Food Facts

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The USDA’s National Organic Program develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling and enforcement of all USDA organic products – including pesticides potentially used by organic farmers. In this IFT Food Facts Video, Carl Winter, PhD, a food toxicologist at the University of California, Davis explains how pesticides used in organic and conventional farming differ.

Yes, Organic Farmers Can Use Pesticides

The USDA’s National Organic Program develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling and enforcement of all USDA organic products – including pesticides potentially used by organic farmers. In this IFT Food Facts Video, Carl Winter, PhD, a food toxicologist at the University of California, Davis explains how pesticides used in organic and conventional farming differ.

IFT: Do organic farmers use pesticides?
Carl Winter: Some pesticides are permitted for use in organic farming provided that they are approved by the USDA National Organic Standards Board. This doesn't necessarily mean that all organic producers will use pesticides. In the same way, while many pesticides are allowed for more conventional farmers to use, that doesn't mean that a conventional producer is going use all of those. The choice of using a pesticide depends upon whether or not farmers have a particular pest pressure that they need to control such as an insect, weed, or plant disease and whether it's economically viable to do so.

IFT: What are the differences between pesticides used organic and conventional farming?
CW: There are differences between some of the organic pesticides and the ones that are allowed for use in conventional farming. Many of the organically approved pesticides tend to be naturally occurring. As a result of that sometimes they're not as effective in pest control as their synthetic counterparts. Sometimes they break down rapidly in the environment and have to be reapplied more than the pesticides used by synthetic producers.

IFT: Does the amount of pesticide used in either form of farming vary?
CW: That is difficult to differentiate. The more important question is: how much of a pesticide might be present in the final food product consumed? And how much might we be exposed to for both organic and conventionally approved pesticides? The amounts of pesticides we’re exposed to as consumers are tiny, far lower than the amounts that might cause harm when given to laboratory animals. For example, if we were to take laboratory animals and give them 1 million times our typical daily exposure to pesticide residues in foods and continue to give them that dose every day throughout their lifetimes, that would still not be a sufficient level of exposure to cause any noticeable effects.

We have a saying in toxicology: it's the dose that makes the poison; it's the amount of the chemical, not its presence or absence that determines the potential for harm. In the case of pesticides from both organic and conventional farming, the levels are very tiny and there is not a sufficient dose to cause harm.

IFT: What does a “naturally” occurring pesticide mean?
CW: A lot of the organic approved pesticides are natural whereas many of the pesticides using conventional production or synthetic. That means we actually make them so they don't occur naturally. In terms of toxicology, there really isn't much of a difference. The body can't differentiate between what is natural and what is made by humans; they still follow the same basic laws of toxicology—the principal the dose makes the poison still applies whether it's a natural organically approved pesticide or human-made synthetic conventionally approved pesticide.

IFT: Any additional thoughts?
CW: The important thing for consumers to do is to eat fruits and vegetables period. Consumers have choices—it’s great if they choose to purchase organic food, and that's fine if they choose to purchase conventional food. But, let's not lose sight of the fact that the best thing that one can do for their health or the health of their families is to consume lots of fruits and vegetables and whole-grains regardless of whether they’re organic or conventional.

For a list of USDA approved pesticides in organic farming click here.