Organic Pesticides

No, you didn’t read that wrong. Organic pesticides is not an oxymoron.

Though, most people might think so. According to a poll done in the UK back in 2005, 95% of organic consumers bought the produce to avoid pesticides.

But organic food is produced with pesticides too.

Supposedly, these special pesticides are derived from “natural” sources and are allowed for organic production. Obviously, anything “natural” must be ok; right? (Event though all “natural” and “synthetic” products actually originate in the periodic table…but that’s details…)

Not quite. Synthetic pesticides are heavily regulated and we know exactly when, how, where, and why to use them. Only licensed operators are allowed to purchase the products. Not to mention that over the last several decades, they’ve actually become a whole heck of a lot safer.

Meanwhile, organic pesticides are still the same old things being used from back in the 60s and 70s. They haven’t improved. They haven’t gotten any better. And, quite frankly, they aren’t altogether that great.

Take Spinosad for example. It “comes from the soil bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. It can fatally scramble the nervous systems of insects. It’s also poisonous to mollusks.” (NPR) People have a problem with sticking Bt proteins into sweet corn genes because it makes a bug’s stomach “explode” (er…something like that), but apparently fatally scrambling the nervous system of an insect is perfectly acceptable if there is an organic label on the produce.

But, certainly, spraying an organic pesticide is better than spraying a conventional pesticide; right?!

Are naturally derived pesticides less toxic than synthetic ones? The answer depends a lot on the dosage, says Gillman. “To control fire blight on the same acre of land,” he explains, “I could use a tiny amount of a potent synthetic that has proved safe over the last 50 years, or a much larger amount of an organic pesticide.” (NPR)

Again, synthetic pesticides get tested, regulated, and tested some more. There is innovation and progress and science (calm down…I know that word scares a few folks). If something wasn’t safe, like if it causing health problems or tormenting the environment, we’re either going to pull it or adjust how we use it.

Here’s the kicker though — while a conventional farmer is strictly regulated on how much of any given pesticide can be applied to a particular field at a particular time (say, not right before harvest), organic farmers aren’t regulated at all when it comes to how often or when. There is no government entity overseeing the dosages or timing of organic pesticides.

According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives. (Scientific American)

Oops. Not only are organic farmers applying more of the pesticides they use onto the fields, they’re also toxic. I mean, after all, we’re trying to kill plants and insects with them. That’s the goal.

Not only are organic pesticides not safe, they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry. Canadian scientists pitted ‘reduced-risk’ organic and synthetic pesticides against each other in controlling a problematic pest, the soybean aphid. They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species like the aphid’s predators. (Scientific American)

Need another example? Take the Rotenone:

Rotenone was widely used in the US as an organic pesticide for decades. Because it is natural in origin, occurring in the roots and stems of a small number of subtropical plants, it was considered “safe” as well as “organic“. However, research has shown that rotenone is highly dangerous because it kills by attacking mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of all living cells. Research found that exposure to rotenone caused Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms in rats, and had the potential to kill many species, including humans. (Scientific American)

Despite being pulled in the US in 2005 due to health concerns, it was re-approved in 2010 for use in organic production. Go ahead organic farmers, spray away!

No doubt synthetic pesticides are serious business. Our guys are trained to use them, and rightfully so. We also have strict regulations on their use. The difference is that we’re constantly improving, moving forward, and finding better ways to use them. Our land is our living and we eat the same food as everyone else. We want to make an abundant supply of safe, healthy food, while at the same time protecting our soil, air, and water.

Land is legacy.

But the point is that people shouldn’t be tricked or fooled into crafty organic marketing. Organic food isn’t pesticide free. You’re more likely to find pesticide residue on organic food than you are conventional produce. These “natural” pesticides aren’t progressing and aren’t getting better. They’re outdated and, quite frankly, worse than currently used synthetic pesticides.

If you care about the environment, care about people, and want to eat nutritious healthy food, why are you still purchasing organic?

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10 Responses to "Organic Pesticides"

  1. I am a conventional farmer using the LEAST amount of synthetic pesticides possible. I am a third generation farmer, my grandmother lived to be 94, my dad to 86 and I plan on living to 127. I am doing all I can to preserve the land (God isn't making any more) so the next generation can continue. Thank you for your comments.

  2. THANK YOU for this post. I'm so sick of organic/anti-GMO consumers spouting off how organic uses no pesticides, when often they use DOUBLE the amount of pesticides than conventional farmers. We farm conventional & some GM canola and we don't WANT to spend more money on more pesticides. I wish people would actually *try* to understand that farming is a business and that farmers are not puppets for "big ag" like so many people think they should.

  3. Anonymous

    Well said. And copper never leaves the soil. The soil can be ruined forever. And which 2 billion people are we going to bump off so everyone can enjoy organic? Cereal crops with organic are 40-50% less productive than conventional and they have made a reputation from black marketing conventional farmers. But the tide is turning. Organic sales which started in the UK after BSE and Salmonella scares have now dropped by 27%. Why? Unaffordable, and not delivering the miracle health benefits maybe?

  4. Anonymous

    Most people promoting organic crop production are very idealistic and completely ignorant about crop production. In many cases, organic farming is worse for the environment. Just a couple things to think about. Organic farmers cannot use herbicides for weed control so they rely on tillage. This causes more erosion which results in more sediment in our streams which can damage aquatic environments. Contrary to the claims, yields from organic productions are much lower than with conventional production. Therefore, more land has to be farmed and taken away from wildlife to produce the same amount of crops as with conventional production. Also, since organic production does not allow the uses of inorganic nitrogen the land is often rotated into a legume crop just to build N. This is good, but removes more land from production and will again result in more environmentally sensitive land being farmed. Be aware that organic farmers do use pesticides approved for their use. It is amusing that the pesticides conventional farmers use are organic molecules that will degrade, but some of the pesticides used by organic farmers (iron sulfate, copper sulfate, manganese sulfate) are inorganic molecules and could be in the environment for years. (But don’t worry, they won’t harm you. Unlike organic fanatics, I’ll be honest about the real risks involved.) Also, I believe that many organic crop production rules also allow the use of nicotine-insecticides. That’s like forcing cute innocent insects to smoke cigarettes. The bottom-line, in most ways, organic production is worse for the environment than conventional cropping practices. The supporters of organic foods need to obtain a better understanding of agriculture before they espouse on topics about which they are completely ignorant.One parting thought, as the desire for biofuels (ethanol) increases, the need for higher yields will also increase. That will require the cultivation of even more sensitive acres to produce low yielding organic crops. Or, maybe we should just increase our use of fossil fuels.

  5. PorschesMom

    I'm late to the party but do you know if the pesticides used in organic farming are also used in conventional farming?

    • Good question! Organic pesticides can certainly be used by conventional growers (or, rather, anyone that is not certified organic). However, in most cases, conventional farmers would not choose a pesticide allowed in organic production because there are generally new and better options. I did confirm though that my dad recently chose a pesticide that can be used without restrictions by organic producers.

  6. What's the half life and excretion rate of pesticides? Your dirty dozen article states that if one ate 529 "servings" of apples a day the limits would still be safe. My son eats about 2-3 large apples a day (no joke, he once ate a 9lb box of oranges in one day) which is probably 3-4 servings a day. If the pesticides have slow excretion rate (less than 132 days in my son's case), couldn't the residue build up to toxic levels in the body? I imagine it depends on the pesticide. Do the synthetic pesticides of conventional farming have different excretion rates compared to the natural equivalent used by organic farmers? What about the organic pesticides that have no synthetic equivalent?

    • I'm not sure why you put "servings" in quotations? There is a measurable size for "servings" by the FDA. Nonetheless, I said your son would have to eat 529 servings of apples (I believe that's a medium sized apple). Even if the apples your son is eating count as two servings, he would have to eat over 250 of them to have a problem…. I think he's going to have other problems if that's the case. ;)Plus, consuming that many apples (and assuming his body doesn't get rid of them at all), he would be at the minimum residue level that's acceptable. That hardly means he's going to see any type of effect from the pesticide.Nonetheless, I can't answer your questions because all of those answers are going to be different for each pesticide that is used. Those are also very scientific and I suggest going right to the source for such answers. I suggest you chat with Steve Savage (http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/) about this topic. Steve makes this stuff very easy to understand and I imagine he might actually enjoy figuring out those values for you! Let me know!

  7. Thanks for your quick reply and Steve Savage link! I'm hoping that there are no more pesticides with such a long half life as DDT (thankfully banned) which was about 10 yrs and being fat soluble took 10-20 yrs to be cleared out of the body.I put servings in quotes so as not to confuse with whole-apple, as a large whole apple can be 1.5-2 servings.p.s. i appreciate your articles. My dad grew up on a mixed farm and i have great admiration for the work ethic, integrity and practical cleverness of farmers.

    • The half life is definitely not that long! The half life of Round-Up is actually only 32 days. And thank you, I love hearing that people enjoy the blog! 🙂

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