organic pesticides. oxymoron?

Hello, wonderful readers.

First, some definitions:

organic- very difficult to define! one version of the word organic is federally defined as “a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (PDF) and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards.” (http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop). Unfortunately, the USDA organic label doesn’t always live up to ideal standards. For example, did you know that organic beer can legally be made from inorganic hops? And that grated organic cheese can have wood starch? And that about 250 inorganic substances are allowed by USDA in organic foods?

Okay, so another definition of organic– entirely natural. 100 percent non-synthetic. and certainly not at all toxic to the human system. and supportive of a farm’s ecological system without damaging the natural ecosystem. further, organic, in my book, means diversity- because monoculture, or planting a single type of plant over an enormous area and never changing what’s planted there, destroys ecosystems even if no chemicals are involved.

Pesticide- a chemical that “controls”– meaning, kills– pests.

An organic pesticide is legally one that is allowed by USDA standards. In my ideal world, it is one made from organic chemicals that have absolute minimal ecological damage and certainly don’t harm humans or most animals.

At Drumlin, we are NOT certified organic by USDA standards because we believe that the legal term “organic” means very little, and stands in the way of our customers asking us about our farming practices and learning about what true ecological awareness and balance means. However, we use all organic practices, from our occasional use of two USDA organic pesticides (Surround and Entrust) to our careful crop rotation that promotes biodiversity and soil health.

Surround is made from kaolin clay; it is pretty much harmless to everything but particular insect pests. Entrust is made from a bacterium called Spinosad. Entrust is entirely harmless to humans, and mostly harmless to non-pests. However, it is really toxic to honeybees, so it needs to be VERY carefully used. Ideally, it would be used on plants that honeybees avoid, and only when the plants aren’t flowering, so that honeybees wouldn’t be around them anyway. It’s also moderately toxic to particular marine life, which is a problem because of soil runoff into water. We use Surround only when it is clear that cucumber beetles are going to destroy our entire crop of particular vegetables. Some seasons, it’s not a problem; this season, we’ve used it several times on small areas.

The subject of “organic” is infinitely complicated and very subjective. For those of you who shop at Whole Foods, be aware that many of the USDA products are grown in enormous monocultural farms that embody the impersonal, corporate farming model. Look online for local farmer’s markets and go whenever possible, instead of shopping at chain grocery supermarkets, even Whole Foods. Ask the farmer what kind of pest management he uses; I would buy food from a farm that uses either “integrated pest management” or organic pest management, whether or not those farms operate under the official USDA label.

More on this to come. Feel free to ask me to post on any issues you want to examine!

Laura

P.S. Thanks to Signe and Aviva for helping me research this post!

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4 thoughts on “organic pesticides. oxymoron?

  1. Hmmm, so when you define organic as “entirely natural. 100 percent non-synthetic. and certainly not at all toxic to the human system.”… there are plenty of things that are entirely organic, as in 100% natural, but that are still absolutely toxic to the human system (e.g. poisonous mushrooms). You can say that it’s important to you for pesticides to be both organic AND non-toxic to humans/most animals, but I don’t think it makes sense to say that they’re the same thing.

    But otherwise, an interesting and thought-provoking post! Keep updating us. 🙂

  2. Yes! Thanks, Emily. To clarify, my ideal version of “organic pesticides” means, “both non-toxic to most organisms and 100% biodegradable.”

  3. Hmm… I thought it was interesting how you said Drumlin Farm doesn’t get official organic certification, because it doesn’t necessarily mean a lot to be certified organic, and because it prevents people from having important conversations with the farmers they get their food from. And I guess the point I was making above is sort of an example of that — it’s perfectly possible for something to be organic (meaning “naturally occurring”) while still being toxic or bad for you. But I also think it’s possible for something to be inorganic but healthy or non-toxic. It’s totally conceivable that someone in a laboratory could create a pesticide that’s effective but entirely harmless to living things other than the few pests it targets. I’d be perfectly happy about that pesticide being used on the crops that I would later eat, even if it’s not “organic” in that it was produced in a lab.
    Also, at what point does something stop being “organic” (again, meaning “naturally occurring”)? Can you take a plant-based compound but purify it in a lab? How much processing is allowed before it no longer counts as organic?
    I guess my end thought is that whether or not something is “organic” (meaning “naturally occurring”) and how you define organic might not be the most important things at all. I’d rather have rigorous scientific testing for environmental and human impact of the pesticides being used than insist that they be organic.

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