With tree fruit like apples and peaches routinely showing up on the list of foods with the most pesticide residue--the so-called "dirty dozen"-- it's no surprise that many consumers have turned to organic fruit to avoid environmental impacts and potential health risks.
But few--fewer than one in five, according to a recent poll by Consumers Union--know that deep in the rules governing organic growing standards is a clause allowing orchards to spray trees with an antibiotic called oxytetracyline to control fire blight. Antibiotics in organic apples and pears? The term "organic" designed specifically to mean crops grown without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics, so consumers are confused. In fact, this is the only antibiotic approved for use in any organic food, according to researcher David Granatstein of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.
Three groups have petitioned the National Organic Standards Board, which sets policy on the growing and marketing of organic foods, to discontinue the use of this antibiotic, as scheduled, in 2014. The organic tree fruit industry wants to extend its use through 2016, at least.
According to a 2007 survey analyzed by Granatstein, fewer than 10% of orchards, organic or not, used the antibiotic--5.5% of U.S. apple orchards are organic, and accounted for 2.3% of the 4,300 pounds of the antibiotic used that year. Treatment with the antibiotic, which is synthetic but derived from microorganisms, can be the only thing that allow a tree, or a whole block of trees, to survive, since the blight can be spread from tree to tree by pollinating bees or other means, and can quickly infect a tree to the roots, killing it. The antibiotic is used primarily in the Northwest, where another antibiotic still used elsewhere in the country, has grown ineffective, thanks to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
There are other methods of controlling the blight, including plant genetics, sanitation, removal of diseased limbs, nitrogen and water management, copper, and biocontrol products. New, innovative solutions are coming online fast. Growers say none of these is as effective as antibiotics. Advocates say the time has come to use the alternatives, invest in research to develop better alternatives and most importantly stop the exception for antibiotic use in organic pears and apples.
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