There is a misconception that there are no pesticides used in organic farming. However, that isn't necessarily the truth. The National Organic Program created rules to keep organic products free from extremely harmful pesticides, such as synthetics or organochlorine pesticides. With that said, some pesticides are allowed for use when producing or handling certified organic products.
Pesticide Exceptions in Organic Farming
Most pesticides are prohibited, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) rule 7 CFR 205 does provide for a few exceptions.
Some naturally occurring ingredients, such as plant extracts, insect pathogens, and fungal derivatives may be used so long as they're not indicated as prohibited on the NOP's National List. Some fairly low-risk synthetic pesticides also are allowed under NOP rules.
Subpart G of the list, §205.600 through §205.606 of 7 CFR 205, offers explicit explanations of what is allowed when it comes to pesticides. Some pesticides, as detailed in Subpart G §205.601, can be used as long as they do not contaminate crops, soil, or water. Among these are alcohols, chlorine materials, copper sulfate, hydrogen peroxide, ozone gas, peracetic acid, soap-based algicide/demossers, and sodium carbonate peroxyhydrate.
Among substances strictly prohibited, as detailed in Subpart G §205.602, are ash from manure burning, arsenic, calcium chloride, lead salts, potassium chloride, sodium fluoaluminate (mined), sodium nitrate, strychnine, and tobacco dust (nicotine sulfate).
Understand Pesticide Product Labels
Any pesticides used during organic production must be registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It's important that you pay attention to pesticide product labels in their entirety because every ingredient, active or inert, noted in the ingredient list must comply with the NOP rule. All synthetics used in organic production, even if inert, must be classified by the EPA as having a minimum risk.
Because you often won't be able to find all inert ingredients on a label, you should speak directly to the pesticide registrant or work with your accredited certifying agent to find out if a product is okay to use. You can also check with the Organic Materials Review Institute and the EPA, as they have resources to help you determine whether you can use a pesticide in organic production.
The EPA's Label Review Manual addresses how registrants can obtain approval of label language indicating that all ingredients (active and inert) in a pesticide and all of its uses meet the criteria defined in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) Rule.
Nonorganic Ingredients in Organic Products
In addition to pesticides, some nonorganic products, if not commercially available in organic form, can be used as ingredients in products labeled as “organic." According to Subpart G §205.606 of the NOP's guidelines, those products include casings from processed intestines, celery powder, colors derived from agricultural products, beet juice extract color, beta-carotene extract color, blackcurrant juice color, black/purple carrot juice color, blueberry juice color, carrot juice color, cherry juice color, chokeberry—Aronia juice color, elderberry juice color, grape juice color, grape skin extract color, paprika color, pumpkin juice color, purple potato juice, red cabbage extract color, red radish extract color, saffron extract color, turmeric extract color, fish oil, fructooligosaccharides, gelatin, gums—water extracted only, inulin—oligofructose enriched, kelp—for use only as a thickener and dietary supplement, konjac flour, lecithin—de-oiled, orange pulp—dried, orange shellac—unbleached, pectin, seaweed—Pacific kombu, starches, cornstarch (native), sweet potato starch—for bean thread production only, tragacanth gum, Turkish bay leaves, wakame seaweed, and whey protein concentrate.