New ruling will end antibiotic use for organic fruit
For generations, apple and pear growers in the United States have been dependent on a small number of antibiotics applied during bloom time to protect trees from infection by a destructive and costly bacterial disease known as fire blight. Despite effectiveness in the field, however, antibiotic use in plant agriculture has become part of the discussion of increasing human drug resistance concerns.
In fact, a new regulation will eliminate the use of antibiotics in organic apple and pear production beginning this fall. The controversial decision was made by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) after urgings from consumer and environmental advocates, who cited mounting evidence that antibiotic resistance is a serious health threat. The ruling also marks the end of antibiotic use in all organic food production, including livestock.
David Epstein, a former Michigan State University (MSU) entomologist who has worked closely with the fruit industry and is now with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said the recent NOSB decision may dampen fruit grower interest in organic production.
“I’ve already heard from a number of organic growers in Michigan who told me that they will stop producing organically if they can’t protect their trees [from fire blight] because of a lack of effective organic treatment options,” Epstein said. “Antibiotic use in tree fruit orchards is relatively minor, occurring early in the season and only when necessary, not prophylactically. Many growers believe that antibiotic use in apple and pear production is generally misunderstood.”
The new regulation has unquestionably added pressure to find workable fire blight control alternatives, not just for the organic industry but for conventional fruit growers as well.
The Problem At Hand: Fire blight
Fire blight is caused by the bacterial pathogen Erwinia amylovora (E. amylovora), which infects the flowers of blooming apple and pear trees. It can quickly spread into the branches and ultimately kill the tree and sometimes entire orchard blocks. Signs of infection include cankers, which ooze sticky amber-colored droplets, each containing millions of bacterial cells onto the shoots and leaves, and branches of dry, brown, curled leaves in the shape of a shepherd’s crook. It is a serious problem worldwide, particularly in wet, humid climates such as Michigan, where a fire blight epidemic in 2000 killed 400,000 apple trees and caused $42 million in damages.
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