Organic Farming and the Rise of 'Green Pesticides'

Organic Farming and the Rise of 'Green Pesticides'

When people think of organic food, the assumption is that it's healthier, tastier, better for the planet, and grown without the use of chemicals. The first three are generally true, but there's a widespread misconception about chemical use on organic foods, namely that there is none.

While the constantly growing demand for more organic produce from shoppers is generally a good thing for the planet and for business, the misunderstanding that organics are chemical-free by definition could lead to dashed expectations and sullied reputations.

Initiatives such as Safeway's O organics line and Walmart's foray into local and organic produce are reactions to the continued growth in demand for organics; the U.S. organic industry grew at a rate of nearly 8 percent in 2010 to more than $28 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). That, in turn, is driving up the amount of U.S. cropland certified as organic, which doubled to almost 5 million acres between 2005 and 2008, the last year for which data are available.

Although organic agriculture is still a corner of the overall field, it's big business -- and getting bigger. And that growth may require at least a short-term increase in the use of organic-approved pesticides and fertilizers.

But organic farmers and those transitioning to organic can't just toss any old chemical onto their crops or land. The point of organic agriculture is to go input-free, eventually. But sometimes chemicals, even synthetic ones, are needed. That's why the National Organic Standards lists synthetic substances that are allowed for use on organic crops.

When a manufacturer develops a new formulation it wants to market to organic farmers, it must be submitted for approval to one of two organizations: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). The vast majority of the applications go to OMRI, which maintains a list of more than 2,000 products [PDF] currently allowed for use in organic systems.

OMRI currently receives about 30 to 40 applications every month. That's a big jump from 10 years ago, before the National Organic Standards were finalized. Back then, the nonprofit got just 2 to 3 applications a month, according to Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, OMRI's program director. Even though about 10 percent of applications get rejected, OMRI's list of approved substances has doubled over the past five years, she said.

"With the onset of regulations that are published, there's more consistency," Fernandez-Salvador said. "Everyone knew where they were going to."

The growth in the market for organics is also likely a driver of this trend, she added. As farms seek to earn the organic label, they face a three-year window of adherence to organic practices before they're certified – during which time they're most likely to need to use those organic-approved products to control pests.

Many of those new certified farmers are transitioning from conventional agriculture, according to Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, which has certified more than 750 farms in the United States this year.

"I see that as the funnel point," said Will Daniels, senior vice president of operations and organic integrity at Earthbound Farm. As they convert land, new farmers learn that using inputs is not the way to a productive organic system, he said.

The organic certification process underscores this way of thinking, Schreiner noted. Farmers must design an integrated pest-management plan that uses inputs to manage pests only as a last line of defense, he said. "I think they come to understand that organic management systems are about much more than materials. Inputs for crop production cost money."

Though there are no data on how much organic farmers spend on chemicals, there is a huge market for chemical inputs: In 2007, conventional farmers spent more than $10 billion on chemical inputs -- 4 percent of their overall farm production costs, according to the 2008 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Companies that make these organically compliant products see the potential market for these products differently. They're not aiming for the new, small growers, but the big ones that need to scale production of high-yield, attractive produce.

"The way [the U.S. organic system] is set up, the emphasis is on using the least disruptive and most sustainable methods available," said John Buenneke, market manager for organic crop protection at Minneapolis-based MGK. "But ultimately, they need to be effective too."

MGK makes and sells crop protection products, including a line of botanically based pesticides certified by EPA as organically compliant. MGK reports 20 percent growth in that product line over the last three years.

The company's products and others like them are just another tool in an organic farmer's toolbox that MGK wants to sell to large organic operations. "I see the opportunity is the bigger organic operations looking to improve their yield," Buenneke said. "They are looking at products they can rely on consistently."

If the products are formulated correctly so they are environmentally friendly and targeted to address specific problems, they're likely to garner wide acceptance from farmers, according to Gwendolyn Wyard, associate director of Organic Standards and Industry Outreach at the Organic Trade Association.

"I cannot express enough the importance of mechanical, cultural and biological controls," Wyard said in an e-mail exchange. "The farmer must, however, have a toolbox of additional controls [materials] that are integrated into the management of the organic system."

Large, established organic farms are finding through experience that chemical inputs aren't necessary to produce good-looking, high-yield crops and research is bearing out that experience.

Organic systems are economically competitive with conventional systems because of lower input costs, according to Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial, a 30-year side-by-side study of organic and conventional farming.

Earthbound Farm and its 37,000 acres of certified organic cropland is a good example of this. It does not use inputs on the vast majority of its crops, according to Daniels. All of the produce it sells is rated U.S. No. 1 under the USDA Quality Standards, he said.

"It's not because we're spraying a bunch of stuff on the crop," Daniels said. Instead Earthbound uses a system of integrated pest management including hand weeding, trap crops and beneficial bugs. "It's a challenge that I think being persistent and being on top of is very important."

Farming photo from Shutterstock.