Pesticides and organic food: what you should know

Organic food and pesticides are indeed a very hot topic. Many people have questions. Are there pesticides in organic food? What pesticides are used in organic food? To answer this question and make informed decisions, it is important to first understand why farmers use pesticides, and what types of pesticides are used on organic foods. Let’s dive into the world of organic food and pesticides!

What are pesticides used for?

Spraying vegetable green plants with pesticides

In agriculture, pesticides are used to protect crops and harvests from unwanted or harmful organisms, such as weeds, insects and fungi.

Insects or diseases caused by fungi can cause losses in farmers’ fields. Weeds take up nutrients from the soil and compete with crop plants, which can reduce crop yields.

Pesticides are one way to combat these challenges.

What types of pesticides do farmers use?

Pesticides include several types of pest control products. They are categorized according to the pest they attack. The main ones are:

  • Herbicides, which are used against weeds
  • Insecticides, which are used against insects
  • Fungicides, which are used against fungi
  • Acaricides, which are used against ticks and mites
  • Bactericides, which are used against bacteria

Pesticides can also be classified according to their active ingredient, that is, the ingredient that acts against the targeted pest. There is a vast difference between chemical pesticides and natural pesticides.

Chemical pesticides

Chemical pesticides, also called synthetic pesticides, are pesticides with a chemically-based active ingredient.

Glyphosate is one example of a chemical pesticide. In fact, it is the most widely used herbicide in the world.

To meet organic standards, organic food must not be treated with chemical pesticides.

Natural pesticides

Natural pesticides are pesticides with a natural active ingredient. Acetic acid, a white vinegar component, is an example of a natural pesticide.

Biopesticides are a subcategory of natural pesticides. They are pesticides made from living organisms, such as bacteria or microscopic fungi. Natural pesticides can be used in organic agriculture, if they meet strict standards.

Are pesticides regulated?

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All pesticides, regardless of type, are regulated in Canada. Their application is also governed by provincial legislation.

For example, pesticides must be registered by Health Canada to validate that their use according to the label will not cause adverse environmental or health effects.

In addition, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducts testing and sampling to ensure the safety of food treated with pesticides.

Traditional agriculture, organic food and pesticides

Why do farmers use pesticides? They use chemical pesticides to control weeds, insects and diseases. In contrast, organic farming prohibits the use of chemical pesticides.

Organic agriculture favours cultivation methods that respect the natural cycles of ecosystems and promote soil fertility—all without using chemicals or genetically modified organisms.

What pesticides are used on organic food? Only natural pesticides! For example, organic farmers will opt for physical weed control methods over herbicides to control weeds. This is called physical weed control or non-chemical weed control.

This does not mean that the organic farmer weeds their entire field by hand! Many people associate organic farming with traditional or age-old farming methods. However, organic farmers can use high-tech.

If a food item is organic, is it pesticide-free?

Organic products are not pesticide-free: they are free of synthetic and chemical pesticides.

In organic farming, the use of chemical pesticides is prohibited. However, organic farms can use natural pesticides to control pests.

To meet Canadian organic standards, organic products can only be treated with substances that are on the Permitted Substances List. This list also provides strict guidelines on organic food and pesticides

Pesticides approved for use in organic production are generally readily biodegradable, unlike chemical pesticides that can remain in water and soil for long periods of time.

In addition, organic farmers use pesticides as a last resort. Organic agriculture is typically based on preventive methods to avoid the use of pesticides. These preventative methods include crop rotation, proper fertilizer management, soil health maintenance, and organic mulches.

Is it safer to eat organic?

Femme mange fraise biologique

Organic farming standards are centralized on a main principle: banning the use of pesticides and implementing preventative measures to avoid possible adverse effects on environmental and human health.

Eating organic foods may minimize the risk of exposure to chemical pesticides compared to eating conventionally grown foods.

For example, the Laboratoire d’expertises et d’analyses alimentaires du MAPAQ analyzed 23 types of fruits and vegetables that were certified organic. Pesticide residues were detected in 21% of the analyzed samples (out of 466 samples).

In comparison, in a similar analysis of 18 types of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, pesticide residues were found in 74% of the samples (out of a total of 668 samples).

It is important to remember that if organic food meets organic standards, it has been cultivated without chemical pesticides. This will not necessarily be the case for conventionally grown food, since conventional farming allows the use of synthetic pesticides. To choose products that meet organic standards, consumers can look for products with a recognized organic certification. For example, Kiju organic juices are certified “Canada Organic.”  Products bearing the “Canada Organic” logo are certified as meeting the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime, and contain at least 95% organic ingredients.