Digging deeper into organic produce myths vs. reality – Yakima Herald-Republic

Posted: July 10, 2017 at 7:42 am


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In case there are any doubts left after the recent jump into 100-plus-degree weather, summer is officially here. Fortunately, the heat is accompanied by the bounty of the Yakima Valley: cherries, berries, peaches, apricots, hops and all the rest.

With the abundance of produce, another question arises: Buy organic or not?

Reasons for eating organic vary from person to person, but they generally focus on personal health and safety and environmental sustainability. And organic production continues to increase worldwide, with Washington state making a strong showing: The state accounted for more than 90 percent of all U.S. organic apples and sweet cherries produced in 2015, along with more than 80 percent of organic pears.

But growers and agricultural experts say there are some common misconceptions about what organic truly means.

Organic production has a lot of benefits, yet it does not completely ensure that the product is food safe, said Mike Roy, president of operations at Roy Farms, which has 450 acres of organic hops, apples and blueberries.

For smart, safe grocery shopping, here are some facts about organic production, focusing on produce.

PERCEPTION: Organic produce is perfectly safe to eat, as is.

REALITY: Organic production really addresses pesticide and herbicide residue levels, Roy said. However, many environmental factors are still out of farmers control: A lot of these things like listeria outbreaks, E. coli, salmonella those arent necessarily addressed through organic certification.

The risk of pathogens affects organic and conventional produce.

One of the things to keep in mind on all fresh produce is, theres no kill step. None of the produce is cooked, as opposed to meat, which is usually heated to high enough temperatures to kill nasty bacteria, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington Tree Fruit Association.

Fruits and vegetables are grown out of doors ... they sit in open bins at the store, where people handle them, he said. The expectation should never be that fruits and apples are completely devoid of bacteria. You should always wash your food.

As for which products are best to eat organic, thats a personal preference, local growers say.

Theres a popular dirty dozen list that grades foods on how contaminated they are, though its decried by conventional produce growers.

Many consumers make choices based on a foods protective skin, says David Granatstein, sustainable agriculture specialist with the Washington State University Extension in Wenatchee.

The core purchasers of organic food only buy organic products; if they dont have an organic option, they usually wont buy that product, Granatstein said.

But another group of purchasers does more of a risk-assessment process when deciding, he said: If theyre buying a banana, the risk of pesticide residue after they peel it seems much smaller than the risk on a bell pepper, for example.

Customers also consider how much of a product theyre consuming, and whos eating it: If youre feeding yourself versus your 2-year-old baby, you may have a very different process, he said.

PERCEPTION: Organic farms dont use pesticides or chemicals.

REALITY: Everything is made up of chemicals water, air, beer, chocolate.

The National Organic Program keeps a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic crops and livestock, which can change from year to year.

Generally speaking, organic production uses nonsynthetic or natural substances and prohibits synthetic products, but there are some exceptions for specific uses as long as the substances do not contribute to contamination of crops, soil or water.

A few of those synthetic exceptions are chlorine-based products, copper sulfate, lime sulfur and peracetic acid.

While organic farms are careful to apply only approved substances, they are vulnerable to pesticide drift from other farms, even from far away.

A farmer could be spraying pesticides 200 miles away, but if the winds are right, it could end up being rained onto an organic field, contaminating the crop.

They have allowance for that, Granatstein said. Unless you live in a bubble, in a greenhouse, youre out in the real world. You cannot guarantee 100 percent protection.

Instead of conventional insecticides, farms may employ predators to take care of nuisance insect populations: Roy said their farms have released lacewings, predatory mice and ladybugs, as well as hawks to go after birds that eat the blueberries.

Fun tidbit about the ladybugs: While they do help get rid of aphids, Roy said they also farm aphids, keeping the population at a certain level to maintain their food source. For that reason, Roy Farms had to fire ladybugs as crop protectors.

PERCEPTION: Organic means small mom-and-pop operations

REALITY: Often, but not always. Organic farms come in all sizes, including big industrial operations, just like conventional farms.

As of January, Yakima County was home to nearly 100 certified-organic farms, orchards and ranches producing certified-organic crops or animal products, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Of those, 60 were listed with less than 30 acres of organic production, including 27 with less than 10 acres. A few even reported less than 1 acre.

On the other hand, 23 Yakima County farms were listed at more than 150 acres each. Zirkle Fruit reported more than 3,200 total acres of organic crops spread among 10 ranches.

In 2015, organic farms in Yakima County reported $55.9 million in sales, up 36 percent from 2013, according to Washington State University data.

Achieving organic certification is at least a three-year process, as fields and orchards must go exactly three years without being sprayed with non-approved pesticides or herbicides before the crop can be considered organic.

Growers have to submit a detailed plan to the U.S. Department of Agricultures National Organic Program citing which substances they will use on their crops, making sure they comply with national regulations.

One aspect of organic farming that is now being adopted by mainstream farming is its lessons in soil health and sustainability, Granatstein said.

Organic systems tend to store more carbon in the soil, he said, which is good for the soil and the atmosphere; and there tends to be greater biodiversity in organic systems.

Climate resilience farms are able to weather adverse conditions, drought or flood, he said. All the extremes tend to be buffered when you do improve the soils.

Thats where much of Roys interest lies: The environmental benefits of organic systems, and ways to go beyond purely organic systems to achieve even greater balance and sustainability.

Organic certification doesnt look at energy use or carbon footprint, Roy said.

I do think theres a better undefined system that needs to be fleshed out in future years, he said. Something that is truly sustainabile for the environment and for production.

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Digging deeper into organic produce myths vs. reality - Yakima Herald-Republic

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July 10th, 2017 at 7:42 am

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