Ask Evan: What’s the Difference Between Organic and Pesticide Free?

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askevan_header_2Every Tuesday I answer a question from a Good Food listener.  You can email me a question, leave one on Facebook or add one in the comments section here.  Today’s question comes from Lizeth:

What is the difference between organic and pesticide-free? Every time I go to the farmer’s market, I leave more confused than ever. Especially with all of the scandals going on. Is it something to do with the soil?

IMG_4222I first reached out to Laura Avery, the Market Manager for the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market and the host of Good Food’s Market Report.  She emailed me the following:

“Federal legislation that was passed in the 2002 Farm Bill requires mandatory inspection by a third party certifying agency to determine whether produce is being grown “organically.”  Without Organic Certification, produce may not be referred to as “Organic.”  The National Organic Standards (NOS) also require that paperwork on all farming practices be kept for three years.  Growers who grow less than $5,000 per year are exempt from NOS labeling and paperwork requirements and may refer to their produce as “organic” – however there are no farmers in the farmers market system who sell such a small amount of produce annually.

When the Federal legislation was passed, some farmers disliked the idea of being forced to pay to use a term that described how they grew their crops, so they chose not to become Certified Organic, although they were practicing organic farming methods.  These farmers may refer to their crops as “natural” or “pesticide free” and they can even say that they use “organic fertilizer” for example.

Then there are other farmers who choose not to use synthetic pesticides or herbicides but who use synthetic fertilizer – nitrogen being the most common –  so they can accurately claim that they are “pesticide free” but are not Certified Organic.  But there are lots of organic pesticides, so “pesticide free” is a pretty useless and misleading term unless everyone understands exactly what it means.

The Santa Monica Farmers Markets require that farmers fill out a “Growing Practices Information “ form on which they list all of the inputs they use for pest and weed control as well as increasing soil fertility.  While we do not conduct independent reviews of their stated growing practices, we are able, on a complaint basis, to verify accuracy. If farmers have made inaccurate or false claims, they are subject to penalties.”

Here’s a really interesting article from the LA Times Food section editor Russ Parsons about organic food.  Russ also talked about it on Good Food.