It is a myth that organic food excludes the use of pesticides. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows the use of some synthetic substances in the production of food that carries the organic label.
The National List of Allowed Substances permits sulfur dioxide for underground rodent control in growing crops. Boric acid and ammonium soaps, with no direct contact to plants, can be used as well.
Joan Shaffer, spokeswoman for the USDA’s National Organic Program, said that organic food differs from conventional foods (those not certified as organic) in the way that it is grown, handled, and processed.
“Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones,” Shaffer said.
She said organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.
“Organic does not mean unsprayed. It merely means it was treated with products as allowed by the list,” said Peter Hirst, professor at Purdue University’s School of Agriculture. Some consumers of the organic food are not aware of these allowances.
Lajuana Johnson is a 22-year-old student at New York University. She has been eating organic foods for four years. Recently, she incorporated more organic foods into her diet.
“With more and more pesticides being used to preserve our foods, eating organically just seems like the wise thing to do,” Johnson said.
She began to eat organic products as a health precaution. Johnson said she wanted to eat healthier and eating organic foods puts her one step closer to gaining and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. (See Organic Food Sales chart)
Though Johnson said she felt a bit misled when she learned that pesticides can be found in organic foods, she said she still trusts organic as the healthier choice.
Charlie Edmonds, an employee of Whole Foods, also believes that organic is better.
“They started using hormones to enhance the size of things…but I eat organic foods because it’s the way nature intended food to be,” Edmonds said.
Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based organization argues that the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST) given to cows may be indirectly linked to different forms of cancer.
“Injections of rBGH increase another powerful hormone, called IGF-1 in the cow and the cow’s milk. Too much IGF-1 in humans is linked with increased rates of colon, breast, and prostate cancer,” said Patricia Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch.
Though organic foods do not contain growth hormones, they do share something in common with their conventionally produced food. Organic foods carry pesticide residues.
Data collected by the Pesticide Data Program of the USDA showed that of the sample group of a large variety of organic fruits and vegetables, 41.7% carried a pesticide residue.
The USDA does not take a side in the organic vs. conventional food debate.
“The USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food,” Shaffer said.