The environmental implications of non-organic cranberries are significant. In the best of conditions, cranberry growing is taxing on the land and the features required for a successful growing season and plentiful harvest. Throughout the season, cranberries require a lot of fresh water, a significantly large source of sand and land that has level topography and the ability to hold large amounts of water.
The amount of water used in Cranberry growing and how it is used are perhaps the biggest issues when it comes to environmental impact concerns. Massive amounts of water are needed throughout the growing season, both in the fall during harvest time and the spring and summer for irrigation. During the harvest, the water is released in huge amounts and local streams and rivers can become overwhelmed by the massive runoff. If the cranberry growers are using agricultural methods that involve fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides, these runoffs of water can also be tainted with the harmful chemicals and distribute them far and wide. In Wisconsin, growers’ rights are still protected by the archaic Cranberry Law from 1867 which “exempts [them] from being required to obtain permits before physically altering lakes and streams by setting up irrigation systems, ditches and dams.”
In Washington State, 70% of cranberries are drying harvested and 30% are wet harvested. The Department of Ecology did a study in 1996 of Graylands’ cranberry growers and the environmental impact of their methods on the surrounding area. The samples they gathered from the Grayland ditch showed alarmingly high levels of pesticides and the levels of insecticides were 100 times higher than what is safely allowed. The chemicals were drifting into the ditch from the cranberry bogs when applied by the irrigation sprinklers. The following better management practices were suggested to help reduce pollution: 1) that the ditch be both lined and covered to prevent overspray and drifting and; 2) that the pesticides are allowed to degrade naturally in the bog before they were discharged into the ditch. By 2008, the Department of Ecology reported that “concentrations for the most problematic pesticides (diazinon and chlorpyriphos) were reduced by 96 percent in just two years and that 95 percent of the cranberry growers [were] now using at least one BMP, (better management practice) for pesticide pollution prevention.”
According to the GRACE Communication Foundation, the most recent data from the USDA Pesticide Data Program is from 2006 and found alarmingly high levels of pesticide residue on tested cranberries. They found “13 pesticide residues including three known or probable carcinogens, six suspected hormone disruptors, five neurotoxins, one developmental or reproductive toxin and six honeybee toxins.” It would seem that even if the water issues surrounding cranberry growing are not a big enough hurdle, there is certainly a case for concern when it comes to overall pesticide usage and residues.
One of the greatest hurdles to making cranberry growing less conventionally intensive with harmful chemicals like pesticides and insecticides is the lack of opportunity for organic growers to sell their product. Ocean Spray Cooperative owns a whopping 95% of the cranberry market and does not have an organic line of produce. There is currently only one Organic Cranberry farm in Washington State. There is a huge market for cranberries with over 90% of the annual crop being processed into juices, sauces and other food products, but the availability of organic buyers does not exist.
The benefits of Organic Cranberries extend far beyond the holiday season and it is good that the option to support local by purchasing a Washington crop if it exists. It would be positive to see more availability of organic options and less of the market share monopolized by a single cooperative.
Sources: 1) https://www.ipmcenters.org/cropprofiles/docs/wacranberries.pdf