Antibiotic apples

Concern over antibiotics in organic apples raises serious doubts for consumers, but is anyone telling the whole story? Our orchardist hasn’t had to use antibiotics on our apple trees here at Rodale Institute, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t consider it. Shocked? Good. Maybe a little shock and awe will help solve this serious issue for farmers and families alike.

Here are the facts: Two types of antibiotic treatments are currently used specifically to control fire blight on both conventional and organic apples and pears. Fire blight is extremely destructive, often requiring the removal of entire trees to prevent spreading the disease through an orchard. What the media isn’t telling families…


1. The antibiotic treatments are considered a last line of defense in organic orchards, only following a cadre of prevention methods. There is a strict permitting process to use the antibiotics that includes proving your trees do indeed have fire blight.

2. The disease spreads at bloom time, which is also when treatments would be applied to affected trees, not during fruiting.

3. Growers and researchers working in the organic community have been working furiously to find, test and make available alternative solutions. Work has focused on developing fire-blight-resistant varieties of trees, testing preventative biocontrols and dormant oils, establishing bloom-thinning techniques, and various combinations of all these non-antibiotic approaches. None of the individual non-antibiotic options or combinations of options has resulted in a solution that comes close to answering the issue.

4. Organic farms in Europe have relied on heavy use of copper for disease control as an alternative, resulting in toxic soils. Copper is just as highly restricted in organic production as antibiotics because it is also detrimental to the environment and human health in large quantities.

5. It is extremely rare that antibiotics are used in plant production to begin with, and organic orchardists use them minimally and only as a last resort. Organic and conventional tree fruit production combined makes up less than 0.5% of total antibiotic sales in the U.S.  Industrial livestock production makes up 73% of total antibiotic sales in the U.S. If we’re truly concerned about protecting the efficacy of our antibiotics, we should immediately prohibit the “preventative” use of antibiotics in all livestock production.

This is one of those extremely difficult issues the organic community has had to and continues to wrestle with. No one in the organic community is happy with the current antibiotic or copper stop-gap measures. But, when organic orchardists were surveyed in Washington State, nearly 50% said they would be forced to exit organic production if this already severely restricted last line of defense were completely eliminated.

Think of it this way: Late blight is a huge problem for tomato growers, especially organic growers who can’t use any of the synthetic fungicides sprayed liberally on conventional fields. The difference is a new tomato plant can be grown and harvested the very next year. A fruit tree takes years to even begin to produce a harvest.

For us, this highlights the incredible importance of organic research. Providing certified organic farmers with alternative solutions that WORK is key to the continued success and availability of organic products. Organic farmers don’t expect solutions that will match what conventional growers might get with highly toxic chemicals, but the ability to continue to produce and stay in business is essential. And organic agricultural research is extremely underfunded.

Because this issue has such dramatic impacts for both growers and American families, the National Organic Program established a task force to focus on evaluating the progress being made to get antibiotics out of organic fruit tree production. For more information on the fire blight/antibiotic/organic issue, refer to Washington State University’s overview of the discussions and work being done to figure it all out.

As the organic community strives to make organic fruit tree production completely antibiotic free, we’d still rather eat a certified organic apple than a conventional one that’s been doused in toxins from bloom through fruiting and even during transport.

Any organic orchardists out there who have successfully battled fire blight without antibiotics? Any organic orchardists out there who have had to use antibiotics? What are your thoughts on the issue?

14 Responses to “Antibiotic apples”

  1. Tom K.

    Why don’t you ask Michael Phillips directly? He’s the organic orchard expert…..

  2. amanda

    Hi Tom… We talked with Michael Phillips last fall, but wanted to hear from you all. Are you an orchardist?

  3. Nathan

    Doesn’t it seem odd that in a world where diseases are constantly being put under evolutionary pressure from our constant use of different chemicals and treatments we are still using outdated varieties of apples. We need everyone, not just several large university breeding programs, to grow seedling apples for a few generations and come up with new resistant varieties! There are ways to speed up fruiting so it wouldn’t take 8 years to get new seedlings. It seems to me we are just throwing toxic technology at a problem whose root lies in genetics. These chemical controls should be the backup, not the norm.

  4. Stefan Sobkowiak

    Yes we used to have some fireblight 20 years ago. During our transition. We just let those trees die out (less than 5 trees out of 4000 at the time). Our goal was to keep easy trees. We completely eliminated certain cultivars (jerseymac, julyred, and kept a token of vista bella). We have since replanted a 5 acre permaculture orchard of scab resistant cvs (>100 apple cvs, 20 pear, plum and cherry, all accompanied by nitrogen fixing trees). We foliar feed 4-6 times in spring with 100% whey with dissolved limestone for pH balance from a friend’s goat cheese, it also doubles as a disease site competitor on the leaves. Whey is very effective and almost free. We got the idea from another grower (who also made goat cheese) and understood how it works during an Elaine Ingham workshop in Quebec. We have also gone to training all our trees to a Solaxe system (open and single trunk). No fireblight in over 15 years.

    • Theresa Rasmussen

      Would love to eat your apples, where can they be purchased?

      • SusanFordyce

        Hi Theresa – We sell our apples from our farm. The Organic Apple Festival in September is when we start selling our apples, which are Pick Your Own.

  5. Brady Jacobson

    Finally, someone who has actual experience with this disease is making a public comment. Thank you so much for tackling this very complex issue in your newsletter. I gave testimony at the NOSB meeting this week in Portland and because of the hysteria created in advance of this meeting, we lost our fight to use oxytetracycline as a tool of last resort for fire blight. It will be struggling farmers and the consumers who are really the ones that lost this battle, but the consumers don’t understand that they were “played” in this debate.
    As a 30 year veteran commercial northwest organic apple and pear grower, who pre-dates the NOP (certified in 1989), I can tell you that this is an issue that has been totally misrepresented to the public by seemingly well-meaning “consumer groups”. It’s my belief that they have a vested interest in creating a landscape of fear, so that they can raise money to fight their causes. In this case, the cause has been totally blown out of proportion, and should never have been a cause at all. While antibiotics are allowed, for the time being, to control fire blight in apples and pears, it is only because of the devastating effects of the disease. Despite what people have posted, there are no truly fire blight resistant pears or apples, only some that are less susceptible, and most of those are not commercially viable. The part that has been glossed over in this campaign of fear is that the fruit is NEVER sprayed, only the blossoms, and only in the rare event of a severe infection period, and usually not on the whole orchard. It’s never used as a matter of course. It is an expensive spray, and organic growers are required to prove that all other cultural practices to help prevent the disease are being used. It takes 12 years to bring a pear tree into production and 6 years for apples. Apples and pears are considered “specialty crops” by the USDA, and as such, receive no subsidies. There are so few farmers left in this country, and profit margins are very thin, and in this age of such cynicism, to level this kind of attack on those of us who have tried so hard to provide an alternative to conventional agriculture is very disheartening. Organic growers will be thrilled when there is a proven alternative, but as yet, that is not the case. People want to know why it has taken so long for there to be an alternative. First, there was no money available for organic research to support people like Ken Johnson, at OSU, who has now finally received a grant to finish his work on an alternative product. Second, that product has to be tested in the field under all circumstances, and there may be many years between severe episodes of fire blight. It will have to be tested on experiment station fruit blocks across the country, before anyone can ask a grower, whose very livelihood depends on the life of his/her trees, to take a gamble that it will work. If forced to choose between losing their certification or their trees, commercial organic growers, will take their farms out of organics and all those cynical people will have to eat conventionally sprayed fruit, with all the other pesticides that are applied. Once again, the fruit is never sprayed with the antibiotics; resistance with oxytetracycline is not much of an issue (despite the hysteria to the contrary, which is a media attention grabber); and it is rarely used and used sparingly. The expert scientists and researchers who gave testimony to the NOSB in Portland, had definitive studies that proved that orchards, whose blossoms had been sprayed with oxytetracycline showed ZERO residue on/in their fruit. We work hard to create a healthy soil that actually produces antibiotics naturally, as well. People forget that antibiotics are a very good thing, when not misused, as they are in livestock production. They are one of nature’s best tools to control disease.

  6. Jim Wells

    I am sorry I could not make the Portland NOSB meeting. I 100% concur with your post here, and would have added depth to it if I had been able to testify. At the meeting, was there any mention of the likelihood of rapidly developing a myco-control system for fireblight?

  7. Liz


    Sounds to me like you are one that would/does support genetic modification of our food sources. Well, if not, then you need to research it. We are VERY fortunate to still have seeds that are what we call ‘heirloom’ varieties. My concern is that the chemical companies will eventually force all of us to use GMO products in the very near future, rendering the use of heirloom varieties extinct. What an enormous loss that would be for all of us! Thank you, Rodale, for your great work! We all need to educate ourselves, and protect the Earth as best as we can!

  8. Bev

    Look at Jungle Flora a naturally fermented liquid fish/manure/kelp etc mixture. I saved 140 doug fir and other plants that had “fatal disease”. It was about restoring the microorganisms in the soil so that the tree/plant can uptake the nutrients and rebuild its own immune system.

    Without the micro organisms in the soil there is no breakdown of nutrients for the roots. It is an amazing product. The manufacturer can sell it by the barrel.

  9. Gordo

    Speaking from experience only as a backyard fruit grower, I don’t really understand all the fuss about fireblight. It is very easy to spot early enough to simply cut out of the tree. The only people I know with fireblight problems are people that neglect their trees (if you want healthy trees, you should go out and look at them at least once a week, to see if they need any love!)


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