(Beyond Pesticides, June 29, 2010) Based on a flawed assessment, the authors of recent study out of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada have been attacking organic agriculture as less environmentally friendly than chemical-intensive conventional methods. In their press release, the authors say, “Consumers shouldn’t assume that because a product is organic it’s also environmentally friendly.” However after analyzing the study, Beyond Pesticides determined that this message is flawed and misleads consumers because the study does not actually evaluate an organic system. Instead the study substitutes natural pesticides that are approved in organic systems for synthetic pesticides in a conventional soybean field. The authors warned policy makers against promoting organic agriculture, based on the false assumptions of their study.
“If the goal of their study was to educate consumers as their message to the media suggests, then the authors of this study have shown a surprising lack of knowledge about organic agriculture,” said Beyond Pesticides project director John Kepner. “Organic agriculture is based on pest prevention and soil health. Organic farmers use techniques such as crop rotation and the creation of habitat for beneficial species, with organic-approved natural pesticides only as a last resort. Substituting these chemicals into a conventional system, does not tell us anything about organic agriculture.”
The study, “Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans,” published online June 22, 2010 in the journal PloS One, tested six pesticides and compared their environmental impact and effectiveness in killing soybean aphids in conventional soybean fields. The scientists examined four synthetic pesticides: two conventional products commonly used by soybean farmers (cyhalothrin and dimethoate) and two new “reduced-risk” pesticides (spirotetramat and flonicamid). They also examined a mineral oil-based organic pesticide that smothers aphids and another product containing a fungus (beauvaria bassiana) that infects and kills insects.
The two researchers used the environmental impact quotient, a database indicating impact of active ingredients based on such factors as leaching rate into soil, runoff, toxicity from skin exposure, consumer risk, toxicity to birds and fish, and duration of the chemical in the soil and on the plant. They also conducted field tests on how well each pesticide targeted aphids while leaving their predators, ladybugs and flower bugs, unharmed.
Under their evaluation system, the researchers found the mineral oil to have the greatest impact on the environment because it works by smothering the aphids and therefore requires large amounts to be applied to the plants. While the conventional pesticides used in the study are linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, organ damage, and more, the authors cite the killing of beneficial insects as the reason mineral oil had the worst rating. However, it is unlikely that organic farmers would use mineral oil in the same manner in which the authors did, because their methodology excludes all other organic techniques.
“It’s certainly a misconception to imagine that organic farmers are farming just the same way as pure conventional farmers but substituting organically approved pesticides and fertilizers for synthetic ones,” Simon Jacques, Ontario representative for organic certification program Ecocert, told Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “That’s not what’s happening.”
The conclusions of this study should have been limited to the substitution of mineral oil and beauvaria bassiana in conventional systems. However, the authors went as far as warning policy makers about promoting organic agriculture. The authors state, “Generalizations about the relative sustainability of one suite of practices over another are dangerous when integrated into policy: government regulations based on faulty assumptions about agricultural systems are expensive and do not effectively reduce the environmental risks they are designed to mitigate.” The recommendations are not consistent with the scope of the study.
Organic agricultural practices and U.S. organic regulations are constantly changing and improving based on the latest scientific and real world farming data. When problems with current organic inputs are identified, farmers or consumers petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have materials and uses prohibited. Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture, from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift, views organic as the solution to a serious public health and environmental threat.
The authors received funding for the study from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The authors acknowledge receiving money from Bayer, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Dow, BASF, Syngenta, DuPont and others for projects within the past five years.