In hopes of providing better nutrition and healthier options for their families, people are turning to organic produce. It seems that buying organic has become the environmentally-aware and health-conscious choice, so supermarkets are also incorporating these products into their offerings.
Organic food is widely regarded as free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and while that is mostly true, some state legislature allows that organic farmers use certain chemical substances when growing their crops. But are there any dangers to using pesticides and, if so, should we completely eliminate conventionally grown foods from our diets?
Organic Pesticides vs. Chemical Pesticides: The Hidden Dangers
Aside from being less impactful on our environment (something that we should be more mindful of in the future), organic farming also uses clever, non-chemical means of pest control. There are no pesticides in organic food (or so we think) and the idea is refreshing.
Studies have repeatedly shown that chemical pesticides have been connected to a variety of serious illnesses, such as immune system imbalances, hormone imbalances, brain damage, cancers, infertility, miscarriage, birth defects and Parkinson’s disease. In fact, the American Cancer Society published a report in 2000 showing that a child exposed to chemical pesticides has a 3-7 times higher likelihood of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Other types of cancers connected to synthetic pesticides include leukemia, soft tissue sarcoma, prostate cancer, liver cancers, kidney cancer, and more.
Of course, efficiency is an important issue and, as some farmers state, non-chemical pest-control methods aren’t always effective in protecting their crops against harmful pests. Common organic pesticides such as pyrethrin and rotenone are effective, however, not nearly as effective as mild synthetic pesticides (such as imidan, for instance). In fact, studies show that a farmer has to perform 7 applications of this particular organic pesticide mixture in order to obtain the effects of 2 applications of imidan.
The problem is that even organic pesticides pose a threat to the environment. That’s one of the reasons why they’re normally diluted in large quantities of water. Rotenone, for instance, is toxic to aquatic life (particularly fish).
Organic Pesticide Application Dos and Don’ts
It seems that it’s more a matter of correct application and clever choice than anything else. Farmers are capable of safely solving their pest problems by using organic pesticides, yet they need to be aware that even organic pesticides need to be used sparingly. When safely controlling pests, here are some things to consider:
- Prevention is better than treatment, so don’t attract harmful insects to begin with.
- Use pesticides correctly (if needed).
- Don’t double quantities just for the sake of it.
- Remember to properly dispose of leftover pesticides.
- Indoor pesticides belong indoors, don’t use them outdoors, and vice versa.
A healthy garden will not seem so inviting to harmful pests because of some practices that organic farmers adhere to. Crop rotation and inter-cropping, for instance, will reduce the risk of re-infestation after winter (most harmful insects are plant-specific, so new types of crops will reduce available food reserves).
Similarly, the choice of pesticide is essential, especially since each type of organic pesticide will specifically target certain insects. Eucalyptus oil, for instance, is good when used to turn away wasps or flies, but it will do little to solve fungal problems.
Pesticide Use Regulations for Organic Farming
According to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) regulations, organic farmers are allowed to use organic pesticides on their crops. Of course, the NOP has published a list containing the substances that are allowed and prohibited in organic farming (a list identifying synthetic substances that may also be used in organic farming).
The NOP has created a list of synthetic substances that are allowed to be used in organic crop production (and they include alcohols, ethanol, isopropanol, calcium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, chlorine materials, hydrogen peroxide, and more). Here’s the complete list. Of course, these substances are only allowable if they don’t contaminate the crops themselves, the water or the soil.
Similarly, there are also non-synthetic (or organic pesticides and substances) that are barred from being used in organic agriculture. They include lead salts and arsenic, the ash resulted from burning manure, tobacco dust, strychnine and more.
Organic Pesticides and How to Use Them
- Bacillus Thuringiensis (simply known as Bt) is a commonly used organic pesticide. It’s a living organism that is ingested by harmful insects and pests and produces toxic proteins which lead to the insects’ death. It’s effective against beetles, mosquitoes, moths, and flies.
- Kaolin clay has been recently approved as an organic pesticide (back in 1998) and is commonly used to fight off mites, fungi, bacteria as well as other harmful insects. It can be applied in powdered for or sprayed on top of plants.
- Beauveria Bassina, similar to Bt, is a biological pesticide (a fungus) that is highly effective against caterpillars, aphids and grasshoppers. It works by multiplying aggressively until it neutralizes its host.
- Pyrethrum is a botanical pesticide originating from dried flowers, yet in certain concentrations, its toxicity levels are quite high. Even so, specific mixtures of this organic pesticide have been approved for organic farming.
- Neem Oil is an excellent ingredient for a homemade organic pesticide mixture and can be applied on vegetable gardens, lawns and trees. It’s unpleasant tasting and has a potent smell that repels harmful insects while not driving away beneficial ones (such as honey bees).
- Plant and mineral oils can also be used as organic pesticides (anything from canola, castor, mustard and soybean oil, for instance, can be used for a variety of reasons, including repelling larger pests such as deer and rabbits). According to the EPA, such oils to have toxic effect on humans when applied in high doses. The only exception to this rule is wintergreen oil.
Other non-toxic repellents, aside from Bt include Cydia pomonella granulosis (a virus commonly used to control moths), Kaolin Clay, corn gluten and gibberellic acid. Boric acid, limonene, neem and ryanodine are considered to have a low toxicity.