A deeper look into the dubious claims that organic farmers use toxic pesticides
With the growing demand for organic foods in the U.S., there has been a backlash from agribusiness groups, companies, and individuals who see organic as a threat to their interests. These critics accuse the organic industry of using deceptive marketing practices to get consumers to pay more money for organic food. Another line of attack has been that organic farmers use lots of pesticides, some of which are more toxic than those used by conventional farmers.
The reality is that some organic farmers do use pesticides but such products are primarily derived from natural substances, go through a strict regulatory approval process to ensure they are not harmful to the environment and human health, and are only allowed to be used when other pest control methods aren’t successful.
The fact is that the organic farming and food movement is based on producing healthier foods without the use of toxic pesticides.
25 organic-approved synthetic pesticides vs. 900 conventional
However, organic farmers, like their conventional counterparts, face challenges with weeds, insects, and diseases. To help address those challenges the National Organic Program (NOP) allows the use of certain natural-based and synthetic substances as pesticides. The NOP’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances details about 25 synthetic products that are allowed to be used in organic crop production. These include alcohols, copper sulfate, and hydrogen peroxide. By contrast, there are some 900 synthetic pesticides approved for use in conventional farming.
There are also many natural-based substances used as pesticides that are allowed in organic farming. These include neem oil, diatomaceous earth, and pepper.
“When you look at the substances themselves, and not at the use rates, organic represents the least toxic set of substances,” says Nate Lewis, farm policy director at the Organic Trade Association. “The difference is pretty striking.”
Most pesticides allowed for use in organic farming are derived from plants or bacteria. “They have their roots in nature,” says Charles Benbrook of Benbrook Consulting Services, an organic consulting firm.
The majority of organic-approved pesticides are used in fruit and vegetable production, says Lewis. Very few are used in organic grain production.
“Least toxic pesticides available”
According to Lewis, pesticides approved for organic crop production must go through the most rigorous review of all pesticides. All pesticides must first be reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine their toxicity. EPA sets tolerances, “which are the maximum amount of a pesticide allowed to remain in or on a food.” If it is a synthetic pesticide to be used for organic farming, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) then reviews it and will recommend whether or not to allow it to be added to the National List. Then, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or the Washington State Department of Agriculture will review the product to ensure it complies with the national organic standards.
According to Lewis, just one synthetic pesticide approved for organic farming has been assigned an EPA tolerance—spinosad, an insecticide derived from a soil microorganism. Other synthetic pesticides on the National List, as well as the natural-based substances, are considered safe enough that they don’t even need an EPA tolerance.
“The EPA considers organic-approved pesticides to be the least toxic and most safe pesticides, so safe they don’t even need to establish a tolerance for what’s healthy or what’s safe on crops,” Lewis says.
One of the most widely spread myths about organic-approved pesticides is that organic farmers use Rotenone, a broad-spectrum insecticide known for its toxicity. While it has been used in the past, the current reality is that the EPA has banned Rotenone for use in the U.S, though Lewis says it is still used in some countries that grow organic bananas. “The NOSB has passed a recommendation to prohibit it outright. We are awaiting NOP action on that.”