There is a distinct lack of nuance when it comes to conversations about politics, taxes and … organic agriculture. But even more distressingly, there is a distinct lack of basic consumer comprehension.

It seems like everyone has an opinion, and even on a recent weekend getaway, I couldn’t escape the increasingly incessant chatter about the relative merits of the organic movement.

“Which of these Napa Chards is organic?” a slim 40-ish woman asked our bartender. “I don’t like drinking pesticides,” she said solemnly.

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Who does?

“I’m not sure, actually,” the bartender replied. “I don’t put much stock in the organic label myself.”

My jaw hung open at this display of carefully cultivated cluelessness, not to mention sassiness – at a farm-to-table in horsey, high-flying Saratoga, no less. I left the restaurant in a fog that night, and it had little to do with the bottle of Burgundy Pinot Noir my mother and I split. On the walk back to our hotel, we debated whether the deep analysis of even the smallest purchasing choice was a modern necessity in the age of globalization or just a major bummer.

The bartender’s refusal to engage threw me too – I couldn’t decide if it was deeply thought out and considered or just tossed off. I decided to investigate, ferreting out academic studies of synthetic and natural pesticides and then reaching out to farmers, academics and winemakers to learn more about why (and if) buying organic really matters.

What I found was hardly the Easy Road To Sustainable Juice I was hoping to discover – idyllic images of free-range farming this story is not.

A free-range chicken wandering through an organic vineyard.

A lot of the buzz and imagery about organics appears to be just that – empty sound bites and gimmicks created by folks eager to cash in on the increasingly lucrative organic market. Where does that leave us? Not in an easy place.

Falling for marketers’ ploys is practically a full-time occupation in America (I’m not the only one who’s bought multiple cartons of fat-free ice cream hoping, this time, to finally find “creamy fat-free vanilla bliss” right?). Consumers’ perception of what organic agriculture is vs. the reality, and the halo of virtue with which it is bequeathed (and conventional agriculture’s implicit pair of devil’s horns) is, arguably, one of the biggest boondoggles in our culture today. More than half of Americans (55%) go organic because they believe it’s healthier. Meanwhile, there is really no evidence to back that assumption up. And even organic farmers use pesticides (sorry random lady at the bar). They just happen to be “natural.”

It’s never been a better time for organic marketers and companies. The market for organic food and beverages worldwide was estimated to be $80.4 billion in 2013 and is set to reach $161.5 billion in 2018, a compound annual growth rate of 15% per year. North America has the biggest market share, and will be responsible for roughly $66.2 billion by 2018.

But in the rush to get organic products out the door (and fulfill the public’s desire for healthier, more environmentally responsible products), some producers are often doing little more than following the letter of the USDA law to earn the “organic” label, consequences to the environment and our overall health be damned. In fact, from what producers and studies revealed, it may actually be worse for the environment and your body to buy organic wine from a large manufacturer instead of buying wine produced from grapes on a smaller vineyard sprayed judiciously with synthetic pesticides by a hands-on farmer.

But small-scale, sustainable wineries don’t have the advertising budget, and in some cases, the national distribution power of Big Wine, to disseminate that information. So instead of sipping on a delicate, sustainably produced Viognier from a winery in Texas Hill Country, we are more likely to be guzzling one of the Big Six of Big Wine (E&J Gallo, The Wine Group, Constellation Wines, Bronco, Trinchero Family Estates and Treasury), responsible for about 60% of the wine made in the U.S. The top 30 brands are responsible for 90%.

Machine spraying in a vineyard.

“Fundamentally, grape growing is agriculture and agriculture is a science,” a winemaker for a medium-sized winery in Sonoma, California, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells VinePair. “Unless you have knowledge or experience in agriculture, it will be difficult to understand what exactly goes on in a vineyard. Even winemakers only tangentially deal with grape growing — enology and viticulture are complementary, yet two separate, very different disciplines. As far as the consumer goes, there exists a range of opinions of what ’organic’ vs. conventional really means which causes confusion with the foods we buy, let alone with agricultural practices. Again, without reading the section 205 of the NOP (National Organic Program), there will be continued misconstruction of the term ‘organic.’”

Since she’s correct, we’re not going to do that, let’s break down the basics, shall we?

Plants naturally evolve mechanisms that ward off predators; some are physical (like thorns), while others are chemical. (Pears, for example, have extremely high doses of naturally occurring formaldehyde, as do dried shiitake mushrooms. For a partial list of formaldehyde levels in plants, go here.)

Layla Katiraee, who has a PhD in molecular genetics, recently wrote a piece that explains the gap in consumer perception and facts and the disparate impact of natural pesticides and synthetic pesticides for the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit created to separate science from ideology.

Natural pesticides have been linked to cancer in animals in the studies that have been conducted – but only a small percentage of natural pesticides have been examined in a systematic way.

As she points out, more is known about the effects of synthetic pesticides than natural ones. Natural pesticides have been linked to cancer in animals in the studies that have been conducted – but only a small percentage of natural pesticides have been examined in a systematic way.

She writes: “While there’s an uproar about parts per billion amounts of synthetic pesticide residues on our food, there are more concentrated compounds in fruits and veggies actually known to cause cancer. In addition, some of the more commonly used pesticides in agriculture have mechanisms of action that are specific to the pests they’re targeting, making them far safer than many natural pesticides, which is one reason why they’ve gained popularity in the past half century.”

Perhaps more significantly, synthetic pesticides generally target specific biochemical pathways in particular pests, whereas many of the “natural chemicals” found in plants – like solanine, prevalent in potatoes and nicotine, prevalent in the nightshade family, can be toxic to humans and “most herbivores,” respectively. And we’re talking about naturally occurring chemicals inherent to plants we regularly consume – remember, organic farmers (including grape-growers) spritz their commodities with additional lashings of “natural” pesticides too.

The discussion of “natural” pesticides most frequently comes back to copper, an agent that is widely utilized and considered safe. However, studies of viticulturists who worked with sulfur and copper have shown that it too is not a perfect “natural” pesticide as it contributes to skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation. Chronic exposure to copper sulfate and lime can often cause what is known as “vineyard sprayer’s lung.”

Vineyard workers using copper sulfate in 1920s Hungary.
Vineyard workers using copper sulfate in 1920s Hungary.

When it comes down to it, a substance’s efficacy and toxicity depends on the size of the dose. Synthetic pesticides, natural chemicals innate to various plants and natural pesticides may be equally harmful or harmless.

Still, there’s no doubt about it: the excessive use of synthetic pesticides is a danger to our soil, our bodies and even our brains. Synthetic pesticides are go-tos in conventional agriculture because they’re cheap and they work.

The overuse of synthetic pesticides in industrial agriculture is surely something that any responsible farmer or consumer would want to end. But simply utilizing “natural” pesticides isn’t always an option.

In California, where the industrial farming of strawberries is a key sector of the economy – more than 630 million pounds are grown annually in Ventura County alone! – fumigants are used. Studies have linked fumigants to cancer, neurodevelopmental abnormalities and several other chronic health issues, and it’s not just the farmers themselves who are being affected. The fumigants used in strawberry farming are among the most likely to cause harm to surrounding communities when they drift through the air. According to a heart-wrenching report in The Nation, tens of thousands of students at schools are within drifting distance of the strawberry farms.

Recently, there have been reports that excessive use of synthetic pesticides in vineyards has sickened vineyard workers in California and children near a vineyard in Bordeaux.

The overuse of synthetic pesticides in industrial agriculture is surely something that any responsible farmer or consumer would want to end. But simply utilizing “natural” pesticides isn’t always an option.

“The most sustainable, responsible practices are different from state to state and even from region to region within a state,” Tim Martinson, Cornell University’s statewide viticulture extension educator, says. “If you want to put ‘organic’ on your label as a winemaker, there are a certain set of standards set by the USDA that you must follow. There are a list of approved organic insecticides that you can use, but because of differences in climate, what works in one region most certainly does not work in another.”

In California, it’s much easier to grow organic grapes than other regions in the country, especially east of the Rockies, Mr. Martinson says.

“In New York the weather works against us and we have black rot and downy mildew, the Achilles heel of growing organically,” Mr. Martinson says. “There’s no way to combat it naturally. Even if you go out and spray copper on each leaf individually, you may still get it. Organic growers here have to go out and examine every leaf and hand-pick any diseased leaf off before it spreads.”

But even for regions where organic grape-growing is less of a Sisyphean prospect, true sustainability is illusive.

While several apparently non-partisan academic studies have been conducted that have linked organic sprays in vineyards in Europe, Australia and elsewhere to environmental and toxicological risks and so called “sublethal” effects (“(i.e., inhibit growth, affect reproduction, induce avoidance behavior”) for other plants and animals, they have not been dumbed-down sufficiently for the layperson (at least this layperson) to really understand the implications of their use, and make responsible wine-buying choices in response.

A key take-away of these studies for all sustainably minded oenophiles: even organic sprays allowed by the USDA are utilized by farmers to ward off pests because … they’re toxic, to the pests they’re targeting and sometimes, over time, to other plants and animals.

Spraying in an organic vineyard.

One winemaker in New York, Matt Spaccarelli of Benmarl, a highly respected small-batch winery, is devoted to sustainable wine-growing and production practices. Just not in the way one might expect.

“We stick to a strict IPM [integrated pest management] system,” Mr. Spaccarelli explains. “We try to do as much as we can with our hands and avoid conventional sprays. We stopped using herbicide completely for a few years and the vines didn’t like that too much. We got a herd of sheep and bring them into the vineyard to intensively graze for a short time and spray only when necessary. We work with Cornell on managing our pests as much as we can without spraying, we monitor the weather, we know how long the leaves have been wet and what the humidity levels are, so we can make the best spraying decisions possible. We don’t use organic copper sprays because we’d have to use way more than I feel comfortable using to make an impact. It’s a heavy metal and sheep are sensitive to it.”

If Mr. Spaccarelli has observed, first-hand, sensitivity in sheep to copper, what does that mean for the rest of us? It has certainly made me hesitate to reach for organically produced wines east of the Rockies.

The wet weather in the Northeast especially necessitates some synthetic spraying, even at green family vineyards like Benmarl to prevent rot or mildew in even the most micromanaged vineyards.

Few large-scale vineyards have the ability to organize a herd of foraging sheep, and for the casual drinker who wants a go-to bottle of wine they can grab from a shelf in Duluth or Delaware, the options are a bit more limited.

Sheep in an organic vineyard in New Zealand.

Like any farm-to-table fanatic will tell you, the simplest rule of thumb in responsible consumption is generally, smaller is better. I mean, it’s possible (and cheap!) to buy organic products in Wal-Mart, but is it responsible? Just as large-scale organic farms have been shown to be as bad for animal welfare and the environment as Big Food Baddies are portrayed to be, large-scale vineyards are more likely to overspray, sicken workers and pollute groundwater with irresponsible practices.

So what is a consumer to do? Sure the best bet may be buying from small producers with great track records, but just like we don’t want to and can’t always buy seasonal, humanely produced food from farm stands wherever we are – sometimes I want foie gras, or asparagus in January, damn it! – sometimes we are all going to want a specific, noble grape varietal from a country with lax environmental regulations.

Mr. Martinson says the way forward in general – when we’re not content sipping our favorite biodynamically produced wine from a family of vintners a stone’s throw away – is being open to new, lesser-known varieties and hybrids.

Millennials may be the tipping point in the trend toward more sustainably produced wines.

“Our grape breeder here at Cornell, Bruce Reisch, has developed some amazing new varieties that are resistant to black rot and other pests endemic to our region,” Mr. Martinson says. “My favorite is Arandell, which we have been growing for six years organically without having to spray it with copper or anything else. We run into problems with the consumer, though that seems to changing. People are often afraid to try a wine with a label featuring a grape they’ve never heard of. But once they taste it, they love it. The classic grape varieties that are native to Europe just don’t thrive as well here, because they evolved without the pests we have in the States.”

Millennials may be the tipping point in the trend toward more sustainably produced wines. According to studies from the Wine Market Council, in addition to drinking a lot of wine (they are responsible for 27% of wine consumed in the U.S., second only to Baby Boomers at 41.4%), they are more likely to utilize social media when learning about wine, they’re willing to embrace smaller wineries with an interesting story behind them and they’re game to try weird new hybrid varietals that they’re parents spurn.

Forget the organic Napa Chards. A glass of Aromella sounds really good right now. Someone should tell that random lady at the bar, organic seal be damned – I bet she’d love to try it.