Organic Report: Fire Blight Tools Saved

Editor’s Note: Information for this article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Organic Tree Fruit Association’s “Just Picked” newsletter. Contributors include OTFA members Matt Grieshop (Michigan State University), Jackie Hoch, and Jim Koan, along with Harriet Behar of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) must review and vote on every substance that is petitioned for inclusion, or is currently on, the National List of approved synthetics and prohibited natural products. They have to review every substance for relisting every five years, or else the materials sunset, and are removed from the list.

In April 2011, the organic tree fruit community was faced with the imminent sunset of streptomycin and oxytetracycline from the National List. They are allowed to control fire blight only, which is a serious problem for apple and pear growers. These items are not approved in organic production in the European Union or Canada.

At the heart of the debate was whether there is a detrimental chemical interaction with other materials, and whether there are toxicity concerns. One more issue is the concern of whether there are natural materials or methods available to make these antibiotics unnecessary in an organic orchard system.

The Organic Tree Fruit Association (OTFA) was well represented at an NOSB meeting held on April 25-29, in Seattle, WA. The potential sunsetting of streptomycin and oxytetracycline for fire blight control in organic orchards was one of the most hotly debated topics, along with sodium nitrate for nutrient management, and ethylene for use in fruit ripening.

At the end of the meeting, both streptomycin and oxytetracycline were recommended for a two-year extension (until October 2014) on the condition that a task force would be formed to assess the potential of current fire blight alternatives and the development of new ones. Ethylene was recommended for five years more use, but both sodium nitrate and sulfur dioxide were recommended for removal from the National Organic Program list of approved inputs.

Oxytetracycline was unanimously approved for relisting. Streptomycin was almost lost with a final vote of 10 for and four against its extension — the minimum vote to retain it was 10 votes.

A Major Victory

This constitutes a major victory for organic tree fruit producers and consumers because the removal of antibiotics — streptomycin in particular — without workable alternatives would have likely resulted in the loss of much of the organic acreage in the Eastern U.S. As important as this victory is, an even more important development from this meeting will be the creation of a fire blight task force with membership from the grower, research, industry, and consumer sectors, and representation for all major pome fruit growing regions.

The major purpose of this task force will be to serve as a common ground for the sharing of current regionally appropriate fire blight management strategies, to advocate for more research and extension of organically acceptable fire blight management tactics, and to develop a plan to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of antibiotics for fire blight management. Dr. Matt Grieshop (Michigan State University) and other members of the OTFA will lead the initial development of this task force.

Another major outcome of this meeting is evidence that while seemingly convoluted and complicated, the NOSB process works, but only when growers, consumers, advocates, and academics attend the meetings to provide public comment. Early on in the meeting it was clear that at least half the board was set on the elimination of both of these — unfortunately necessary — synthetic products. To a very large extent this was because they were uninformed on the potential consequences of this action and the peculiarities and management complexities inherent to perennial tree fruit crops and their diseases.

The authors would like to express their profound gratitude to the NOSB crops committee for maintaining an open mind and providing a forum for discussing the consequences of delisting these products. Decisions made by consensus are challenging to come by when such a diverse array of constituents is represented and even more so when the issue is one as complicated as tree fruit management. It is our genuine hope that in addition to the eventual sunsetting of antibiotics, this particular decision will result in stronger relationships with organic tree fruit growers across the U.S. The OTFA should be proud of its role in this debate and stands to play a central role in building the relationships needed to increase the availability of regionally produced organic fruit.

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