Gardeners may choose organic growing techniques for several reasons. Some do so because they believe organic gardens and landscapes are better for their health and the health of their families. Others grow organically because they believe this practice is better for the environment. And some gardeners believe organic gardens are more productive and beautiful.

I grow organically for all these reasons and because, when I do so, I become part of the legacy of people who honor the health of the Earth and all its inhabitants by using growing techniques that are safe and sustainable over the long term.

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Probably the main reason why many people garden organically is to provide their families with safe, wholesome food and a toxin-free environment. Many gardeners believe that organically grown foods taste better, and recent studies show that organically grown foods may have higher nutrient levels than their conventionally grown counterparts. Organic growers also steer clear of genetically modified plants, the health risks of which are still unclear.

When it comes to health and safety, pesticides pose the greatest concern in gardening. Americans use about 4.5 billion pounds of pesticides each year in yards, gardens, homes, farms, and industry, about 1 billion pounds of which are synthetic pesticides. Despite a complex system of rules, regulations, and labeling requirements, thousands of people suffer acute pesticide poison-ing each year. Like most gardeners, organic growers may occasionally need to use pesticides, but they choose them carefully, opting for the least-toxic organic sprays as a last resort — only after other control measures have failed.

Many people assume that organic means nontoxic, but that’s not really correct. Some commonly accepted organic pesticides are, strictly speaking, more toxic than some synthetic chemical pesticides. But in general, organic pesticides ,which are derived from plant, animal, and mineral sources, tend to be less toxic than synthetic chemical pesticides, which are created from petroleum and other chemical sources. More important, organic pesticides tend to break down quickly into benign substances, whereas synthetic pesticides can linger in the environment for decades.

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Many of the synthetic pesticides used today belong to a group of chemical compounds called organophosphates. They’re used to control insect pests on fruits and vegetables, to combat termites, and to control fleas and ticks on pets. These chemicals work by interfering with the nervous systems of the pests. Unfortunately, organophosphates can also harm the nervous systems of animals and humans. In fact, they are chemically similar to the World War II–era chemical-warfare agent known as nerve gas. In humans, symptoms of overexposure include nausea, headache, convulsions, and (in high doses) death. Diazinon and chlorpyrifos, two recently banned pesticides discussed in the sidebar “How unsafe pesticides remain on the market,” fall into this cate-gory. Unfortunately, since diazinon and chlorpyrifos have been phased out, the use of carbaryl, an insecticide that also damages the nervous system, has increased. The EPA classifies this product as a likely human carcinogen.

Despite extensive testing by chemical companies in controlled trials, it’s hard to know exactly what pesticides will do out in the real world. Ponder these statistics: The EPA now considers 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides, and 30 percent of insecticides to be potentially carcinogenic (able to cause cancer). A study conducted by the National Cancer Institute found that farmers exposed to chemical herbicides had a six-times-greater risk of developing cancer than farmers who were not exposed. Scary stuff.

No matter what type of pesticide you’re using — organic or synthetic — you must follow label directions to the letter. Read all warnings, wear recommended protective gear, and use only as instructed. Taking these precautions isn’t just smart, it’s also the law.

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