This blog post is part of a special series called “The Truth About Organic.” Find other posts in the series here.
Getting Straight on Glyphosate
Many families choose organic to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals. Enter glyphosate.
Glyphosate is the chief ingredient in the weed-killer RoundUp, one of the most commonly used herbicides worldwide. Glyphosate is so ubiquitous in our food, water, and air that it is regularly found in human urine.1
The toxicity of glyphosate is hotly debated. The EPA says glyphosate is safe2; the International Agency for Research on Cancer says glyphosate is a probable carcinogen3. Questions about Monsanto’s influence on studies proclaiming its safety abound.
RoundUp has been potentially linked to instances of cancer4, celiac disease5, Parkinsons6, and more. In two separate cases, a jury determined that the use of RoundUp contributed to occurrences of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.7
Glyphosate, which is patented as a broad-spectrum antibiotic, may damage beneficial bacteria in your microbiome. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into possible connections between glyphosate, GMOs, and gut health, we recommend this podcast.
Meanwhile, glyphosate and RoundUp applications have increased around the globe. Despite precision techniques, we’re using more herbicides than ever before8, and we’re sicker than we’ve ever been.
For consumers who aren’t okay with eating RoundUp, there’s organic.
A product with the USDA Certified Organic seal must be grown or produced with no synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers—and that means no RoundUp and no glyphosate.
But organic is more than that. Organic not only bans synthetic herbicides like RoundUp—it prohibits the use of hundreds of chemical additives, preservatives, colorings, and more. See a full list of chemicals you’ll never have to eat if you buy organic here.
Spray What, Now?
When consumers find out that organic farmers do sometimes use sprays and other “inputs,” they’re understandably confused.
Do organic farmers spray? And why do some people say that organic sprays are even more toxic than conventional?
The key word is “synthetic.” Generally, organic farmers use no synthetic (read: man-made) inputs. However, they are allowed to use natural ones. But the story is more nuanced than that.
The Approved-Materials List
The national list is determined with input from board members including farmers, business owners, and consumer advocates. The public—that’s you—is invited to submit opinions on what makes the list. Anyone can file a petition to have materials added or removed. Learn more about that process here.
Once the NOSB and NOP add a material to the national list, third-party organizations like the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) evaluate new products to make sure they’re in compliance. It’s a process that involves hundreds of technical experts. Organic certifiers rely on OMRI to know which product a farmer or business can use and in what way (more on this later).
The general rule for the national list is that naturally occurring materials are allowed, and synthetic materials are prohibited. There are, however, exceptions to that rule.
Dr. Andrew Smith, our chief scientist, explains the basic distinction between approved and non-approved materials this way:
“Approved substances are naturally derived and quickly degrade by weather, or else they are easily broken down by microbes in the environment, lowering the chance of human exposure. Chemical pesticide formulations and other synthetic materials are manipulated in laboratories and persist for longer periods of time in the environment. They are foreign to the human body, which might see the compounds as intruders.”
So, how does the USDA, the NOSB, and the NOP go about determining which materials are allowed?
Synthetic vs. Non-synthetic
First, when considering a material for use in organic production, the USDA determines whether it is synthetic or non-synthetic. They define non-synthetic as “a substance that is derived from mineral, plant, or animal matter and does not undergo a synthetic process. Non-synthetic is used as a synonym for natural.”
Almost all natural materials are approved for use in organic. Take, for example, neem oil. Neem oil is derived from the seeds of the neem tree. It has been used for hundreds of years to minimize pests and plant diseases. Neem oil is natural and approved for use in organic.
Only a handful of natural substances are prohibited in organic production, including arsenic and tobacco dust.
Synthetic is defined as “a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources.” Glyphosate, a laboratory-manufactured chemical, falls under this category and is thus prohibited.
Most synthetics are prohibited in organic—unless there is no naturally occurring alternative. Copper sulfate is one such synthetic. Copper can be dangerous if it accumulates in the body or the soil9, but it has been approved for use in organic for a few reasons:
- No natural alternative exists that can effectively target the same plant diseases as copper sulfate.
- Before approval, the USDA evaluated copper for its environmental impact, effects on human health, and more. Copper was determined safe with restrictions on its use (more on this below). Read about the review process here.
- Farmers can only use copper once they’ve exhausted all other options, including preventative management. It can only be applied in specific amounts and specific cases.
The national list of approved materials is divided into categories including crops, livestock, and processing. Each is further separated into “use class.” Examples of use class include “crop fertilizer” and “disease control,” among others. If a material is designated for fertilizer, it can’t be used in any other way.
Copper sulfate is designated for plant disease control and disease control only. Organic farmers can only spray copper if there is a documented case for its need. That means the farmer must also show that they have exhausted all other options for combating the disease issue. A certifier will review the documents and information and only approve copper’s use if there is nothing left to be done and a farmer’s crop is at risk.
Additionally, the certifier will work with the farmer to make sure only the minimum amount of the material is applied. Preference is always given to biological and preventative methods before a synthetic material is introduced, and exposure is always minimized as much as possible.
The Organic Difference
That’s a key difference between organic and conventional farming: Whereas conventional methods often encourage or recommend the use of chemical sprays to remedy problems as soon as they appear, organic philosophy encourages and requires a farmer take all other approaches first.
The idea in organic is always management before inputs. Take, for example, the organic approach to fighting pests. An organic farmer’s first line of defense is always prevention. Healthy soil creates strong plants that are naturally resilient to pest pressure.
For more persistent pest issues, farmers can encourage populations of natural predators and beneficial insects like ladybugs by planting wildflowers or pollinator habitat. Other strategies include crop rotation and selecting pest-resistant varieties of crops. When pests become a more serious problem, organic farmers might use natural pheromones to disturb pest mating cycles, or mechanical controls like trapping.
Only when all other methods have been exhausted and a farmer is faced with a potential significant loss will targeted sprays of organic-approved pesticides be used. Broad sprays of non-specific pesticides are always a last resort.
When it comes to fertilizers and plant nutrition, the same idea applies. Organic farmers start with the soil and use natural processes like composting to encourage fertility instead of chemical sprays. The idea is always to work with nature’s own processes first.
The Role of Biodiversity
As the organic industry booms, the kinds of farms growing organic products is changing. More and more large farms are joining the movement, and those large farms often grow just a single crop for efficiency.
Complex ecosystems have more natural defenses than monoculture farms. A smaller farm that grows vegetables, raises some livestock, encourages pollinators, and creates habitat for wildlife will experience less pest pressure and disease than a large farm growing just one thing.
Large farms are more likely—though by no means guaranteed—to use more organic-approved sprays because fewer tools and defenses are available in the natural landscape. If you are concerned about avoiding even organic-approved sprays, do some research on the farms that grow the produce that you and your family enjoy.
What It All Means for You
The bottom line is this:
- Organic is a surefire way to avoid the most dangerous chemicals on the market, including glyphosate, which has been implicated in human health concerns.
- Organic-approved inputs are generally natural and safer than conventional.
- Organic-approved inputs go through a rigorous review to determine their safety and have many restrictions on their use. Materials are reviewed every few years, so the process is never stagnant.
- Organic farmers only use inputs as a last resort.
- If you’re especially concerned about exposure to sprays, even organic-approved sprays, it’s best to know and talk to your farmer.
- If you’re concerned about the safety of an approved material, speak up. The NOSB and NOP want to hear from you. Anyone can file a petition here.
- Organic is about more than pesticides and fertilizers. Organic also prohibits dozens of artificial preservatives and additives and enhances biodiversity and natural ecosystems. If you want to minimize your family’s exposure to harmful chemicals, organic is the obvious choice.
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