A decision by the National Organic Standards Board not to extend use of a key antibiotic to control fireblight in organic fruit production represents a loss for both producers and consumers, says Harold Austin, an NOSB board member.
The antibiotic oxytetracyline will no longer be approved for use on organic apples or pears after October 21, 2014. Fireblight is a highly contagious bacterial disease that kills tree limbs, turning them brown as if scorched by fire. If uncontrolled, the disease can kill trees.
At their meeting in Portland, Oregon, in early April, board members considered a petition from the tree fruit industry to extend its use for another two years. Nine of the 15 board members voted in favor—one short of the two-thirds majority needed.
“I was extremely disappointed that the board has failed the organic community,” Austin told Good Fruit Grower after the meeting. “I felt we had a great opportunity to bring all of the stakeholders—consumers, environmentalists, and growers—together to find a point of commonality we could agree on.”
Austin, who is director of orchard administration for Zirkle Fruit Company, Selah, Washington, said the main concern of consumer advocates, who were well represented at the meeting, seemed to be the potential for the use of antibiotics in tree fruit production to increase resistance to antibiotics in humans.
“I really felt that we let down the organic consumers because, at some point of time, this is going to take organic fruit out of production and off the shelves,” he said.
Growers will be able to use the antibiotic for the next two growing seasons but will need alternatives in 2015. The only other antibiotic available for use in tree fruit production, streptomycin, comes up for review at the NOSB’s meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, this fall, and Austin said there’s no reason to think the outcome will be different.
Before the Portland meeting, the NOSB had received 100,000 written comments from consumers and advocacy groups who were opposed to the extension versus a couple of hundred of comments from people in favor, he estimated.
Dr. Deborah Carter, technical issues manager at the Northwest Horticultural Council, who also attended the meeting, said consumer advocate groups orchestrated opposition to the petition.
For example, the Organic Consumers Association states on its Web site: “You may not be aware of it, but every time you bite into that crisp, organic apple or succulent, organic pear, you could be exposing yourself to two different antibiotic drugs that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board has quietly allowed to be used on these two fruits since the organic program’s inception back in the 1990s.”
David Granatstein, Washington State University sustainable agriculture specialist, said the implication that the antibiotics are on all apples and pears is blatantly untrue. First, it would be fairly unusual for a grower to use both antibiotics, and statistics show that over the past decade only about 10 percent of the apple acreage in the country was treated with an antibiotic at all. The materials are usually applied during bloom—before there are fruit on the trees—and they break down quickly in the environment.
At the meeting, he presented results of tests showing that fruit from treated trees had no residues of antibiotics at harvest.
Granatstein said he has no fundamental disagreement with phasing out antibiotics, but he believes they should be allowed until research on alternatives has been completed. Dr. Ken Johnson, plant pathologist at Oregon State University, is leading a multistate project to develop an integrated fireblight management program without antibiotics, but it won’t be completed in 2015.
“It’s bad timing,” he said. “That’s what we objected to. What are they basing these decisions on—other than some people want it gone yesterday?”
He thinks oxytetracycline should have been made available until the research was complete, the results written up, and some guidelines were developed for growers to use. In addition, the new products need to be registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approved for organic use, and made available in sufficient quantities by the manufacturer. Last year, for example, there was only enough Blossom Protect (Aureobasidium pullulans) available to treat 2,000 acres. And then they need to be tested by the growers when conditions are conducive to fireblight.
“It takes time,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in two years.”
Tim Smith, WashingtonState University extension educator, said the industry doesn’t have much experience with the alternatives available, and a promising copper material is a year or two away from registration.
The impact of losing the antibiotics won’t be immediate and won’t affect all growers. Only orchardists who have the fireblight pathogen in their neighborhood when the weather is conducive to the disease need to apply a control. The impacts are likely to be felt less in the Pacific Northwest than in other growing regions where the weather is more humid, there is more fireblight in the environment, and there are more alternative hosts, he said.
“I would not be tearing out my organic orchard in the Pacific Northwest because of this issue. I think we’ll be fine. We will have to be on our toes a little bit more because we can’t wait for infection conditions to occur and then do something about it.
“We have hope that we’ll have alternative products that we’ve been working with that, if used at the appropriate time, will do the job. We’re not ready to hang out the flags and say, ‘We’ve succeeded,’ but we’re making really good progress.”
Considering that the meeting was held in Portland—within driving distance of the Hood River, Yakima, and Wenatchee fruit-growing districts—Austin felt that the industry could have been better represented.
Just the beginning
“I really feel this is just the beginning of the process, and we, as organic stakeholders, really need to pay attention to the proposals that come from the NOSB in the future,” he said.
“I’m glad that I’m there to represent our industry and our stakeholders, and I’ll continue to do everything within my ability to represent them,” he added. “The challenge going forward is how to present the information in a fair and balanced way. We see things being presented that are very dramatic and emotional to try to capture attention, but those types of presentations and antics don’t do us much good. We really need a calm, pragmatic approach to the process and the presentations.
“We’re all in this to see that the organic industry is there long term, and we have to realize that decisions we make as individuals have long-lasting impacts on people’s lives and the entire industry.”