Many people are surprised when they learn that organic farmers are allowed to use some pesticides. What they often don’t realize, though, is how carefully scrutinized every pesticide is before it becomes allowed in organic agriculture, and how many steps organic farmers need to take before they can use these pesticides. Further, the law that created the national organic standard very clearly states that farmers can only use pesticides that were derived from natural sources, and these naturally derived pesticides must not have long term effects or persist in the environment.

You may be asking, “But why are organic farmers allowed to use any pesticides at all, even naturally derived ones?” To understand the answer, it helps to take a step back and look at all the things organic farmers are required to do to avoid needing pesticides in the first place. All organic farmers need to have an organic systems plan in place that details how a producer will use cultural, biological, and mechanical practices to control weeds and insect pests, and avoid the need for any pesticides at all. These practices include activities like:

• Crop rotation and soil and crop nutrient management practices
• Keeping fields clean to remove disease vectors, weed seeds, and habitat for pest organisms
• Selection of plant species and varieties that are suited to site-specific conditions and resistant to prevalent pests, weeds, and diseases
• Use of beneficial insects, like ladybugs, that are predators or parasites of the pest species
• Development of habitat for natural enemies of pests
• Non-synthetic controls such as lures, traps, and repellents

Sometimes, despite a farmer’s best efforts, these methods will fail to prevent infestation from a particular pest, fungus, or disease. In these instances, organic farmers are allowed to choose from a carefully screened list of allowed pesticides. If farmers were not allowed to use these substances, they might face a total crop loss. The standard is designed to prevent such catastrophes by allowing organic farmers to use approved pesticides as a last resort.

How are pesticides screened for use in the organic standard? As stated earlier, pesticides are only allowed when they are derived from natural sources. But this isn’t enough, because there are plenty of natural substances out there that could still have negative effects on human health or the environment. Before a pesticide is allowed, the law requires it to be evaluated to make sure that:

• It is not toxic to non-target organisms (humans or wildlife)
• It breaks down quickly and does not persist in the environment
• The manufacturing process for the substance does not result in environmental contamination
• It does not have negative effects on soil health, soil microorganisms, other crops or livestock
• There aren’t any safer alternatives that could be used.

If a pesticide meets all of these criteria, then it can be used as a last resort by organic farmers. We know that many of the pesticides allowed in non-organic agriculture are linked to a growing list of negative health effects, including cancer, nervous-system and lung damage, reproductive dysfunction, and possibly dysfunction of the endocrine and immune systems. In contrast, the pesticides allowed for use in organic agriculture are carefully and regularly screened to make sure that they don’t cause any harmful effects for human health or the environment. If new information comes to light that shows that a pesticide allowed in organic agriculture isn’t as safe as we thought, that pesticide gets taken off the list of allowed substances.

It’s important that organic farmers have access to these carefully screened pesticides when they need them, so they can avoid catastrophic loss of their crops. But it’s reassuring to know that these pesticides are carefully screened to make sure their use doesn’t result in accidental catastrophe for the people and wildlife that are exposed to them.