New organic restrictions mean challenges for apple growers

For apple growers, there are many diseases that can impact the quality of a crop and the health of an orchard. One of the toughest adversaries of all is a contagious, bacterial pathogen that can wipe out entire orchards in a single season: fire blight.

Fire blight is particularly destructive as it can damage trees directly, not just the fruit. The symptom list is long and grim, and includes leaves turning black (pictured), “scorched” appearance, cankers and dark, shriveled fruit.

Obviously, growers need access to effective tools to combat this menace, and even organic growers have relied on antibiotic sprays for prevention. That is, until recently.Fire Blight

This past May, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted against the use of streptomycin, which comes just a few months after deciding to discontinue the use of another antibiotic treatment, tetracycline (both will be phased out in Oct. 2014). These antibiotics represent two of the most widely used orchard management tools over the past 30 years.

So why did the NOSB remove them? Well, it turns out organic consumers generally aren’t big fans of the use of antibiotic sprays in apple orchards (note: just blossoms are sprayed, not the fruit itself), nor are most consumers even aware antibiotic use is permitted in organic production.

For growers, it’s a dire blow. One article examining the phase-out highlights an organic grower who lost around 80% of his trees in a 2012 fire blight attack, and this is far from an isolated case.

Unfortunately for those who want to keep growing organic, there are few attractive alternatives. The most well-known is copper sulfate (an inorganic salt permitted in organic production), though its use can damage fruit appearance  and cause a toxic buildup of copper in the soil, among many other drawbacks.

As a result, some growers are planning to pass on organic certification going forward (one poll suggests up to 70%!), preferring to continue utilizing antibiotic sprays rather than risk the potential devastation fire blight can bring.

Fire blight resistance in apples, which can be accomplished with the aid of biotechnology, could be the ideal solution to one of the industry’s biggest problems. While organic regulations currently don’t allow the use of biotech crops, those restrictions are self-imposed. Considering the number of organic growers who may give up certification due to lack of alternative options, who knows what the future will hold?

About Joel Brooks

Growing up in the Okanagan, Joel had the opportunity to experience apple growing first hand, a background that lead him to his role as Product & Special Projects Manager. Joel feels privileged to work with such great people towards a goal that’s so easy to get behind – helping people to eat more apples.

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