Organic is a production term – it does not address the quality, safety or nutritional value of a product.
Both conventional and organic farming emphasizes preventative practices that include crop rotation, mixed plantings and beneficial insects to manage pests and maintain and improve soil quality. Ideally, both conventional and organic farming typically rely on the use of pesticides as a last resort to control pests and diseases on crops.
Natural pesticides and regulated synthetic substances
Organic farmers can use pesticides derived from natural sources and pesticides that include synthetic substances within the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) if other strategies and cultural management practices fail to control pests and diseases.
The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances managed by the NOP identifies synthetic substances that may be used on organic crops as well as nonsynthetic, or natural substances, that are prohibited in organic crop production. The NOP does not specifically list each allowable natural substance, but rather criteria for determining if a substance is natural.
Natural pesticides, including products with plant- and mineral-based ingredients and microorganisms, are widely accepted for use in organic crop production. Overall, organic farmers have very limited chemical tools available to them to control pests because there are far fewer insecticides, fungicides and herbicides allowed for application on organic crops.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) allows a claim on a pesticide label that the product can be used for organic production if its ingredients meet USDA standards. The NOP’s National Organic Standards Board, an appointed citizens advisory board, recommends adding substances in pesticide products to the National List. Recommendations to remove a substance are made to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. The board usually acts in response to a petition from the public. Every substance on the National List is reviewed every five years for continued use in organic production.
Data on pesticide use in organic farming are limited.
Due to their low toxicity, many of the natural pesticides are exempt from the U.S. EPA requirement for a tolerance level, or allowable limit, for residues on food.
The National Organic Program (NOP) was created by the USDA to develop national standards for production and handling of organic agricultural products.
National Organic Program – Approval of Pesticides for Use on Organic Crops
The National Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 authorized USDA to create the NOP. The program develops national standards for the production and handling of organic agricultural products and ensures that organic farms comply with them. USDA accredits third-party certifying agents to verify that organic farms and processing facilities meet the standards that allow them to sell, label and represent their products as organic.
The National Organic Standards Board advises the NOP on what substances, including pesticides, should be added or deleted from the list. It also recommends standards, policies or guidance to help shape organic regulations and the organic certification process to the Secretary of Agriculture.
A National Organic Standards Board advises the NOP on standards, policy and guidance including which pesticides should be added or deleted from the approved list.
After a substance is added to the list, the board is required to review its listing every five years in what is known as a sunset review. The intent is to stay current with new information and organic innovations. The board either reaffirms the listing or recommends the substance’s removal.
The board, which meets twice annually, is comprised of 15 members who represent the organic community by categories established by law. Members serve for five years. Appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, the volunteer board is comprised of:
- Four farmers/growers
- Three environmentalists/resource conservationists
- Three consumer/public interest advocates
- Two handlers/processors
- One retailer
- One scientist (toxicology, ecology or biochemistry)
- One USDA accredited certifying agent
More information about board members is posted here.
If the board recommends adding a substance to the list, USDA reviews the recommendation and determines whether to move forward with the rulemaking process.
Allowed and Prohibitive Substances
National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
Generally, pesticides derived from natural substances or living organisms are allowed in organic production if they do not contain prohibited synthetic additives or are not specifically prohibited on the National List.
Allowed materials typically include biological pesticides, botanical pesticides, dormant and summer oils, fatty acid insecticidal soaps, minerals and pheromones. The few synthetic pesticides allowed in organic production are on the National List under 205.601:
Approved Synthetic Pesticides on Organic Crops
Changing the National List – Approval of Synthetic Pesticides for Use on Organic Crops
Any individual or organization may submit a petition to the National Organic Standards Board to add, remove or amend the listing of an ingredient. Only single ingredients may be petitioned for evaluation. The petition must address why a synthetic substance is necessary for production of an organic crop and impacts on the environment, human health or farm ecosystem from its use instead of a natural substance or alternative cultural methods.
The NOP’s first step is determining if the substance is eligible for petition, including verification that U.S. EPA allows the agricultural use being requested. The petition is then forwarded to the board’s crops subcommittee, which reviews the petition, technical reports and public comments before developing a recommendation for the full board for consideration at a public hearing.
The NOP reviews all board recommendations, which serve as the basis for the rulemaking process to create, amend or remove regulations. It may decide not to add a recommended substance to the list, but may not add a substance without the board’s recommendation.
This process takes anywhere from one to multiple years depending on the complexity or controversy associated with the proposal, amount of public participation and the NOP’s workload. More information about the process is posted here.
E.P.A. Testing and Regulation
Synthetic pesticides approved for use on conventional and organic crops undergo the same rigorous scientific evaluation by U.S. EPA. The agency evaluates scientific data on the pesticide to ensure that when used according to label directions, the product will not harm people, non-target species or the environment.
The listing of a substance for use on organic crops is part of the label review step, which is required for all pesticide registrations.
U.S. EPA verifies that each ingredient - active and inert - in the pesticide is nonsynthetic or is on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances before allowing the organic production claim on the label.
U.S. EPA’s approval of an organic label claim signifies that a pesticide registrant has provided sufficient information to demonstrate that the product formulation and use patterns are in compliance with NOP regulations.
The majority of chemicals for which companies seek organic claims are biopesticides. Biopesticides are derived from natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals. As of early 2013, approximately 400 registered active ingredients and more than 1,250 biopesticide products were registered by U.S. EPA and approved for use on organic crops:
USDA Accredited Organic Certification
Organic certification is an assessment by a third-party certifier accredited by the USDA to verify produce is grown in accordance with organic regulations. The certifier is independent of the farmer and buyer such as a grocery store. The USDA allows foreign organic products to be sold as organic in the United States if they meet the regulations. Currently, 84 USDA-accredited certifiers are operating worldwide.
Organic farmers must have an Organic System Plan
Organic System Plans
Organic farmers are required to prepare an Organic System Plan that explains how they intend to meet requirements of the NOP regulations. These plans must include a description of a farmer’s pest management practices and a list of pesticides that may be applied. A third-party certifier must approve the plan.
These plans address three levels of pest management. Level A is based on the expectation that a well-designed and healthy organic system will naturally have fewer pest problems. It focuses on pest and disease outbreak prevention practices such as cover crops, crop rotation and providing habitat for ladybugs and other beneficial insects.
If Level A practices are not sufficient, Level B focuses on the introduction of insect predators and parasites, mulching, grazing, mowing, solarization and other mechanical and physical practices.
If additional pest management is needed, Level C includes the use of natural and synthetic pesticides on the National List.
Optional third party verification
Allowed Pesticide Products
Although there is no requirement to do so, some pesticide manufacturers seek verification by a third party that their products meet NOP regulations. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) in Eugene, Ore., and the Washington State Department of Agriculture Organic Food Program (WSDA) in Olympia, Wash, independently review products intended for use in certified organic production, handling and processing.
OMRI and WSDA obtain information about a product’s inert and active ingredients, assess whether the product is allowed and respectively publish lists and issue certificates for products they verify. Organic farmers can be confident that use of these listed products will not jeopardize their organic certification. The lists are not an endorsement of the products.
Certifying agents have three options for determining if a pesticide product complies with NOP regulations, including consulting with OMRI or WSDA and accepting their determinations. The other options are verification by evaluating the product and all of its ingredients by contacting the supplier/formulator/manufacturer to obtain full disclosure, or consulting with another certifying agent who has evaluated the product and accept that determination.
OMRI is a national nonprofit organization that determines which substances are allowed for use on organic crops. WSDA is a state-run, USDA-accredited certifier in addition to input product reviewer. The WSDA Organic Foods Program does not include a product on its Brand Name Materials List unless the product has been evaluated and registered for use in organic production in Washington. More information about OMRI and WSDA, respectively, is posted at omri.org/about and wa.gov/FoodAnimal/Organic/ContactUs.aspx.
Most pesticides used on organic crops are exempt from the requirement of a tolerance level
Tolerances and Safety
U.S. EPA establishes tolerances, or allowable limits, for synthetic pesticides to protect public health. These limits reflect an added margin of safety to protect infants, children and other sensitive people in the population. Pesticide residues detected through numerous federal and state sampling data programs are typically well below the established EPA tolerances.
Most pesticides used on organic crops are naturally derived from a plant, microorganism or other natural sources, and are exempt from the requirement of a tolerance level.