Inside Organics Blog

Organic farms hurt by pesticide drift lose more than money

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

At the recent National Organic Standards Board meeting, Miles McEvoy, the National Organic Program (NOP) Deputy Administrator, noted during his presentation that the NOP will be releasing new guidance in the coming year on how pesticide drift will be viewed within the NOP regulatory requirements. While many of us might think this is a straightforward topic,
it is not.

Some farmers think that since drift application of a prohibited substance is not the fault of the organic farmer, a farmer-friendly way of approaching this issue would be to allow the final crop to be sold as organic. Others propose that the final crop be tested and if shown to have less than 5% of the EPA allowance for that pesticide, it could be sold as organic.

I would argue that these viewpoints are not the direction the NOP should take when considering guidance on pesticide drift. At the fall 2014 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, my public testimony focused on this topic. I passionately requested that any NOP guidance on this issue be proposed, not final, so the organic community nationwide could provide their opinions on this important issue.

Pesticide drift is handled typically state by state, with various oversight agencies and laws determining responsibility and compensation. Here in the Upper Midwest, most states require pesticide applicators to keep their materials on their side of the property line. The reality is, it’s difficult for organic farmers to receive compensation under the current laws here. Pesticide drift in this area is rampant. We only notice it when it hits an organic farm, though. Non-organic neighboring farms don’t find the drift to be a problem because they’re using the same chemicals.

It is not just organic farmers who suffer from unwanted incursions of toxic materials onto their land—homeowners’ lawns, fruit trees and gardens can be affected, too. These landowners have the right to obtain compensation if their property is damaged. Organic farmers should have the same rights.

In my work for MOSES, I receive numerous calls each year from organic farmers who have suffered from unwanted incursions of toxic agricultural chemicals onto their organic land. In all of these cases, there is no question that pesticide drift has occurred, but there is disagreement on what type of compensation should be given, or if there should be any compensation. The farmer may have to destroy an entire crop due to the fact that an unregistered material was applied to that crop, or may suffer the loss of the organic premium due to the removal of the crop’s organic status. In addition, there is a possibility that the land itself would be decertified from organic production for one, two or three years.

These organic farmers feel they should be reimbursed for their losses. But, it is not just about the loss of their income; they want a financial penalty placed on violators to discourage this problem from occurring to them and other organic farmers in the future.

Beyond this, it is not just about the money. In the Upper Midwest, organic farm fields are an oasis of life in a sea of sterilized or degraded land. The buffer zones and riparian areas around organic fields have diverse plants, shrubs and trees, providing habitat and food sources for threatened amphibians, birds, butterflies, pollinators, and mammalian wildlife. Through organic practices, organic farmers continually improve the critically important soil food web, encouraging a healthy and robust diversity of soil biological life. The incursion of unwanted toxic materials on organic land does more than just hurt the bottom line of the organic farmer; it sets back the progress these farmers are continually making in developing a healthy ecosystem, upon which they rely to produce abundant and healthy crops.

Organic farmers have told me that they can see, to the row, where the drift event occurred numerous years before. The weed species growing in those areas are different and typically more problematic than the areas where there had not been drift. The soil texture is less friable and has less water-holding capacity due to reduced soil biological life. The crop vigor and health is also diminished for more than one year.

In a 2013 pesticide drift case, the Supreme Court of Minnesota took away the rights of an organic certification agency to deny certification of a field and crop that had pesticide drift. In 2014, when drift occurred again on that farm, the certification agency did not decertify that field and crop. The organic farmer is currently appealing that decision to the NOP, stating that they do not feel that the crop nor the field, should be approved as organic. In my experience with farmers who have had a pesticide drift issue, not one of them would welcome the opportunity to sell as organic a crop they know to be grown on contaminated land.

With the continued approval of more types of herbicide-resistant GMO crops, including 2,4-D/glyphosate-resistant corn and soybeans, I believe there will be more, not fewer, instances of drift. We must address this issue. We have a federal law which oversees and promotes the organic label. It should also provide strong and consistent protection nationwide of organic agricultural production.

Organic farmers want the NOP to provide a strong platform from which they can make a case to those who will chemically trespass on their organic land. Economic compensation is the right of the organic farmer. It is unfortunate that organic farmers currently cannot also receive compensation for the pain and suffering caused by seeing the land they have nurtured so carefully be despoiled.

Harriet Behar is an organic farmer and a MOSES Organic Specialist. She serves on state and national committees, providing the organic farmer perspective.

From the January | February 2015 Issue

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