Antibiotics on Apples?

Mark Keating's picture

Like many others invested in organic agriculture, the decision at last week’s National Organic Standards Board meeting to phase out an antibiotic used in certified apple and pear production may have left you wondering, why was it allowed to begin with? The straightforward answer is that, throughout its history, organic certification has allowed a very small number of materials, even pesticides, that we more often associate with conventional agriculture.

Acknowledging these limited allowances should not obscure the overwhelming evidence that organic farming provides significant environmental benefits including improved soil and water quality, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Rather, the key question becomes, how do we continue to move America’s farmers toward greater adoption of organic practices?

The answer to this question is also straightforward: conduct practical, on-farm research which enables farmers to readily transition to organic management. Case in point: now that the allowance for the effective treatment with antibiotics will disappear in 2014, how will organic apple and pear farmers protect their orchards from the truly devastating outbreaks of fire blight?

Now we’re looking for an answer that isn’t so straightforward. Fire blight is caused by a bacterium, a living organism that behaves very differently across the wide range of environmental conditions it inhabits. We’ll need to fine tune practices to suppress fire blight in humid and arid climates, in cool years and hot years, even down to the variety of apple and pear being produced.

The results we seek are attainable, but not without dedicated funding for organic research that includes farmers from start to finish. Such concerted efforts have proven to work – certified organic livestock farmers have eliminated the use of all antibiotics on their farms. Let’s get USDA back in the business of funding dedicated organic research that, over time, will benefit all farmers.

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