or not they’re deemed by the government as “safe.”

“Okay, so why are you talking trash about my beloved organic veggies? I just took down a full head of kale for lunch and I’m happy as a clam I did so.”

The idea of organically grown produce to me (and the majority of other people) is an easy one—what’s marketed to us is essentially that they’re seeds/plants grown without the use of chemicals, pesticides and growth promoters.

But what if I were to tell you the majority of “organically” grown produce is not absent of any of these very things that conventional farmers use? Organic farmers use pesticides and ‘growth promoters’ and are putting more emphasis on their bottom line than they’re telling you. The truth is there’s a ton of money in selling organic produce and the powers that be know this. You’d think in theory without all the additional chemicals and steps of conventional farming the price would be cheaper to grow a less processed produce, no? But the reality is in most cases all of the conventional farming techniques are used on organic produce.

Before we get into the specifics below, I definitely want to point out, this is in no way a smear piece about why you should stop eating organically grown produce.

organic label usda eden bad bullshit greenwashing whole foodsThese are a few words put together to hopefully push for some change in the direction organically grown produce is headed.

The idea of growing food in absence of man-made chemicals or any chemicals for that matter is essential for our public health, I do fully believe that. Although I feel Americans—or any person for that matter—want to do what’s right and will go above and beyond to do the right thing, we also can get pretty lazy and allow large corporations and government agencies to dictate and direct what we want to see.

You made the choice to eat only organic and that’s great, but you must go a few steps further to protect this decision.

So what about the chemicals? The reality is, the majority of organically grown produce—especially the stuff you see in most grocery store chains—is most likely grown with pesticides. The fact is, most state laws allow organic farmers to spray a whole gamut of chemical sprays, powders and pellets on their organic crops. That is, if they are “organic” or natural chemical sprays, powders and pellets (1, 2).

So what the hell does organic mean then these days? It means that organically produced fruits and vegetables are grown in an environment absent of synthetic chemicals, yes, but the notion that they’re grown without chemicals at all is false (1,2).

Pesticides can be used in the growing of “organic” vegetables and fruits, and often are. They just must be derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured. (1,3)

So my question to you is, in all the knowledge in your head, is this any better? It isn’t to me, and some major U.S. organizations would agree. Just because it’s a “natural” pesticide, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better or even good for you at all.

The EPA and USDA have conducted many studies over the last few decades showing synthetically used pesticides, or any chemical for that matter, are seriously carcinogenic—a little more than 50 percent of them. A carcinogen leads to a high susceptibility for cancer creation within the human body. So again, it seems it’s fairly logical to not use any of these chemicals (“natural” or not) anywhere near our foods. (4)

But what about these organic pesticides?

Not until very recently has anyone tested or cared to test these natural organic pesticides, mainly for the thought that they are “natural” so why test them, how harmful can they be? Guess what happened when they tested these natural pesticides—the very pesticides they’re using on our organic produce? About half of them are carcinogenic as well. Yikes. (4)

So I guess the question is, are natural pesticides less harmful and/or toxic than synthetically derived ones? That’s a super difficult question to answer considering not much testing has been done and for good reason. The organic market is a fairly new one and with everyone jumping on the wagon and bending the rules of the USDA, FDA and EPA, there are so many variables.

Here’s a very common practice in growing lettuce: In conventional farming, during the full growth cycle of this plant, a very small amount of a very well-tested pesticide (literally tested over 50 years) will be used once, maybe twice to assure  a healthy crop. But for an organic farmer, they might use five to 10 times more of a natural pesticide like rotenone-pyrethrin or Spinosad. Tests done by the USDA have shown pesticides are 10 times more prevalent on organic lettuce than on conventionally grown produce in some cases. (5, 6, 7, 8)

There’s also the question of farming and our environment. We’ve seen the repercussions of our actions and decisions as humans the last few hundred years and we’ve really started to ask questions about what kind of impact our farming and the feeding of our species is doing to our world’s environment. You’d think less chemicals, natural or not, is better for the environment. But if these organic farmers are spraying considerably more of these natural chemicals than conventional farmers, is that really any better? That natural pesticide mentioned above, rotenone-pyrethrin, is extremely toxic to aquatic life and fish. So which is better? (9)

As I stated earlier, this isn’t a grouping of words to discourage you from continuing on your quest to a cleaner lifestyle by utilizing organically grown produce. It’s for the eye-opening reality of what’s currently happening and, in return, that you’ll be empowered to demand better.

I don’t blame the farmer, I don’t blame the associations that regulate organic foods and I certainly don’t blame our government.

The reality is we’re in a capitalist society—-in some ways it’s what makes this country so great—but it also comes with dire reactions if we don’t remain aware. Economics and money can sometimes pull the wool so quickly over our eyes, you’d think we were at a sheep farm. Although I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it seems money and economics will always come first. I don’t doubt that if a farmer could make the same amount of money from an apple grown without anything in true organic style, they’d do so.

On the flip-side if they know they can use a certain natural chemical to assure a strong, non-pest effected crop, and still state that it’s “organically grown,” they’re going to continue doing that as well.kale5

“Okay, that kale I just had for lunch doesn’t feel so good after all, so what do I do?”

The answer is a very easy one, it takes us opening our mouth and asking questions. We can ask our grocer about the organic produce we’re buying—who’s the grower and where did it come from? I can almost guarantee any organic produce item we buy that’s perfectly packaged in a plastic container or plastic bag is most likely from a huge producer, one that also produces conventionally grown produce (they’re all in on the fun, there’s money in those organic hills). Again, I’m not an economist or a horticulturalist, but I’d guess they’d be using organic pesticides, it just makes smart business sense.

Besides being that guy asking questions at our grocery store, an even better solution is buying local. The local farm stand and farmers’ market movement is huge these days. Besides keeping our hard earned money local and helping our fellow farmers, we’re also most likely greatly helping your health. We get to talk directly to the farmer and can ask them about what, if anything, they spray or add to their produce.

More times than most, the local organic farmers are organically farming the way you’d think organic farming should be, as in the absence of chemicals of any kind.

We need to take things into our own hands, literally.

We can grow something organic with our own dirt and two hands. Even if it’s in a small pot on our window sill, we can all farm on some level. We can learn what it takes (not much) to create our own food virtually free. Just a little hard work and time is all we need.

Want to go even further? Find a plot of land in your neighborhood that isn’t being used and ask the owner or the township/city if you can use it for a community garden—the possibilities are really endless.

Growing one’s food is an amazing way to connect ourselves to the very sustenance that keeps us alive. I can almost guarantee this connection will inspire you to speak out louder on the current state of organic farming and crops.


1: National Organic Program

2: Organic Standards



5:—For Pesticides Apples Are Worst Onions the Best

6:—Organic Pesticides Not an Oxymoron

7: The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line



Eric Plott is an adventurer/traveler who perpetually lives outside of his comfort zone. He thrives on knowledge, especially when it comes to health. After watching many people around him, including himself, suffer from the negative effects of poor nutrition, he took it into his own hands to learn every thing there is to know about proper nutrition and health. Through his ongoing quest for knowledge and heightened consciousness of the effects of his own nutritional path, he continues to pursue a mission to educate people on the largely untapped and immense potential of proper nutrition. For more on Eric. visit:

About Organic Produce

Organic produce has become increasingly popular in recent years, as consumers have grown more health conscious and environmentally aware. Many stores and supermarkets now have large sections devoted to organic fruits and vegetables.



Contrary to what most people believe, "organic" does not automatically mean "pesticide-free" or "chemical-free". In fact, under the laws of most states, organic farmers are allowed to use a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops.

So what does organic mean? It means that these pesticides, if used, must be derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured. Also, these pesticides must be applied using equipment that has not been used to apply any synthetic materials for the past three years, and the land being planted cannot have been treated with synthetic materials for that period either.

Most organic farmers (and even some conventional farmers, too) employ mechanical and cultural tools to help control pests. These include insect traps, careful crop selection (there are a growing number of disease-resistant varieties), and biological controls (such as predator insects and beneficial microorganisms).



When you test synthetic chemicals for their ability to cause cancer, you find that about half of them are carcinogenic.

Until recently, nobody bothered to look at natural chemicals (such as organic pesticides), because it was assumed that they posed little risk. But when the studies were done, the results were somewhat shocking: you find that about half of the natural chemicals studied are carcinogenic as well.

This is a case where everyone (consumers, farmers, researchers) made the same, dangerous mistake. We assumed that "natural" chemicals were automatically better and safer than synthetic materials, and we were wrong. It's important that we be more prudent in our acceptance of "natural" as being innocuous and harmless.



Clearly, the less we impact our environment, the better off we all are. Organic farming practices have greatly advanced the use of non-chemical means to control pests, as mentioned earlier.

Unfortunately, these non-chemical methods do not always provide enough protection, and it's necessary to use chemical pesticides. How do organic pesticides compare with conventional pesticides?

A recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a "soft" synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects). It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone- pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2 applications of imidan.

It seems unlikely that 7 applications of rotenone and pyrethrin are really better for the environment than 2 applications of imidan, especially when rotenone is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

It should be noted, however, that we don't know for certain which system is more harmful. This is because we do not look at organic pesticides the same way that we look at conventional pesticides. We don't know how long these organic pesticides persist in the environment, or the full extent of their effects.

When you look at lists of pesticides allowed in organic agriculture, you find warnings such as, "Use with caution. The toxicological effects of [organic pesticide X] are largely unknown," or "Its persistence in the soil is unknown." Again, researchers haven't bothered to study the effects of organic pesticides because it is assumed that "natural" chemicals are automatically safe.



For obvious reasons, organic farmers have done little, if anything, to dispel the myth that "organic = chemical/pesticide-free". They would only stand to lose business by making such a disclosure.

Pesticide manufacturers have little concern in the matter. To them, "synthetic pesticides sold" and "organic pesticides sold" are both "pesticides sold".

As for conventional farmers, they are not really in a position to be critical. It would not be in their interest to draw attention to chemical and pesticide use.



The purpose in writing this article is not to discourage you from buying organic produce.

It is only meant to let you know what you are or aren't getting when you make such a purchase. Unless you know your grower personally, there is no guarantee that your produce has been grown without pesticides or other chemicals. It's a point to consider, given the substantially higher cost of organic foods.

There are many choices and decisions that we, as consumers, are asked to make. Hopefully, this has provided some new information that you will find helpful.

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