LEXINGTON A family friend and regular customer, who is also a food intellectual, stopped by our farmer’s market booth recently to talk about some funny answers to her question, “Has this been sprayed?” That conversation leads to the low-down on pesticide use on, or in, non-organic produce.
According to the UK College of Agriculture, there are 49 insecticides and 40 fungicides approved for use on cucurbits (e.g. cucumbers, squash, melons). Extensive research verifies their effectiveness and specific regimens are recommended for commercial growers to follow. Typically, the fungicides are sprayed weekly, or more often in rainy weather, to provide prophylactic protection from plant diseases. Insecticide use follows the seasonal pattern of each insect species as they multiply and mature during the growing season. Each of these highly toxic chemical compounds comes with numerous label warnings.
Wearing a Bio-hazard Suit to Farm
First are the warnings to the applicator. Bio-hazard suits and full face respirators are recommended. Because of the potential for wind drift, applicator safety is a concern, as well as minimizing the impact to non-target areas adjacent to the food crop. There’s also a prescribed re-entry interval, the length of time before a human, pets or wildlife (bees?), should wait before re-entering the field for risk of exposure to excessive amounts of the toxin. There are also instructions advising how long to wait before harvesting the crop for sale, anywhere from zero to seven days.
These toxic compounds are presumably broken down by the “environment,” meaning bacteria, fungi, sunlight and dilution by rainfall. What really happens is actually unclear. How well can spray be washed off in tap water, especially a cantaloupe or broccoli? Some toxins are bio-degraded into a different toxic compound, but the manufacturer can say it is gone.
Systemic insecticides are applied directly to the soil, taken up by the roots, and distributed throughout the plant, including the part you eat! Really, we are not making this up. One would hope that farmers obey the delay-to-harvest interval, because there is no on-farm monitoring. Technically the grower could use these products, post a “no-spray” sign or answer a question at the market, with “No, we don’t spray,” but you ain’t gonna wash that off! The post-harvest interval on these can be upwards of 21 days.
GMO Plants Have Insecticides in Their DNA
Let’s talk about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) versions of insect and weed control. The toxic compound is in the genetic code of the plant, so every cell replication has the toxin ready for an attack of pests. You ain’t gonna wash that off either! GMO crops are raised with a precisely prescribed pesticide spray program, designed to control every aspect of crop health. Be it the mutant genes or the carcinogenic insecticides, fungicides, miticides, etc.
A 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study (firstname.lastname@example.org) associates these designer production packages with the decline of honey bees. Because of the resilience of Mother Nature, the “pests” adapt and/or mutate to exist in this new environment, and resistant strains of insects and weeds have begun to survive. It’s pretty short sighted to think science will out-smart nature and evolution. The intellectual property rights to the GMO pesticide programs are proprietary to the developers so much of the data and debate is out of the public domain. The “It’s ok, don’t worry about it” attitude reeks of tobacco.
In all fairness, certified organic farmers are allowed to use botanically derived sprays. A short list of naturally occurring materials has been approved by the National Organic Standards Board in a transparent and open forum. These materials can only be applied when all other cultural methods of control like site selection, air drainage, fostering beneficial insect habitat, crop rotation, etc., have not been effective in minimizing pest damage. Also organic farmers must notify the certification agency of any sprays considered for use, and the agency inspects and verifies the farm’s compliance. As we have built up the strength of our soils through crop rotation and natural fertility enhancement, we use few, if any natural sprays on our crops these days. We don’t even own a Tyvek suit or respirator.
Next time you’re at a farmers market, ask the vendors first if they grew it. Then ask if it has been sprayed, if so, for what and how many times. Then ask if they use systemic insecticides or GMO seeds. At Elmwood Stock Farm we know none of this is necessary, much less a good idea, even though mainstream agriculture recommends it. This is one reason we are so adamant about the value of organic food. Just ask us, and we will gladly let you know how we raise safe, healthy food for you.
Mac with wife, Ann Bell Stone, and extended family farm the 550 acre Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County. The farm produces certified organic beef, vegetables, fruit, eggs, chicken, heritage turkeys, and tobacco. Mac has served as the executive director of marketing for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and chair of the National Organic Standards Board, appointed by the USDA Secretary. He now focuses on farming and marketing wholesome organic foods and working with non-profit agriculture and food organizations.