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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