This is my 18th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.
While browsing the web the other day I came across a label with the following message. “100% Organic, complete with pest inside.” After the initial amusement I started to think critically about this slogan as this is an issue that is of concern to organic farmers.
Most consumers have an adverse reaction to opening a packet of leaves to find a little green caterpillar climbing up one of them. Those in the know smile and say its proof the leaves were grown organically. Well, this is certainly true. Organic farmers use no pesticides and only in dire situations can they use natural control substances with permission from a certifying body. A healthy organic field is far from a sterile place. It teems with life, both in the soil and on the plants. Ideally it should be as close to a balance as possible. The beneficial insects should be balanced with the pests and the beneficial fungi should be balanced against the pathogenic fungi. This balance is achieved by not spraying with poisonous chemicals but by rather relying on the natural balances of a healthy ecosystem.
I had a visitor once who was well acquainted with conventional farming operations. While passing through the mangtout pea beds I picked and offered her a sample. She was hesitant, and enquired whether it was safe. I was taken aback as I had never given this practice a second thought. But yes, I would never eat a pea from a conventional field without washing it well. Even then, knowing the nature of plant tissue, I would be wary. The surface of a leaf or fruit is not smooth and washable. It is virtually impossible to remove a chemical spray. A leaf from an organic field is safe. It should not have any chemicals or pathogenic organisms like e-coli contaminating it. However it will be possible to have a ladybird walking on it, and if we have a ladybird we will have aphids, the ladybirds natural prey. If the plants are healthy, as they should be in an organic field, we will not have too many aphids or too many ladybirds. But it is still very possible to have one of them on your lettuce leaf.
When we pack lettuce leaves on an organic farm we wash them in clean water, free from pathogens and chemicals. We are vigilant for any bugs that might be on the leaves. But, yes every now and again one might get through. Conventional farms use biocides to clean leaves before packaging. This leaves residues in the pores and stomata on the leaves, and these residues end up in your body.
The above slogan is correct in that a healthy living bug on your lettuce leaf is indeed an indicator of it being chemical free, however it does not necessarily mean it may be a pest. It could just as easily be a beneficial such as a ladybird. However lets give in to poetic license.
What situation would you prefer? The possibility of a pest inside your packet or the certainty of a pesticide in your lettuce leaf.