Understanding Organic Pesticides

A top reason people choose organic foods is to avoid pesticides, but contrary to what most people believe, “organic” does not necessarily mean “pesticide-free.” Just as both organic and conventional farms come in all sizes—from family farms to large “factory” farms—organic and conventional farms can use pesticides to protect crops from pests, weeds, and disease. What’s different is the origin of the pesticides.

What Are Organic Pesticides? Pesticides allowed for organic food production tend to include natural substances—like soaps, lime sulfur, and hydrogen peroxide—as ingredients or come directly from natural sources. The idea is that pesticides that occur naturally in plants and bacteria are better for the environment. However, some synthetic (manmade) substances are allowed if there’s no organic substitute and the synthetic substance is deemed safe.

Overall, about 25 synthetic products are allowed in organic agriculture, compared with the roughly 900 allowed in conventional agriculture. Generally, natural substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited—examples include arsenic and strychnine—and synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed. A few examples of allowed synthetic substances are boric acid, newspaper, and mulch.

How Pesticides Fit into Organic Standards. Organic farmers use only specific pesticides defined by the U. S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program. The “spirit” of organic agriculture dictates that pesticides be a last resort. Most organic farmers—and some conventional farmers—use tools and techniques like insect traps, careful crop selection, crop rotation, beneficial organisms, and adjustments to planting and harvesting dates to help control pests and disease.

When these practices are not enough, farms can use an approved pesticide, and use varies on all types of farms. One organic farm might spray heavily with approved pesticides, while their conventional neighbor might use no pesticides, but apply a synthetic herbicide once a year to keep down weeds.

Safety and Science. Even though pesticides approved for use in organic agriculture are considered to be safer for humans and the environment, there’s some criticism that safer doesn’t mean
“safe.” A few organic pesticides that have come under fire are rotenone, which is derived from the roots of a tropical legume, and spinosad, which comes from bacteria.

Farming methods used by many organic farms have benefit. For example, crop rotations and mixed plantings are much better for the soil and environment and for reducing the need for pesticides, compared with single-species monocultures. However, unless you know your grower personally, there is no guarantee that your produce has been grown without pesticides.

—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN

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