Surprise: Antibiotics Are Allowed in Organic Apple and Pear Farming

Jack Jones (who asked that his real name not be used) takes care of a small organic pear orchard for a farmer south of the San Francisco Bay Area. This spring, as the trees have begun to blossom, he’s been spraying them with a small amount of the antibiotic tetracycline to prevent a disease called fire blight.

Last year, when the perfect storm of warm, wet air first brought the bacteria to the farm, he tried removing infected branches and getting rid of cover crops, which were providing nitrogen that fed the disease. But to no avail—the disease had established itself in the trunks.

“It just devastated the orchard. We lost 80 percent of our trees in one season,” he recalls.

About half of the remaining 90 trees were a variety called Warren, which is immune to fire blight. For the rest, he decided to spray the tetracycline as a preventative measure, and is replanting the rest of the orchard with other varieties that are resistant to the disease.

It may shock you to discover that antibiotic use in organic apple and pear orchards is routine. In fact, tetracycline has been on the national list of synthetic production materials allowed in organic farming since the mid-’90s. Even so, antibiotic use in fruit production has largely gone unnoticed by the public, until now. With more focus on the larger issue of antibiotics in animal production—which accounts for nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics sold every year in the U.S.—a growing number of consumer advocates are sounding the alarm.

The growth in public awareness coincides with internal debate about the future of antibiotic use in organic orchards. Ahead of The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) (the decision-making body behind the federal organic standards) meeting this week in Portland, Oregon, where members will discuss just how much longer farmers like Jones can continue routine use of antibiotics like tetracycline or streptomycin to control fire blight, several issues remain unresolved.

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UPDATE: On April 12, 2013, ABC News announced that the National Organic Standards Board will not allow growers to use tetracycline past October, 21, 2014.

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Twilight Greenaway

Twilight Greenaway is the senior editor at Civil Eats and its former managing editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times,, The Guardian, TakePart, Modern Farmer, Gastronomica and on Grist, where she served as the food editor from 2011-2012. See more at Read more >

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  1. Justine
    How could organic farming have disease in the first place? I thought organic was always disease free and if you ate organic you will be 100% healthy. Why am I paying 2X price for organic food if it is not healthy? No more organic for my family. My husband keeps telling me I am wasting our grocery money on organic and it makes me so mad to admit he was right all along.
  2. Agirl
    Justine, it's not a waste of money. It sucks that it is pricier. But buying from a local organic farmer you know can ensure that you are not buying organic produce with antibiotics (and usually your farmers market is less than the grocery store). Or research the company. Eating organic doesn't ensure you are 100% healthy. It's supposed to mean you are not eating foods with harmful chemicals on it or GMO foods. But you can also buy unhealthy processed foods even if they are organic. Nothing can ensure you are 100% healthy. But buying organic can help push you in the right direction. The harmful chemicals they use in convectional farming are far more horrendous than even the antibiotics they are using in this 1 article. I used to fruit pick in conventional farms and would have to cover my face and body to avoid contact with the pesticides they were using. I would have wild allergic reactions, break out in rash and get migraines. It was horrible. This wasn't just me, this was everyone I worked with on many different farms. If these pesticides cause this type of reaction on the surface, can you imagine what they do inside of our bodies? Additionally, inorganic foods and produce are often injected with synthetic nutrients which our body doesn't process well, if at all. With organic foods you have a chance to give your body natural nutrients from the soil it is grown in. Like I said earlier, find a local organic farmer that you can get a chance to know. Many, will let you pick your own produce. Ask him/her about the nutrient level in his soil to ensure you and your family are getting what your body needs. And avoid foods from a box as much as possible, even if they are organic.

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