Organic Production is Banking On Biology

Over the past 20 years, the organic sector of U.S agriculture has been one of the fastest growing domestic markets. Sales of organic products have typically increased 15% to 20% a year since 1990, but still represent a very small portion (3.5%) of all food products sold in the U.S.


Domestic sales of organic foods reached $22.9 billion in 2008, according to the Organic Trade Association. For growers to sell products as organic, they must become certified following the requirement of the National Organic Program (NOP) established by USDA in 2002. The NOP has many requirements for various management aspects of the farm, including pest management.

In order to demonstrate an adequate pest management strategy for certification, producers need to know which pest they are likely to find on their crops, the life cycles of those pests, pest levels tolerated by the crop, approximate time of emergence, and method of dispersal. The challenge is to manage the interacting factors of the environment to minimize pest damage to crops. Due to the limited number of approved substances for pest control in organic production, this is achieved largely through prevention. Regardless of the pest, organic farmers emphasize pest prevention through avoidance strategies including sanitation, rotation, soil improvement, timing of planting, using resistant varieties, and similar best management practices. In addition to avoidance strategies, producers can use tactics, such as attracting beneficial insects, that exaggerate naturally occurring control mechanisms.

A team of faculty at the University of Florida North Florida Research and Education Center–Suwannee Valley plans to use the entire 300-acre farm area to demonstrate these practices to both organic and conventional farmers through grant funding from USDA Southern IPM.

On Another Level

A three-tiered approach is used to ensure producers are managing pests with physical, biological, and cultural means prior to relying on approved substances. Although the distinction between the levels is not always clear, the levels are defined by the NOP as follows:

Level One – Management practices that reduce the potential for the development of pests. These are proactive measures the producer must take to eliminate the need for additional management.

Level Two – Involves the use of traditional management practices, primarily cultural and mechanical steps or the use of “natural” products.

Level Three – Allows for the use of a wider array of botanical products, including allowable synthetics.

Producers must document their efforts toward compliance on the first two levels. Because some proactive measures also are traditional management practices, the distinction between levels one and two is often minimal. Producers should not concern themselves too much with placing practices in category one or two, but rather develop a pest management strategy to ensure all steps are taken to avoid reliance on level three controls.

Examples of levels one and two practices include: alternating plant families or plant growth habits in time and space (rotation, intercropping); establishing predator populations in border crops; and selecting resistant varieties and using row covers.

Level three controls are the producer’s last line of defense and should only be used when all other options have been exhausted. If a producer anticipates the need for curative controls (level three), then that information should be included in the organic system plan. This might occur when the sum of preventative practices are predicted to be insufficient for adequate control.

Playing By The Rules

Organic growers must use products that meet the requirements of USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). Ingredients found in farm input products for crop or livestock production must either be a natural substance or a synthetic substance that is included on the national list. A few natural substances also are specifically prohibited. Inert ingredients used in pesticides (ingredients other than pesticides) must be considered by the EPA to be inert and of minimal risk.

Certification agencies have the responsibility of verifying that products used by farmers meet the requirements of the national list. They must review both the active and the non-active (inert) ingredients for compliance. Many certifiers use the services of the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), a non-profit organization established to provide this service of product review. Crop production materials have one of the following OMRI Status designations:

• Allowed (A) substances include non-synthetic materials that are not specifically prohibited by NOP and synthetic materials that are specifically allowed. OMRI allowed status indicates these materials are not subject to restrictions that limit their use.
• Restricted (R) substances are allowed in organic production subject to NOP rule use restrictions. Materials that are “Allowed with Restrictions” include substances subject to use with some special restrictions.
• Prohibited (P) substances in crop production are generally defined in the NOP rule. This group includes synthetic substances that are not allowed for use in organic production.

The EPA also had a voluntary label review program for registered pesticides. A product that meets the USDA-NOP requirements may use the specific wording “For Organic Production” with a three leaf logo for organic production. If a product is not listed by OMRI, EPA, or directly by the certifier, the farmer will generally need to provide enough information to the certifier to assure the product is in compliance with NOP rules. Use of a prohibited material on an organic farm could result in loss of certification for 36 months.