In 2017, organic insecticides and other pest control products are readily available to traditional and organic growers. Organic insecticides and use of other pest control tactics are often an essential part of a certified organic farm’s approach to pest management, especially in the hot and humid areas of the country where insect pests are unusually abundant.

Perhaps less well known is the potential organic insecticides have to become increasingly important tools in the pest control arsenal available to conventional growers. Continuing investment by chemical companies developing insecticides and other organic pest control products formally approved for use in organic farming operations also allows for the strengthening of integrated pest management programs on noncertified farms. As more conventional growers explore a switch to certified organic farming, organic pesticides can also play a critical role in easing the often difficult transition period required to achieve certified organic status. In addition, use of organic insecticides by conventional operations also offers opportunity to improve competitiveness in important markets.

The idea that certified organic foods are insecticide/pesticide free is a broadly held, but inaccurate, perception. In a work titled, “Insecticides for Organic Commercial & Backyard Vegetable Production,” Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D., Extension entomologist at the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service and Sustainable Agriculture Program Coordinator at Auburn University, noted the important place organic insecticides have in the certified organic grower’s toolbox. According to Majumdar, “Just as with traditional chemical insecticides, organic insecticides should be used as a last resort but they are vital in our battle against insects. It is important to know that the word ‘organic’ is not synonymous with ‘pesticide-free;’ rather, organic means the use of alternative pesticides that undergo a thorough review process by a government-approved agency.”

As the certified organic food industry grows, the need for an ever-broadening arsenal of products usable in pest control grows, too. In response, Majumdar noted, many of the large chemical firms are showing continued interest in the development of new and more effective alternative insecticides, interest demonstrated by those companies’ significant investments in research and product development. Emphasizing that a mention does not constitute endorsement of a company or product, Majumdar noted that companies like Valent, Bayer, Syngenta, Certis, Novozymes, Bioworks and others are all working to improve upon and bring to market biological insecticides certified for use in growing fruits, vegetables and other products sold as certified organic. Many of these specialty products can be obtained at the local farmers’ cooperative or online through various vendors.

Although the research and development of organic insecticides on the part of the pesticide producers is driven by the needs of certified organic growers, the resulting products also can provide significant benefit to traditional growers, even growers with no intention of seeking certification. Although produce cannot be marketed as “organic” until certification requirements have been met, a stout IPM program using organic chemicals can result in products able to be marketed under alternative labels. Terms like “sustainably grown,” “naturally grown,” “grown without synthetic pest controls” or “pollinator friendly” can be honestly used as positive marketing phrases (assuming the products were grown in the manner the label implies) and may even allow for a price premium, especially if a grower is already marketing product as “locally grown.” At least the organics can give a grower marketing to local grocery stores, produce wholesalers, roadside produce outlets, farmers markets and the like – an edge on the competition.

An additional benefit to traditional growers exploring use of organic insecticides is the ability to explore the potential of an organic approach before decision-making about the viability of a transition to organic production takes place. A shift from conventional growing to certified organic brings significant challenges so the more information a grower has, the better the odds of a successful transition once committed to obtaining organic certification.

Of greatest importance to the conventional farmer, however, is the opportunity organic pesticides offer in developing an effective IPM program.

According to Majumdar, “We have seen increased use of pest prevention tactics with improved scouting practices and alternative pest management tactics such as the use of trap crops and pest exclusion system in the conventional systems.” Interestingly, it has been the small and medium scale producers who have been at the forefront of adopting more advanced IPM tactics in their fields. In a strong IPM program, he noted, organic insecticides not only provide an alternative to combating pests that have developed a resistance to conventional insecticides, they allow growers to “diversify operations and incorporate cover crops and habitats for conserving natural enemies that are so important for keeping certain key pests out of the crop including lacewings and ladybeetles that aggressively feed on aphids and whiteflies, and, to reduce general insecticide usage to protect natural enemies and avoid pest resurgence,” Majumdar said.

Although organic pesticides hold the promise of importance to traditional growers of the future, they are, as Majumdar noted, vital to the certified organic industry today, especially during the transition period required to convert land from conventional agriculture to organic.

The transition from conventional farming methods to organic can be unsettling. Transition takes at least three years during which there can be no application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Proactive steps must be taken to prevent contamination from adjoining land uses. An organic system plan complete with proactive soil fertility management systems, conservation measures and environmentally sound manure, weed, disease and pest management practices must be developed and implemented, and regarding insecticides and other pesticides, only natural inputs (with the exception of a few synthetic substances) can be applied. Once certification is obtained, even natural inputs are to be used only after proactive pest management practices have been implemented and shown to have failed (for more information regarding requirements organic farmers must meet see “An Introduction To Organic Certification Requirements“).

The three-year transition period required when shifting land from conventional to organic production allows growers used to conventional methods to adapt to the new requirements they are shifting toward through use of natural rather than synthetic insecticides. It takes time to learn to depend on sustainable prevention practices rather than routine spraying. Availability of organic pesticides allows a grower to ease into the new regimen and experiment with approaches rather than having to go “cold turkey.”

According to Majumdar, there is a steep learning curve to alternative systems. “New producers should contact currently certified farms to learn from their peers and then decide the course of action,” he said, adding, “Conventional producers have a lot more choices when it comes to plant nutrition, disease, insect and weed control products that have varying levels of persistence in nature. Organic approved products are fewer and nonpersistent in nature – in other words, an organic farmer may end up with more short-term spray applications under a high pest pressure condition. Organic farmers have to use pest and disease prevention practices with an ecological approach; this takes many years of learning and experience on the farm.”

Speaking to the differences between conventional and organic, Majumdar said, “Organic producers have to integrate the three levels of sustainable pest management approaches together since insecticide choices are fewer and some insects are tough to manage. For example, leaf-footed bugs and stink bugs are difficult to kill with currently registered organic insecticides; heat and rain during normal years or extreme drought in other years can cause rapid degradation of products. One of the best ways for sucking insect pests is to use trap crops of sorghum and sunflower as suggested on the Alabama Vegetable IPM website. Pest exclusion is another method of reducing pest onslaught suitable for high tunnel crop producers. Sustainable agriculture thus uses a diverse approach and insecticide is really the last option for a variety of reasons.”

Majumdar offers his best advice to growers depending on organic pesticides:

  • Apply organic insecticides when insect pest populations are low or pests are small in size.
  • Pest prevention is the goal in organic systems since outbreaks are very difficult to control.
  • Don’t quit organic insecticide applications too soon. Scout before and after application of insecticides to quantify effects.
  • Keep suppressing insects with correct application timing and spray equipment. Always read the pesticide label and use a high quality sprayer for optimum plant coverage.

Overall, the key to using organic pesticides effectively, according to Majumdar, is to remember that while “Organic insecticides do work, they are slow-acting in many cases. The insecticides must be applied ahead of an outbreak to avoid frustration,” he said.

Majumdar added, “Multi-level attacks on insect pests using ecological approaches are key to sustainable pest management. Crop diversification approaches to IPM that reduce the chances of insecticide resistance and pest resurgence are required if organic pesticides are to be utilized for their best effectiveness.”

Growers interested in organic insecticides and other pest control strategies in their own regions would be well served to make use of the extensive resources offered by Extension experts like Majumdar in Alabama. Alabama’s efforts, for example, include trap crop training modules on leaf-footed bugs, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and the yellowmargined leaf beetles available on the Alabama Vegetable IPM website.

Organic insecticides are, according to scientists like Majumdar, effective when used properly, provide many benefits to growers, conventional and organic but, according to Majumdar, the best is yet to come as researchers, pesticide manufacturers and growers work to develop ever better products in response to customer desires for food and other products “grown naturally” as possible.