Pesticides and Other Chemicals Used In Organic Farming

Tractor spraying pesticides

Did you know that organic farming can use heavy metals as pesticides? This including sulfates, carbonates, oxides and silicates of copper, zinc, manganese, cobalt, iron and selenium.

A common pseudoscientific claim made by proponents of organic farming is that organic farming does not use pesticides. It is often claimed that organic farming is chemical-free and good for the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Organic farming uses pesticides. In fact, all forms of agriculture uses pesticides. If farmers let pests run amok, they would lose somewhere between 50-80% of their total harvest. A chemical is not something that is inherently bad or dangerous. It is just an umbrella term for all chemical substances, whether good or bad, safe or dangerous. Pesticide residues found in conventional foods are so small that they are almost always below regulatory thresholds and does not produce any harmful effects. Studies touted as showing pesticide residues on conventional foods rarely check for organic pesticides and often do not put the minuscule doses found into the proper biological context.

According to large-scale meta-analyses on life cycle assessment for ~90 food types in ~740 agricultural systems show that organic farming require more land, grow less food, yet have similar levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence indicates that organic farming does not produce better tasting, safer or more nutritious food. Organic farming is a deeply deceptive marketing strategy, not a robust method to avoid pesticides. The organic food movement is also deeply against genetically modified foods.

Let us take a closer look at what pesticides and other chemicals are used in organic farming. Regulatory documents outlining what substances are allowed in the United States comes from the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. The equivalent documents from the European Union comes from EUR-Lex website. This article will focus on the substances allowed in the United States. If used in accordance with regulatory requirements, pesticides used in both conventional and organic farming does not pose a health risk to humans based on the current best available scientific evidence.

In the crushing majority of cases, pesticide residues of food (be it organic, conventional or genetically modified foods) are present in such low concentrations that they do not have any clinically relevant harmful health effects. You should not avoid organic food due to fake fear about pesticide residues on them, but be skeptical of the organic industry due to their pseudoscientific and misleading marketing.

Pesticides and Other Chemicals Used In Organic Farming (United States)

The relevant regulatory documents are divided into multiple sections. First is the synthetic substances allowed in organic crop production. Then we look at synthetic substances that are used in organic livestock production. Finally, there is a list of non-agricultural substances allowed in organic farming. Because some substances are allowed in multiple categories, some substances occur more than once, but not in the same list. In total, there are almost 150 unique entries in these lists, and those are only the synthetic and non-organic substances allowed. There are likely many, many more organic substances allowed.

Note that there are a large number synthetic and non-organic substances that are allowed in organic farming. This is in stark contrast to organic farming activists who insists that organic farming does not use pesticides or other chemicals.

Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production

Perhaps the most important thing to highlight is that there are many substances that organic proponents do not want you to know are used in organic farming. Did you know that organic farming can use heavy metals as pesticides? The most common ones are the sulfates, carbonates, oxides and silicates of copper, zinc, manganese, cobalt, iron and selenium.

Calcium hypochlorite
Chlorine dioxide
Hypochlorous acid
Sodium hypochlorite
Copper sulfate
Hydrogen peroxide
Ozone gas
Peracetic acid
Soap-based algicide/demossers
Sodium carbonate peroxyhydrate
Soap-based Herbicides
Newspaper or other recycled paper
Petroleum-based plastic mulch and covers
Biodegradable bio-based mulch film
Ammonium carbonate
Aqueous potassium silicate
Boric acid
Elemental sulfur
Lime sulfur
Sucrose octanoate esters
Ferric phosphate
Copper hydroxide
Copper oxide
Copper oxychloride
Hydrated lime
Potassium bicarbonate
Humic acids
Lignin sulfonate
Magnesium oxide
Magnesium sulfate
Soluble boron products
Zinc sulfates
Zinc carbonates
Zinc oxides
Zinc silicates
Copper carbonates
Copper silicates
Iron sulfates
Iron oxides
Iron carbonates
Iron silicates
Manganese sulfates
Manganese carbonates
Manganese oxides
Manganese silicates
Selenium sulfates
Selenium carbonates
Selenium oxides
Selenium silicates
Cobalt sulfates
Cobalt carbonates
Cobalt oxides
Cobalt silicates
Liquid fish products
Sulfuric acid
Citric acid
Phosphoric acid
Squid byproducts
Sulfurous acid
Ethylene gas
Sodium silicate
Hydrogen chloride
Microcrystalline cheesewax

Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production.

Organic farming is also involved in livestock production. Thus, the production of meat in an organic system also uses pesticides and other chemicals. This is a necessity because otherwise any farming or livestock production would not work because they would be swamped with pathogens and dirty tools.

Activated charcoal
Calcium borogluconate
Calcium propionate
Calcium hypochlorite.
Chlorine dioxide.
Hypochlorous acid
Sodium hypochlorite
Hydrogen peroxide.
Kaolin pectin
Magnesium hydroxide
Magnesium sulfate
Mineral oil
Injectable supplements of trace minerals
Peroxyacetic/peracetic acid
hosphoric acid
Propylene glycol
Sodium chlorite
Copper sulfate
Elemental sulfur
Formic acid
Mineral oil
Sodium chlorite
Sucrose octanoate esters
Zinc sulfate

Non-agricultural (non-organic) substances allowed in organic products

Perhaps the best refutation of the falsehoods typically associated with organic farming is to point out that organic farming involve the use of non-organic substances.

Calcium carbonate
Calcium chloride
Calcium sulfate
Diatomaceous earth
High-acyl gellan gum
Glucono delta-lactone
L-Malic acid
Magnesium sulfate
Potassium chloride
Potassium iodide
Sodium bicarbonate
Sodium carbonate
Tartaric acid
Alginic acid
Ammonium bicarbonate
Ammonium carbonate
Ascorbic acid
Calcium citrate
Calcium hydroxide
Calcium phosphates
Carbon dioxide
Peracetic acid/Peroxyacetic acid
Phosphoric acid
Potassium carbonate
Potassium citrate
Potassium hydroxide
Potassium lactate
Potassium phosphate
Silicon dioxide
Sodium acid pyrophosphate
Sodium citrate
Sodium hydroxide
Sodium lactate
Sodium phosphates
Sulfur dioxide
Xanthan gum


It is a pseudoscientific falsehood to claim that organic farming does not use pesticides. Organic farming uses a lot of different pesticides, including compounds that include heavy metals such as copper, zinc, manganese, selenium and iron. In addition to pesticides, there are dozens and dozens of other chemicals that are allowed in organic farming for a wide range of purposes. There is no aspect of organic farming that is free of chemicals. This is true for crop production, livestock production and general organic farming practices. Perhaps most ironically, even synthetic, non-agricultural and non-organic substances are allowed in organic farming. Thus, scientific reality offers a stark contrast to organic advertisement and misinformation.

When organic farming activists tell you that organic farming does not use pesticides or chemicals, the are trying to deceive you. If you like organic foods, go ahead and continue to buy and eat it. If you are skeptical of the claims made by the organic industry and online organic activists and feel you do not want to pay more money for less food, go ahead and skip it.

Are the chemicals used in organic farming present as pesticide residues on food in concentrations that are dangerous to eat? In the crushing majority of cases, the answer is absolutely no. The same is true for conventional or genetically modified foods as well. The goal of this post is not to fearmonger about chemicals, but to expose the charlatans that insist that organic foods are free of chemicals or claim that organic farming do not use pesticides.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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