Photo by: Ruth Hartnup
By Teresa Joaquim
It is a common misconception that when we see the label "organic" on fresh produce that it is free of chemical pesticides. However, the term "organic" does not necessarily mean "pesticide-free". Organic produce can have pesticide residue from organic pesticides used in their cultivation.
What Does “Organic” Mean?
Let’s start from the beginning. The term “organic” has different meanings depending on the context:
- In chemistry, the term “organic” means that a substance contains at least one atom of carbon that is bound to a hydrogen atom. Although there are exceptions, this is the general rule.
- In agriculture, “organic” refers to a set of practices. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a product labeled as organic must be cultivated “without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”
It is important to note that while organic farming doesn't use synthetic chemical pesticides, it does allow for the use of certain naturally derived and non-synthetic pesticides. That’s why organic does not necessarily mean “safe”, "chemical-free," or “pesticide-free,” since the pesticides that might have been used in their production are chemicals, but from an organic origin.
What are Pesticides?
By definition, a "pesticide" is a substance designed to kill pests, and it can be made from either inorganic chemical materials or natural materials. The ones made from natural materials are referred to as organic pesticides. However, regardless of their origin, both organic and inorganic pesticides are still categorized and labeled as pesticides.
In other words, while the term "organic pesticides" may sound less harmful, they still serve the purpose of controlling pests just like their synthetic counterparts. The Code of Federal Regulations has a list of pesticides that are allowed in organic farming.
Natural materials for organic pesticides can come from plants, minerals, and even microbes. Here are some examples of organic pesticides that can be used in organic pest control:
- Neem oil: Neem oil is extracted from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), native to Southeast Asia. Among other medicinal uses, neem oil repels insects.
- Spinosad: This substance comes from the fermentation of a soil bacteria named Saccharopolyspora spinosa. It controls caterpillars, thrips, spider mites, squash bugs, ants, and fruit flies.
- Serenade: Also derived from bacteria (Bacillus subtilis), this substance controls fungal pests.
- Pyrethrum: Commonly used in homes and gardens, this substance is naturally found in chrysanthemum flowers. It repels mosquitoes, ants, fleas, moths, and other insects.
- Sulfur: Sulfur is an essential nutrient for plants and is naturally found in soil and water. It kills fungi and insects.
- Diatomaceous earth: This powdery substance is curiously made from fossilized organisms called diatoms. It can control bed bugs, cockroaches, and even carpet beetles.
It's important to note that while organic pesticides are generally considered safer than synthetic ones, their use is still regulated to minimize potential risks to human health, non-target organisms, and the environment. Uncontrolled quantities can still be hazardous to human health.
What is Organic Pest Control?
Organic pest control is a set of natural or non-synthetic methods aimed at managing and preventing pest infestations in various settings, including agriculture, gardening, and household environments. The approach emphasizes integrated practices, which may or may not involve the use of organic pesticides.
To cultivate a pesticide-free lawn at home, you can adopt several of these organic pest control techniques:
- Biological control: This involves introducing natural predators, parasites, or pathogens that feed on or infect the pest species, effectively reducing their populations.
- Crop rotation: Changing the crops planted in a particular area seasonally can help disrupt the life cycle of pests and prevent them from becoming established.
- Companion planting: Growing certain plants together that repel or deter pests from attacking the main crop.
- Trap cropping: Planting specific crops that attract pests away from the main crop, acting as sacrificial plants.
- Mechanical control: Using physical barriers or traps to exclude or capture pests physically.
- Natural repellents: Utilizing natural substances like neem oil, garlic spray, or hot pepper spray, which act as organic pesticides.
- Hand-picking: Removing weeds from plants manually when they are identified.
- Beneficial insects: Attracting or releasing beneficial insects that prey on pests, such as ladybugs, lacewings, or praying mantises.
- Soil management: Keeping the soil healthy and balanced encourages strong plant growth, making them more resistant to pests and diseases.
Organic pest control methods, when implemented with integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, have proven to be effective in maintaining pests at acceptable levels while being more sustainable and eco-friendly.
However, it is crucial to be mindful of the distinction between "organic" and "pesticide-free". While organic produce adheres to stricter regulations on pesticide use, it does not guarantee that the products are entirely free from pesticides. But even if you took the pesticide-free pledge to avoid synthetic pesticides, buying organic is still a better choice.
Teresa Joaquim is a creative writer with a background in psychological science research. When not writing she is either singing, reading poetry, or cuddling her little one-eyed black cat.