Misconception Number 42: Organic farmers can use toxic natural pesticides based on the argument that substances produced by living organisms are not really chemical, but rather organic constituents of nature. In reality, the distinction between lab-created products and products created by living organisms does not make sense scientifically, since every biological process is fundamentally a chemical process.
Summary of Counter-Arguments:
Details of Counter-Arguments:
To prevent unacceptable losses from pests, diseases, and weeds, Organic Agriculture relies primarily on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions. It also uses living organisms and cultivation methods to control pests and weeds. Chemical substances (even if natural) are used as a last resort. Hence the decision process for use of chemical substances for pest and weed control is different in organic farming than in typical conventional agriculture, where the use of pest and weed control chemical substances is routine.
It is possible to artificially create (i.e., in a laboratory) molecules that already exist in the “natural” world in such a way that there is no detectable difference in the end-product. Such synthetic products (that are identical to those existing naturally) may be allowed in organic agriculture, provided they are not available in sufficient quantities and qualities in their natural form, and provided that all other criteria (see below) are satisfied.
It is also true that some natural pesticides (even those used in Organic Agriculture) can have harmful effects on human health if they end up in our food. However, every year the agro-chemical industry creates new active substances composed of molecules that do not exist in living ecosystems and for which the negative human health effects are unknown. The most relevant difference between “natural” and “artificial” pesticides is the length of time they persist in the environment (i.e., half-life). Because “natural” pesticides use molecules that are already present in the environment (e.g., such molecules may be part of a specific plant), biological mechanisms have evolved to deal to these molecules and there are frequently organisms that are capable of quickly “digesting” such molecules (e.g., bacteria and fungi). While natural pesticides normally degrade in a matter of a few days, synthetic pesticides often persist for several months to tens of years (e.g., Toxaphene/Camphachlor has a half-life between 70 days and 12 years depending on climate and soil conditions). If the natural pesticide is applied with sufficient time prior to harvest, there is very little chance that it will end up in our food. Organic products have consistently shown insignificant pesticide residues as compared to conventional products.
For the reasons presented above, naturally occurring plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms are generally allowed as inputs in organic agriculture. Natural substances that undergo physical transformations, either by mechanical processing or biological methods (e.g., composting, fermentation, and enzymatic digestion) are also generally allowed, since these processes can occur in nature and are therefore unlikely to create unnatural variations of these molecules. On the contrary, substances that are modified by chemical reaction are considered synthetic and, therefore, generally not allowed, except for certain products that are considered identical to those in nature, as mentioned above. Hence, yes, every natural/biological process is fundamentally a chemical process, but every chemical process does not necessarily occur in nature, which is why the organic movement is so cautious about synthetic inputs.
The natural versus synthetic criterion is indeed a too simplistic to define organic inputs and is NOT the only criterion used by Organic Agriculture. Inputs accepted under organic production meet the following criteria, at a minimum:
Finally, Organic Agriculture minimizes the use of external inputs and encourages self-reliance of farms. Hence, plant extracts and other natural pesticides that can be produced on the farm are preferred to inputs purchased from manufacturers.
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