Brian Leahy has an interesting history. In 1980, he operated a 900-acre organic rice farm in California. In the 1990's, he managed an 800-acre organic corn, soybean, alfalfa and cattle farm in Nebraska. In 2002, he became executive director of the California Cer-tified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Then in 2012, Leahy became the director of the California Depart-ment of Pesticide Regula-tions.
Does that seem a bit strange?
"Pesticides will always be part of modern life," says Leahy in a recent interview with the Alliance for Food and Farming. "I want to show people that you can effectively manage pests by using pesticides as a last resort and choosing ones that are less toxic to people."
Guess he knows what he's talking about. Calif-ornia produces half the vegetables, fruits and nuts in the U.S. The Golden State also has the nation's most comprehensive program to regulate pesticide use.
"Our modern food supply, public health and resource management all rely on pesticides," says Leahy.
Yep, we heard that right.
As scary as the term "pesticide" may sound, it refers to any substance that controls pests such as insects and microbes that can destroy food crops or make us sick.
Even organic farmers use pesticides, says Leahy. Most are derived from microorganisms or other natural sources. Some are synthetically produced - synthesized from a mixture of compounds. And all are approved by the USDA National Organic Program.
Pesticides - those used on organic as well as conventional crops - undergo the same rigorous scientific evaluation by the Environ-mental Protection Agency," says Leahy, "to ensure they will not harm people when used according to label instructions."
But really. Isn't organic … better?
Jon Marthedal, who grows conventional as well as certified organic blueberries in Fresno, Calif., says, "To some extent the operations are very similar. We use fungicides, fertilizers and insecticides in both operations. The big difference is the source of the chemical…when it is certified as organic it has to be a naturally occurring organic compound. And it's interesting because a lot of the chemicals that we use in our conventional operation are really just synthetic versions of the organic compounds that we use in our organic operations."
Soledad, Calif., farmer Rod Braga grows vegetables both organically and conventionally. "I think what people need to understand is that we do use pesticides on organic vegetables," he says. "And the rate at which we use them on the organic crops are actually at a much higher volume and often times more applications than we do on the conventional side. We just wouldn't be able to produce enough crops to feed everybody if we were organically growing and not using any pesticides."
So, is organic healthier than conventionally-grown produce? Remember, say experts with the Alliance for Food and Farming, the term "organic" defines how a food is produced. It does not address quality, safety or nutritional value.
(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)