A regulatory ban established by the National Organic Standards Board will take effect against the antibiotic oxytetracycline to treat the potentially devastating disease.
Although the government restriction keeps consumer interests in mind, concern is growing among organic producers about alternative treatment options.
Jessica Shade, director of science programs at the Organic Center, explained that organic farmers may not yet have the tools or knowledge necessary to drop oxytetracycline.
“It’s one of the only things that has really been proven to prevent fire blight. It’s not the only material out there but it’s the one farmers trust the most,” Shade said.
“When farmers are handling trees that they’ve invested thousands of dollars in, they really want to have something they know for sure is going to work when the lives of their trees are at stake. That’s why it has been so widely used up until this point.”
Concern about the pending ban does not, however, stem solely from the fact that farmers currently prefer the agent. As Shade explained, the problem is that many do not know what to do without it.
“One of the researchers who’s working on this project, David Granatstein, did polls throughout Washington State of organic growers and came up with some really frightening numbers that 70-90% of all organic producers might drop out of organic production if there aren’t alternatives available for them,” Shade said.
“It’s not worth it for them to gamble their really expensive trees on organic practices that may put the lives of their trees at risk.”
To ease the blow, the Organic Center is funding research on organic, antibiotic-free management strategies as an alternative to oxytetracycline.
“There are a lot of other [control] options like sanitation, different varieties, ways to thin blossoms, all of these different tried-and-tested methods for fire blight that farmers haven’t had to think about. Since they haven’t had to think about it, it’s not talked about very much and they may not realize there are these alternatives out there,” Shade said.
Through the research, the center will publish a farmer-oriented report on holistic fire blight control. To fully realize the report, the center adds that it is looking for further financial assistance.
“Fire blight could have huge ramifications on the future organic apple and pear market which is estimated to be over $300 million dollars at retail and Washington State currently has over 15,000 acres dedicated to organic apple and pear orchards,” the center said in a media statement.
In the meantime, the center has its fingers crossed for research on new treatment materials.
One facet of research includes work by Dr. Ken Johnson of Oregon State University, scheduled to be complete in 2015. The findings, however, will not come in time for the October 2014 regulation change.
“There are materials in testing right now that are very interesting that are biological controls for fire blight but that testing is not going to be finished for a few years. Then the research won’t be published for another year or so and then it’s got to be tested for a few years before farmers really believe in it enough to adopt it,” Shade said.
“There are materials that are promising and I think those will fit in really well with the protocols that the Organic Center is working on.”