Antibiotic Use in Organic Orchards to End

June 14th, 2013

NOSB Votes to Disallow Material in Apple and Pear Production After 2014

By Pamela Coleman, PhD

apple blossomThe headlines predicted a “Food Fight” over the use of antibiotics in organic agriculture at the spring meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Portland, Oregon. Some orchardists who wanted the option to use antibiotics for plant disease control squared off with consumers and public interest groups that want fruit grown without antibiotics.

The USDA organic regulations currently allow the use of streptomycin and tetracycline antibiotics in organic apple and pear orchards, but this allowance is scheduled to expire on October 21, 2014. At their spring 2013 meeting, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) considered a petition to extend the use of tetracycline until October 21, 2016. Antibiotics are not allowed in organic food production except for this one instance—apples and pears.

Antibiotics have been allowed for use in apples and pears ever since the national standards came into effect. This meeting could change that. With the pressure, would the NOSB vote to extend the allowance for antibiotics?

The Back Story
The antibiotics are used to control a bacterial disease called fire blight on apple and pear trees. The bacteria that cause fire blight can infect apple and pear flowers, and the infection must be controlled, otherwise it can spread and kill the tree itself.

Typically, synthetic materials such as antibiotics are prohibited in organic production, but the NOSB can vote to make an exception to this rule. Any synthetic that is allowed must be reviewed every five years and is subject to a vote of the NOSB. Synthetic materials are allowed only if they are essential for organic production and they cause no adverse impacts on humans or the environment.

In the months before the board meeting, Cornucopia staff evaluated the essentiality and impacts of tetracycline. Initially, I believed that the antibiotics might be essential, because my training in plant pathology taught me that fire blight can be devastating. I was also concerned about the orchardists—as a former organic inspector in Washington, I visited many orchards and have seen the growers’ commitment to organic practices. Like any scientist, though, I researched the issue, which led me to reevaluate my original opinion.

Ultimately, Cornucopia’s decision to oppose antibiotics was based on a clear understanding of the many preventative measures available, and the knowledge that many farmers have been able to grow apples successfully without antibiotics when the market demands it.

Scientists have studied fire blight for decades, and many university extension publications explain traditional preventative measures. The threat of fire blight can be minimized by using resistant varieties, resistant rootstocks, natural materials, and biological controls.

Organic growers are expected to use cultural controls and natural materials before resorting to synthetic materials such as antibiotics. According to a nationwide survey conducted by Cornucopia, 56% of the apple growers who responded do not use antibiotics. Some of those orchardists have been growing organic apples for 20 years or more. The survey results clearly indicated that antibiotics are not essential for organic apple production.

Conversations with orchardists verified that fire blight in apples can be controlled without antibiotics, although they admitted that it was more challenging, and sometimes more expensive. Pears, however, being naturally more susceptible to fire blight than apples, may need antibiotics until additional alternatives are available. For example, a new biological control is expected to be available to organic growers soon.

The NOSB Vote
In the weeks prior to the spring NOSB meeting, farmers, consumers, retailers, apple packers, and representatives of consumer groups submitted written comments to the board (Cornucopia’s full technical comment is available for download at www.cornucopia.org). Then these stakeholders traveled to Portland to voice their concerns in person.

The day before the meeting, board members took a private tour through organic orchards to learn the farmer’s perspective on antibiotic use. The next day, NOSB chair Mac Stone opened the public meeting on a positive note by encouraging the board and the audience to remain “organic friends” even when we hold different opinions.

At the meeting, instead of fighting, board members heard from a panel of experts, listened to comments from diverse stakeholders, and asked numerous questions to better understand all sides of the issue.

One member of the panel, Dr. J. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, was clear in his opposition to the use of antibiotics in agriculture. He explained the threat that human pathogens will develop resistance to streptomycin and tetracycline, rendering these ineffective as human medicines.

Apple and pear growers issued dire predictions of what might happen if antibiotics were prohibited: organic orchardists could lose their trees to fire blight, they warned, or else convert to conventional production. In reality, some orchardists may decide to spray antibiotics and convert to conventional production, but they always have the opportunity to transition back into organic production—and if this new rule causes the market to tighten up they will have financial incentives to do so.

Retailers predicted that there would be a shortage of apples in the U.S., and that the only organic apples would be the mealy and tasteless varieties that are resistant to fire blight.

In reality, many popular varieties of apples, pears, and Asian pears are being grown without antibiotics, because orchardists who wish to export apples and pears to Europe must verify that they have not used antibiotics in the previous three years. European regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics on all crops.

In Washington State in 2012, crops in the European program included Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, and Pink Lady apples, and Bartlett, Bosc, and D’Anjou pears. Clearly, orchardists are able to grow popular apple varieties without antibiotics, if the market demands it. Selling these U.S.-grown apples in the domestic market can minimize a shortage.

Consumer groups voiced concerns about what might happen if antibiotics continue to be allowed to be used on organic apples and pears. Retail customers might decide not to purchase organic apples, they warned, and the fallout might injure the reputation of the organic label more globally.

Throughout the meeting, board members listened closely and asked many questions of the speakers. The vote was scheduled at the end of the three-day meeting.

Once again, board chair Mac Stone encouraged a rational discussion, as he asked each NOSB member to share his or her personal thoughts on this vote. As a result, we did not see the predicted food fight; we saw a thoughtful exchange of ideas and a careful weighing of the competing demands of farmers, consumers, and medical experts. We witnessed how difficult it was for NOSB members to make this decision, knowing that some people might be adversely affected.

At the end of this deliberation, the board voted to phase out tetracycline, meaning its use will be prohibited after October 21, 2014. Nine board members voted yes, to extend the expiration date, and six members voted no, to allow the use of tetracycline to expire in 2014. By law, a two-thirds vote is required to place or maintain any synthetic material on the list of approved substances.

The NOSB also asked the USDA’s National Organic Program to investigate its authority to allow the emergency use of tetracycline for fire blight for a limited time after 2014.

During a break in the meeting, after listening to passionate pleas from both sides of the aisle, I made a point of talking to board member Harold Austin, Director of Orchard Administration at Zirkle Fruit Company in Washington State. Although we had opposing views on this important issue, I knew, because I’ve conducted organic inspections on his orchards, that he is committed to upholding organic principles. I asked him, “After this meeting, can we still be ‘organic friends’?”

“Always,” he replied, and held out his hand to shake mine.

My hope for the future is that the organic community can continue to work together to maintain the integrity of the organic label, freely expressing divergent opinions while respecting each other as colleagues and, yes, friends.

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