In the UK, farmers are not legally bound to take care that pesticides do not poison people, never mind contaminate organic crops. Georgina Downs has been campaigning for years and taken her case to court, then an appeal and now proceedings in the European Courts to get protection for human health from farmers spraying pesticides. From her latest post she says that “[c]onsidering the distance that pesticides have been shown to travel then the distance of the no-spray area would need to be substantial.” Pesticides Campaign.
The Soil Association, oversees the strictest organic label in the UK.* You might be as surprised as I was to learn that the Soil Association is a charity that receives no government funding. Anyway, it calls for farmers “to move to farming systems that don’t require dangerous chemicals to produce our food.” This is the solution I endorse.
Besides the health of people and contamination of our food, there are the issues of chemical sprays affecting pollinators, wildlife, water and soil health. Pesticides are also referred to as inputs or plant protection products. Whatever these chemicals are referred to, they are in the food chain and may contaminate organic food in more ways than one.
The Soil Association published an updated organic standards for producers manual in July this year which states that the social principle of organic farming includes avoiding agrochemical pesticides in order to minimises the disruption to the natural environment. It does not allow the use petroleum oils, paraffin oils or other mineral oils as pesticides. However, it does not ban the use of all pesticides or fungicides. Something that hopefully will continue to be disallowed in organic farming is the known and developing uses of nanotechnology which includes pesticides, such as pesticide delivery in nanoemulsions. Soil Association Organic Standards Manual, July 2010.
There are other forms of pesticide contamination of organic foods including storing methods and compost. The Soil Association does not allow the use of ionising radiation or synthetic chemicals as an aid to preservation materials (including sprout inhibitors, fungicidal sprays, dips or powders and chemical fumigants or pesticides) in stores or on premises where organic crops are stored.
Since 1 September 2008, a new European regulation completed the harmonisation and simplification of pesticide maximum residue levels (MRLs) with the aim of protecting all consumers. The new MRLs can be viewed at Plant Protection - Pesticide Residues. In the UK, the Pesticides Residue Committee (PRC) tests for residues on crops to determine whether (MRLs) have been exceeded. Such crops cannot legally be sold and the PRC publishes testing results to the public, which could damage the market. Problems may occur with elemental sulphur, which some crops naturally produce and laboratories are unable to distinguish from the applied sulphur. Therefore, the Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD) will not analyse for sulphur. Soil Association Certification News, Winter 2008.
The Soil Association will provide further details of the MRLs for compounds permitted to licensees upon request. It is collecting information from farmers to improve this service. The Soil Association further states that “[a]lthough pesticide residues are occasionally found in organic food (largely as a result of pesticide spray drift from neighbouring farms), a diet based on organically produced food can significantly reduce the amounts of pesticide consumed and consequently any damaging effects of these chemicals." This all shows that “organic” is not a 100% exact science, but at least the effort is a positive one.
*I have recently learned that the Biodynamic Agriculture Association (BDAA) may be stricter in some cases, but have only discussed the Soil Association in this article.