Organic farming uses fewer pesticides, reduces dietary exposure on produce

In contrast to conventional farming, organic farming relies more on natural processes than chemicals to manage and prevent pests and diseases. A new study published in the journal Agronomy shows that this difference in management significantly reduces risks of dietary and environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, and transitioning merely 1.2% of cropland used to grow fruits and vegetables to organic production is needed to make an impact on dietary exposure to harmful pesticides. The study paired the most detailed pesticide use database in the U.S., the California Pesticide Use Reporting (PUR) system, with the national-level pesticide use data collected from USDA to quantify pesticides used in conventional versus organic production of row crops, tomatoes, carrots, and grapes. The study also estimated pesticide residues and risks of dietary exposure to pesticides on 21 fruit and vegetable crops, and compared these risks in organic versus conventional for 10 fruit and vegetable crops. 

A comparison of non-chemical pest management strategies used for organic and conventional farming showed that conventional farmers use significantly fewer chemical-free practices than organic, and this reliance on chemicals for pest management results in more pesticide use in conventional farming. Subsequently, the pesticide use analysis showed that chemicals used on conventional farms were greater on conventional farms and “is a function of crop grown, farming systems, pest pressure, and the number of preventive practices that are embedded in a farm’s IPM system…row crops cotton, corn, and soybeans account for the greatest area treated and the highest volumes of pesticide use.” Herbicides accounted for nearly half of the chemicals applied on conventional farms with a 34% increase since 2012, while insecticide use has increased 300% from 2012–2019. Pesticide residue analyses showed that vegetables posed a greater risk of exposure than fruits, and organic produce provided significantly less dietary exposure. Residues in conventional produce were “55 times higher in vegetables and 115 times higher in fruits.” 

The results from this study add to the growing body of science that shows “organic farmers use markedly fewer pesticides, and they apply them less often and to limited acreage. The pesticides that are used by organic farmers are, in almost all cases, significantly lower risk than the pesticides applied on nearby conventionally managed farms growing the same crop.” This paper also provides a thorough description of the kinds of pesticides that are allowed and prohibited in organic farming, and the basic processes of approval and enforcement of pesticide use, both synthetic and organic, by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Organic Program. 



Banner Photo Credit: Markus Spiske;