40 years ago I fell for the organic hype and kept an enormous garden and apple orchard trying to replicate what the Rodales promised in their popular advice of the day. And then I went back to school, studied botany, biology, horticulture and agriculture. Eventually I became a professional grower.
“Organic” is marketing hype. It does not and never did mean pesticide-free, less toxic or earth friendly. Organic food is grown using both synthetic and organic pesticides (link to USDA specs follows) and the kicker is, it’s the organic pesticides that are unregulated, more toxic and more persistent in the soil.Which was the whole reason why agriculture demanded synthetic pesticides. Modern pesticides are more targeted – killing only the thing intended and not everything it touches – and less persistent in the soil.
Here are some organic compounds. All of them are lethal: arsenic, cyanide, copper, mercury, lead, formaldehyde, gasoline, kerosene, fluorine, E. coli, botulism, listeria… organic does not mean non-toxic.
Here’s how modern pesticide synthesis works: Long long ago, farmers noticed that the common pesticides like cyanide, arsenic and copper sulfate killed not just weeds and bugs, but also cattle, chickens and people. They also noticed that vinegar, salt and wood ash killed weeds but not animals. That’s because extreme pH will kill a plant, but animals have kidneys which correct pH, so we are able to ingest vinegar and salt and pour wood ash over our heads with no harm. They also noticed that while anything viscous – oil, soap, pudding, hand lotion – will kill insects, we can rub those all over ourselves with no harm whatsoever.
So farmers said to chemistry, Can you make me something that will kill the bugs but not the children? Will kill the weeds but not the chickens that eat them? Something that will disappear from the soil after it’s done its work? Over the years there were successes and failures but even the failures like DDT (1940ish), Malathion (1980ish) and Diazinon (1990ish) were no more dangerous than the stuff used 100 years ago (cyanide, arsenic, copper sulfate). And because those synthetics were regulated, they were eventually banned from use. Organics are not regulated by the USDA or FDA.
Some of the successes include pesticides that prohibit photosynthesis by suppressing an amino acid needed for that process (photosynthesis itself is a chemical process, BTW, so there is no such thing as chemical-free plants growing anywhere by anyone). Since humans and other animals do not photosynthesize these products are completely harmless. And they are made to become inert in the soil within days. Brilliant, eh? So modern agricultural science has turned to synthetic pesticides for the same reason that medicine no longer prescribes opium, laudanum, mercury and blood-letting. To value the old time methods over the modern ones is simply ignorant.
So no, I do not buy organic because it’s a lie. As a former professional grower and longtime inhabitant of this plant, I must say it’s the most successful and long-lasting lie I know of.
Author: N. Cataldo. Botanist, horticulturist