Pesticide Free Versus Organic

Contributors: Martha Filipic, Elaine Grassbaugh

OSUE Chowline clarifies a difference in terminology. A reader asks: "At the farmers market I go to each week, one of the vendors sells 'pesticide-free' produce. Why don't they just call it 'organic'?

Pesticide Free Versus Organic

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A reader asks: "At the farmers market I go to each week, one of the vendors sells 'pesticide-free' produce. Why don't they just call it 'organic'? The vendor says they can't, but she promises they don't use pesticides."

The vendor you're talking to probably won't call her produce "organic" because of the official organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Strict control over the use of synthetic pesticides is just one of the criteria that needs to be met. The standards include:

The land that the crop is grown on must have been free of any prohibited substances for at least three years.

The farm cannot make use of any variety that has been genetically engineered, nor use sewage sludge (a type of fertilizer) or ionizing radiation (a preservation method) on the land or the harvested crop.

Organic farms manage soil fertility and crop nutrients through tillage and cultivation, crop rotations and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and certain permitted synthetic materials.

In most cases, a farmer must use organic seeds and other planting stock.

The farm must control pests, weeds and diseases primarily using physical, mechanical and biological controls. When necessary, an organic farm can use biological or botanical substances, and even synthetic substances approved for certain uses, such as ammonium carbonate as bait in insect traps, or copper sulfate to control plant disease.

On top of all that, farms seeking the official organic label must keep detailed records, have an on-farm inspection by an official certifying agent, and pay all the fees associated with the certification. Farms that sell less than $5,000 in organic products a year can call their products "organic" without the certification, but only if they comply with all of the other rules and regulations. And, they can't use the official USDA Organic seal.

It appears that these days, consumers seem less interested in organic products and more on locally grown products grown in a sustainable way. Farmers who call their produce "pesticide-free" likely don't use synthetic herbicides, insecticides or fungicides, but might use pesticides allowed in the organic certification program. They also may or may not use synthetic fertilizers. Ask if you're curious. That's one of the many benefits of purchasing locally grown products direct from the producer.

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