The pesticides approved in organic farming are largely natural ones, though a limited amount of synthetic substances are permitted
While much about modern farming techniques centers around the use of synthetic pesticides (a catch-all term that includes herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides) on large acreage, organic producers of all sizes also use a variety of chemicals to control weeds and bugs on their farms. This article contains a list of organic pesticides approved by the United States Department of Agriculture for use on non-conventional farms.
The decisions about which substances are allowed under the USDA’s National Organic Program are made by a board that includes organic growers, handlers, retailers, environmentalists, scientists, USDA-accredited certifying agents, and consumer advocates. Contrary to popular belief, pesticides approved for use on organic farms do include some synthetic substances, though the vast majority are natural toxins. That said, it should be clear that not all natural toxins are permitted — for example, strychnine and arsenic are natural but not allowed to be used in organic farming and gardening.
One of the most controversial natural pesticides, the insecticide Rotenone, was removed from the Federal Register listing allowable organic pesticides in January 2019. Rotenone, which is derived from the roots of plants from the Leguminosae family, is highly toxic, and concern had long been growing about the damage it was doing to the environment.
Of course, genetic engineering is not allowed in organic production. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs (in this case, meaning high-tech modern plant breeding techniques) and that they are protecting their products from contact with substances associated with GMOs from farm to table.
Just because a pesticide product is natural doesn’t mean it is less toxic than it’s synthetic counterpart. The dose, frequency of application, and mode of action all contribute to toxicity, and the severity is determined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Below are many of the substances, both synthetic and non-synthetics, used in organic farming and gardening (this list includes the rule update that was finalized in January 2019). These substances can be sold under a variety of brand names, which are further detailed in the OMRI Generic Materials List.
A complete list of allowed synthetic substances and prohibited natural substances can be found here.
List of major substances
Boric acid: Structural pest control, no direct contact with organic food or crops.
Copper: Copper hydroxide, copper oxide, copper oxychloride, includes products exempted from EPA tolerance, provided that copper-based materials must be used in a manner that minimizes accumulation in the soil and shall not be used as herbicides.
Copper sulfate: Application rates are limited to levels which do not increase baseline soil test values for copper over a timeframe agreed upon by the producer and accredited certifying agent.
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Lime sulfer: Including calcium polysulfide
Minerals such as elemental sulfur, bicarbonate, or kaolin clay
Non-detergent insecticidal soaps: As a pesticide, fungicide, or algaecide for food crops
Oils, including petroleum, vegetable, and fish oils: Types include dormant, suffocating, and summer oils
Peracetic acid: For use to control fire blight bacteria. Also permitted in hydrogen peroxide formulations at a concentration of no more than 6% as indicated on the pesticide product label
Pheromones and pheromone traps
Plant-derived substances such as neem, caraway oil, seed fennel, quassia, or ryania
Streptomycin sulfate and tetracycline
Vitamin D3: As a rodencide
This article was originally published in April 2018 and was updated in August 2019. If there are any corrections or updates that are missing, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.