There has been a lot of incorrect information circling around about organic food and the organic industry. This has caused some, with vast knowledge on the subject of organic, to issue a response. It seemed like the right time to delve into one of the issues–pesticides. Are organic pesticides an option?
Pesticides are something discussed often here, as more research has come out that synthetic pesticides are hazardous to our health. As a result, many are making the switch to organic foods to avoid pesticide exposure. And rightfully so, as studies have shown lower incidence of pesticide residue in organically grown produce. Farmer’s encounter a variety of pests which threaten their crops on both the conventional and organic side of the farming spectrum. Where the difference lies, is in their practices, regulations, and the safety of what they choose to apply.
Table of Contents
Planned Pest Control
It’s standard practice for organic farmers to utilize numerous other methods of pest control before resorting to using stronger means, like applied pesticides, as the Organic Center explains:
What sets organic production apart is organic producers are required to use non-toxic, integrated pest, weed, and disease prevention plans prior to considering organically approved material application. Organic producers must also mitigate risks of inadvertent pesticide drift from neighboring land through buffers or timing of plantings.
I spoke with author of The War on Bugs, Will Allen, to answer some questions about the use of organic pesticides and pest control methods. As a lifetime farmer, pioneer of the California organic movement, and board member of the Organic Consumer’s Association, he is well versed on the subject.
Will detailed that “insects, worms, mites, and weeds are usually controlled with other insects as predators (ladybugs, lacewings, soldier beetles, soldier bugs, geocris, etc.)” Only if those methods are not effective, the farmers will use other methods, such as bacterias and viruses or natural clays. Even mild sulfurs and copper, natural options, are still restricted in organic farming. As a last resort pyrethrum powder from chrysanthemum flowers is used.
Maintain a healthy organic system that will naturally have fewer pest problems. Providing a habitat for beneficial bugs, like ladybugs contributes to this healthy ecosystem. Level A also focuses disease outbreak prevention practices such as cover rotation, and cover crops. Should these practices not be sufficient, the next step of the plan is implemented.
Level B lends it’s focus on the introduction of insect predators and parasites, as Will mentioned. More involved physical and mechanical practices like mulching, grazing, mowing, solarization are also used.
If additional pest management is needed, Level C includes the use of natural and synthetic pesticides on the National List.
Finally, as a last resort is the use of pesticides. Organic crops must only utilize pesticides approved by the National Organic Program (NOP) and that have been evaluated by the EPA for safety.
The conservative use of applied pesticides is in sharp contrast to conventional farming. In the state of California, conventional farms have sprayed more than 200,000,000 pounds of pesticides per year for the past 15 years.
The EPA has deemed the limited pesticide products available to organic producers to be tolerance exempt. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) clarifies that “tolerance exemption means that EPA has evaluated the scientific data around human health related to the substance and has determined it to not be harmful.” Pesticides used on organic crops undergo the same evaluation process by the EPA as conventional pesticides, but the regulation doesn’t stop there. Science on organic materials must be reviewed by either the NOP, mentioned above, or the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). These committees evaluate pesticides, fertilizers, and soil amendments used in organic farming. Growers are prohibited from using any materials that are not approved by these organizations. In addition to all of these agencies, the National Organic Standards Board reviews these substances every five years for new information regarding their safety.
It’s already been established that organic farming results in less pesticide residue on the food it produces. With the use of alternative practices and pesticides derived from natural sources, eating organic food also reduces your exposure to known harmful synthetic pesticides.
The Pesticide Literature Review recommends the consumer reduce exposure to chemical pesticides due to the health risks and illness associated with them. Synthetic pesticides exposure is especially of concern with children and pregnant women. A study found prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, a common chemical pesticide, negatively impacted brain development and affected memory. This pesticide is an endocrine disrupters, causes low birth weight, and damages the nervous system. It’s also linked to lung and prostate cancer. Research also finds that children are more likely to develop asthma, developmental disorders, and have lowered I.Q as a result of chemical pesticide exposure.
These chemical pesticides are also posing a threat to our environment. The chemicals linger in the atmosphere and pollute waterways through ground water run off. Pesticides can migrate through the environment causing a pesticide transfer. Safer Brand points out “pesticides always end up traveling outside of their intended area of use, either by air, soil or water.”
Not All Pesticides are Created Equal
In fact, organic pesticides are natural. Farmer’s pest management is highly regulated to reduce pesticide application. Pesticides mush be deemed fit through scientific review and a separate committee. In contrast, synthetic pesticides are applied much more heavily and are linked to an abundance of health risks. The EPA is the sole source of review. The lack of persistent synthetic pesticides in organic food is among one of these top 10 reasons to eat organic:
- Backed by the USDA certification
- No genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
- No persistent pesticides, like glyphosate (a synthetic herbicide deemed toxic)
- No artificial flavors or preservatives
- No antibiotics or hormones
- No biosolids will be used in the growing and production of the product
- Organic food is more nutritious
- Organic food tastes better
- Organic farming practices support a healthy farm and the farmer
- Pollution is reduced and generally less energy is used in organic production