While much about modern farming techniques center 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 selections 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.
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 prohibited substances 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. A full 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.
Cydia pomonella granulosis
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
Tags: organic pesticides, organic farming, synthetic pesticides, GMOs, organics
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