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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Pesticide-free not the same as 'organic' (for 8/22/10)

August 13, 2010

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.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Elaine Grassbaugh, research associate with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Ohio State University's Department of Horticulture and Crop Science.


Martha Filipic
Elaine Grassbaugh