Organic pesticides aren’t necessarily more sustainable than synthetic

It would seem illogical that organic compounds are all more sustainable than synthetics, or vice versa.  The term “organic” has a health halo, biasing many people toward believing organic growing techniques are best for the environment.  I’ve already covered analyses suggesting that there isn’t enough evidence that suggests organic foods are better for your health, so is the higher cost justified by a lessened environmental impact?  Bahlai et al. just published a paper suggesting that the dichotomous classification of organic and conventional is not optimal for sustainability, we must evaluate pesticides individually.

According to the authors, sustainable agriculture programs put an emphasis on the development of organic and natural insecticides to control pests, with the assumption that they are safer on the environment compared to synthetics.  Public opinion also leans toward this assumption as well.  The various practices (organic, conventional, or integrated) have been studied producing different results on sustainability.  Differences in methodologies, practice classifications, and a number of other variables make it difficult to draw conclusions at this point.  Importantly, they note:

…each system is characterized by a suite of practices which are ideologically, rather than empirically defined, these systems are not mutually exclusive from each other, and vary from region to region depending on regulations. Because of these variations, generalizations about the overall sustainability of one system over another are never universal.

Organic farms do indeed (generally) use pesticides, they just aren’t synthetically made, while conventional farms can use both natural and synthetics.

This study focuses on soybean aphid, which is a major pest in North America.  The investigators chose 4 new “potential reduced risk” insecticides with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2 synthetic and 2 natural (certified for organic crops in Canada).  2 synthetic controls (currently used) were also included:

First, lab tests studied toxicity of the pesticides against 2 species that help control aphid populations: Harmonia axyridis and Orius insidiosus, and found that the currently used synthetic pesticides were most toxic to the beneficial species compared to the 4 new ones.  Of these, the 2 organics were more toxic than than the synthetics.

Then, a 2 year, 5 site study examined efficacy and selectivity of target pests.  The organic pesticides had a lower efficacy than the synthetics at 1 and 2 weeks post-treatment.  Selectivity was greatest with both synthetics. Here are the graphs; the mineral oil and beauveria bassiana are the organic pesticides, compared to the new synthetic spirotetramat and flonicamid.

Going back to the first table, the net environmental impact was estimated as an Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ), which is a ranking that incorporates MSDS data and application rate.  According to the EIQ-FUR (field use), the organic pesticides had a higher (in the case of the mineral oil, much higher) environmental impact compared to synthetics.  The authors mention some controversy about using EIQ compared to other ranking methods, but point out the inverse relationship they found between selectivity and EIQ in this study, supporting its use.


The synthetic pesticides studied here tend to be more sustainable compared to the organics.  The authors clearly favor integrated pest management systems over completely organic techniques:

Carefully designed integrated pest management systems are likely the best strategy for minimizing environmental impact of agriculture: where certified organic systems may reject the technology with the smallest environmental impact based on ideology, IPM maintains the flexibility to incorporate any strategy empirically determined to have the smallest impact.

This sounds most sensible to me:  we should study each pesticide using methods like this rather than making misguided generalizations about sustainability.  Indeed, the authors sum it up nicely:

… we reject the organic-conventional dichotomy and emphasize that, in order to optimize environmental sustainability, individual tactics must be evaluated for their environmental impact in the context of an integrated approach, and that policy decisions must be based on empirical data and objective risk-benefit analysis, not arbitrary classifications.

I do have to question whether measuring only efficacy and selectivity and making conclusions about sustainability is appropriate.  Hopefully future studies will measure other impacts.


Bahlai, C., Xue, Y., McCreary, C., Schaafsma, A., & Hallett, R. (2010). Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans PLoS ONE, 5 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011250

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  • Steve Savage

    Good post. Most people assume that there are no “pesticides” used on Organic which, as you point out, is not true. As the paper you cite observes, the Organic, “natural” pesticides are not necessarily better for us or for the environment. The copper-based fungicides that are used on Organic are actually 10 times as toxic as modern synthetic fungicides and also hard on aquatic systems. Anyway, its good to see someone taking the time to investigate this issue rather than simply believing the Myth that Organic is some sort of zero risk optionSteve Savage, Ph.D.

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  • Paul

    This article gives the impression that organic farmers are just Drenching their crops with these “so called” toxic organic pesticides! One thing people need to realize about organic farmers is that they only use these natural pesticides if they have a problem & not all the time like conventional farmers do with using their Synthetic pesticides which can be even more toxic to the Environment & kill more non target insects!

    • Colby


      If you would take the time to actually read my post, you would see that this study showed exactly the opposite of what you just said. The synthetic pesticides in this study had a lower environmental impact, and each pesticide needs to be tested individually instead of relying on ideological classifications like “organic” and “conventional”.

  • Philli Heard

    “We must evaluate pesticides individually” may give a bias towards or an unintended “health halo” to conventional pesticides As a real farmer who works with a sustainable, robust and closely monitored integrated pest management system everyday [SWNZ] I will point out you may be overlooking the cocktail effect as a result of normal farm practices when using sustainable conventional pesticides. A researcher may have the will to assess pesticides indivually but out in the field even a sustainable farmer very rarely applies only one pesticide as fuel costs and soil compaction from tractors and spray equipment are also factored into a sustainable system. Most “sustainable” farmers use pesticide and fungicide combinations with adjuvants or surfactants or both. These are usually mixed seperately and are designed for efficient penetration and coverage and are rarely factored in when “researchers” calculate environmental or health impacts of particular pesticides or fungicides. The researchers you are writing about were right to point out the shortcomings in evaluating environmental impacts using the EIQ. There is a dearth of reliable research that is not paid for or subsidised by the big agrichemical companies on the environmental or human health impacts of these “sustainable” cocktails.Professor Ian Shaw NZ has written extensively on “The Cocktail Effect” if you are interested. It would be valuable for you to find out what criteria the researchers used to define ‘potential reduced risks” and whether this is a standard scale used in Canada to assess “risk” in pesticide applications. Maybe Canada has more rigorous standards than the USDA and their GRAS STANDARD. I also wish to point out as a qualified Organic and Sustainable horticulturalist that real organic farmers tend to rely on close observation of their farms particular ecosystem rather than “one size fits all” research and are probably more likely to use single pesticide/fungicide applications with less residual effects [this research appears to show this] as part of their farm management practice but there is no empirical research for this that I can locate. Perhaps you can? .