Organic Does Not Mean Chemical Free

Written by: Joe Hannan, ISU Extension and Outreach Commercial Horticulture Field Specialistrows of crops

A common misconception among consumers is that organic means “chemical free.” Regardless of the farming system, however, chemicals can be applied to a field. The difference is the type of products that can be applied.

  • Conventional Farming – Any pesticide that is approved by the EPA for a particular crop and pest can be applied.
  • Organic Farming – Only products that are naturally occurring in the environment can be applied.

EXAMPLE: Pyrethrum is an insecticide derived from mums and can be used in organic farming systems. Manufacturers have found that slightly modifying the chemical structure of pyrethrum, however, increases its effectiveness against insect pests. This modified insecticide cannot be used on organic farms but can be used on conventional farms.

The EPA ensures safety to the environment and to humans through the product label. The label provides the details for how to use a product, including the following:

  • what crops it can be used on
  • what pests it is effective against
  • the rate and the frequency it can be used

Human tolerance to pesticides is derived by research before products are released to market and regulated by the FDA. The label is designed to keep pesticide residues on consumed produce below a threshold that can harm humans. This is why there are often restrictions between product application and when a product can be harvested. It is illegal to sell a product that has not been sprayed according to a pesticide label or if pesticide residue is greater than FDA tolerances.raspberry This is true regardless of whether a product is grown organically or conventionally.

It is difficult to make generalizations about organic and conventional farming systems’ impact on the environment. For instance, an organic farmer may choose to use pyrethrum to control spotted winged drosophila in raspberries while a conventional farmer may use a modified pyrethrum-type insecticide. The organic farmer would need to spray more often than the conventional farmer but would have less impact on nontarget insects. On the other hand, the conventional farmer would make less trips through the field using less insecticide, water, and fuel. That’s just one example. In Iowa, most fruit and vegetable farmers fall somewhere in between certified organic and conventional by using best practices from both systems.

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