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The Future

Are there pesticides in organic farming?

Organic food is produced completely free of chemicals, right? Surprisingly, no. Many people mistakenly believe that organic farming does not use pesticides. Actually, biopesticides are crucial to a successful harvest.

But then, how are biopesticides different to non-organic products? Which pesticides are used? Are they ‘better’? Let’s have a closer look at pesticides in organic farming.

What is considered organic?

Each country (and even grocery stores) has its own regulations when it comes to organic-certified products. Nevertheless, in the EU, all organic products must abide to the following rules: 1

  • Prohibition of the use of GMOs
  • Forbidding the use of ionizing radiation
  • Limiting the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides
  • Prohibiting the use of hormones and restrict the use of antibiotics and only when necessary for animal health

When it comes to pesticides, you’ll notice that the word “limiting” is used instead of “prohibiting”, meaning that some pesticides are still being used in organic farming. To be clear, the EU heavily restricts the use of chemical pesticides, and they must pass through rigorous tests in order to be approved.2

So then, which kinds of pesticides are permitted in organic farming? And, do they pose the same environmental impacts as non-organic pesticides? 

Pesticides in Organic Farming

Unlike conventional pesticides, organic farming tends to use biopesticides. What’s the difference?

Conventional pesticides are synthetically produced, and most often directly kill pests. Biopesticides on the other hand are usually “made of living things, come from living things, or they are found in nature”, as defined by the U.S. National Pesticide Information Center. That includes microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, that control certain species of weed or insects, or substances naturally found on Earth.

Have you ever used salt to get rid of snails? If yes, you technically used a biopesticide.

There are currently 640 permitted products for organic plant protection on the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL’s European Input List. These products used in organic farming comply with EU organic law, as well as at least one European country. However, not all European countries have the same standards, so farmers still need to check whether their products meet the nation’s specific regulations.3

Examples of biopesticides

Some of the more frequently used biopesticides for protecting crops in the industrial field of organic farming are different compounds of copper and sulfur. Both can be applied as a spray (dissolved in water) or powder preventively and directly to the crops where the substances restrain the growth of the spores of fungi. However, copper can have negative effects on the environment and is only allowed due to a lack of alternatives: it is toxic to many aquatic organisms and can cause long-term problems.4 Scientists and farmers alike try to reduce and replace it, but up to this day organic winegrowers for example are permitted to apply 4kg per hectare and year in Germany.5

Natural substances, such as hormones, can also be used to control mating rates or the likelihood of certain pests to inhabit an area by imitating a predator’s presence. However, this requires a good knowledge of the region and its inhabitants as the biopesticide might drive away one pest – but invite another.

One more organic option uses traps that are supposed to catch certain pests with minimal impact on the environment. The traps must be built to only let through the very small insects, as it is also extremely toxic to bees and many fish, so it must be prevented from touching the ground. 6 Whether this can still be considered to be organic, however, is up for debate.

The bottom line

While there are natural alternatives to chemicals, such as crop rotation or choosing naturally-resistant crops that reduce the impact of pests,4 chemicals cannot always be avoided.

In the end, pesticides are also used in organic farming quite regularly. But they are highly regulated and undergo investigations repeatedly, and they impact the environment much less than conventional pesticides.

What are your personal thoughts on organic produce? Let us know in the comments below!

Read more about the environmental impacts of organic vs non-organic pesticides.

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