This may seem a contradiction to some people, but yes, organic farms are allowed to use pesticides. Farmers have been spreading chemicals on their crops for thousands of years, and we consider these to be organic. Recently though, we have divided farm chemicals into the categories of “organic” and “conventional”.
Whole books, even college courses are offered on the various definitions of organic, and the pros and cons of organic farming. Since we are willing to pay a lot more money for something, it must be better right? Right?
As a skeptic, I need to know what “better” is. America has the best health-care system in the world was quoted a lot last year, yet when you ask for numbers or rankings, we were always very far from the best.
One of the points of this blog, will be to illustrate that if something is “best” in one area, it is often at the cost of something else. If you want to eliminate genetically engineered (G.E.) foods around the world, then a billion or more people will starve to death. (Science may help in the future, but then again, science’s solution to starvation in the first place was G.E. crops.)
It is incredibly difficult to judge whether or not organic farming methods are better than conventional (modern), because different countries have different definitions of what organic is, governments often provide exceptions from the strict rules anyway. And what exactly, does it mean to be better? A recent paper tried to examine this issue in one, very narrow way.
They looked at six pesticides: two conventional, two new but “reduced risk” pesticides, and two organic pesticides. To further isolate variables, they only looked at soy bean plants, and the soy bean aphid. One of the environmental impact factors is the ability to selectively kill the aphids, but keep the lady-beetles and insidious flower bugs alive. These are natural predators of the aphids, so killing them is not a good thing.
The organic pesticides are simple Mineral Oil, and Beauveria Bassiana, a natural fungus harvested, packaged and sold to be spray applicable. Both of these are considered organic by the Canadian Government.
Each chemical also has an “Environmental Impact Quotient”. This number is calculated from the Material Data Safety Sheet, application directions, and other factors. It is a scientific standard of measure. An organic farm chemical may have a lower residue, but if you need to apply it twice as often, then there are heavier fossil fuel, emissions and erosion costs. The EIQ takes all of these things into consideration.
Of all six chemicals tested, the two organic pesticides had the first and third worst EIQ. They also had the two worst selectivities- they killed more than just the aphids, and they couldn’t even do that too well. One of the conventional, and both of the newer reduced risk pesticides did a great job of killing just the aphids and leaving the ladybugs alone.
I like this study because it is very specific, although at the cost of only being able to rate 6 chemicals. By all measures, the organic pesticides did not look too good. One of the conventional did not look too good, but the other one did. The newer chemicals were the very good.
I think the lesson to take from this, is that just because something is newer or science-based, does not mean it is bad or that it will be used 10 years from now. Science is always finding flaws in the way things currently work, and seeking ways to improve it. The more modern, reduced risk pesticides had low environmental impact, while still being effective, and selective. This will only get better. Mineral oil will not, and natural fungus will not.
Please let me know what Organic means to you in the comments. Do you pay more? Why, or why not.