(Beyond Pesticides, July 26, 2011) On July 25, 2011, in the case of Oluf Johnson v. Paynesville Farmers Union Cooperative Oil Company, Judge Ross of the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that pesticides drifting from one farm to another may constitute trespass. Organic farmers Oluf and Debra Johnson filed a civil suit alleging that the oil company sprayed a pesticide that drifted from targeted fields onto theirs, and that this prevented them from selling their crops as organic. Previously, a district court dismissed the Johnsons’ trespass claims. The victory is important for organic growers who are frequently under threat of pesticide drift from neighboring properties.
Under the federal organic standards authorized by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), produce may not be labeled organic if it is contaminated with pesticide residues, as a result of off-site use, o greater than five percent of the allowable pesticide tolerance levels. Pesticide tolerances are the pesticide residue limits used in the U.S. or by countries imporing to the U.S., which are set by the federal government under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA). Because we live in a polluted world where pesticide residues are present, often at low levels, nearly everywhere. A very small amount of pesticide contamination can be considered unavoidable and permitted in organic agriculture, based on an inspection and efforts on the farm to reduce contamination.
According to court documents, Oluf and Debra converted their conventional family farm to a certified-organic farm during the mid-1990s. Oluf Johnson posted signs at the farm’s perimeter indicating that it was chemical-free, maintained a buffer zone between his organic fields and his chemical-using neighbors’ farms. He also notified commercial pesticide sprayer Paynseville Farmers Union Cooperative Oil Company of the transition. He specifically asked the cooperative to take precautions to avoid pesticide drift onto his fields when treating adjacent fields. Despite the Johnsons’ requests, in 1998, 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2008, the cooperative sprayed pesticides that drifted and contaminated the Johnson’s organic crop, forcing them to sell at a lower, non-organic price.
The District Court in Minnesota ruled that pesticide drift cannot be trespass, but the Appeals Court disagreed. While no Minnesota courts have previously ruled that drift can be trespass, courts in other states have ruled in favor of organic farmers. The appeals court sent the organic farmers’ lawsuit back to a lower court for further action.
Pesticide drift is not only a problem for organic growers. Pesticide drift has recently been suspected in the tree deaths throughout the East Coast and Mid-West. A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) finds that pesticide drift from conventional farming has poisoned thousands of farmworkers and rural residents in recent years.
Similar to the threat of pesticide drift faced by organic farmers, is the threat of genetic drift -typically pollen from a field of a genetically engineered (GE) crop being carried by wind or pollinators like honey bees, which are known to travel six miles or further. While organic food is not currently tested for GE drift contamination the way it is spot checked for pesticides, consumers paying a premium for organic food demand purity. Therefore the growing threat of genetic contamination is a serious issue facing organic farmers as well.
Support organic agriculture for your family’s health, as well as the health of farmworkers and rural families, wildlife and pollinators, and the greater environment. For more information about the pesticides registered for use on foods we eat every day, see Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience guide, and the Organic Food program page.