What is an organic pesticide?

Organic pesticide? Doesn’t organic mean no pesticides?

Organic means that the produce was grown according to USDA guidelines, which cover what kind of pesticides, herbicides, and farming practices can be used when growing organic produce. 

Organic does not equal pesticide-free. The USDA maintains a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which details what pesticides can be used on certified organic produce. Actually, anyone can propose an amendment to this list, and it will be evaluated by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). 

The aim of the organic standards is to limit pesticide use to mainly naturally-derived substances. One example is Spinosad, which derives from the soil bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. Spinosad is sold by Dow Chemical under the brand name Entrust. Some other naturally-derived pesticides used in organic farming are pyrethrin and azadirachtin. All of these substances are deemed slightly toxic by the EPA.

If you want to get into the details of the pesticides used in commercial farming, this is an excellent resource.

What may surprise some is that many synthetic pesticides are also allowed in organic farming as long as they are deemed relatively nontoxic. For example, copper sulfate, elemental sulfur, borax and borates are used in organic farming and are toxic to humans. 

Unfortunately, when buying organic produce at the grocery store, there’s no way to know what pesticides were used. If possible, buying directly from a local farmer or CSA would allow you to ask what they spray in their field. If that’s not possible, it’s recommended that produce be washed thoroughly before eating to remove traces of pesticides. 

A true all-natural pesticide

Hydroponic greenhouses around the world have started using a relatively new method of dealing with harmful insects: releasing more insects. Specifically, ladybugs. Ladybugs prey on harmful bugs while leaving produce unharmed. This is especially common in leafy green production and it is a true chemical-free pesticide. However, this method can’t combat all types of pests.

The obvious solution?

There is one more method of dealing with pests, and it may be the most obvious of all solutions. Grow produce where there are no pests: indoors. Until relatively recently, the overhead this required was cost prohibitive. But now, with arable land and freshwater becoming more scarce, and breakthroughs in LED lighting, indoor farms have become viable. With indoor farming there’s no need to spray synthetic pesticide and no need to spray organic pesticide. There’s no need for pesticides at all. Without pests and without pesticides, the produce is blemish-free and contaminant free. We certainly can’t grow grains or trees indoors, but for a lot of crops, pesticides organic or otherwise may be history.