How can you tell organic foods are pesticide free?

The Organic Ideal
Look for the USDA certification on organic foods.
Look for the USDA certification on organic foods.
Photo courtesy of GovGab

The concern over pesticide use in agriculture has been a big part of the huge growth of the organics industry over the last decade. What used to be a specialty item sold in specialty stores to either the rich or the granola crowd is now commonplace. You find organic food in chain grocery stores. You find it with generic labels.

All of this "organic" food should be free of the pesticides most people are worried about: synthetic, chemical pesticides (and herbicides, for that matter). Not all pesticides are prohibited in organic farming, however.

One of the ideals of organics is harmony. Organic farmers use the properties of the land -- naturally occurring, beneficial worms and diatomaceous earth, for example -- to protect against pests that would ruin crops. But sometimes, a little extra help is needed, and pesticides do enter the picture. In this case, though, they're natural pesticides. Acceptable ones include insecticidal bacterium, dried chrysanthemum flowers and Derris plant roots (rotenone).

It's important to note a distinction in labeling, however, when deciding to go synthetics-free. "Organic" is a certification, and it's not the same as "pesticide-free." They embody different standards, and the stricter one is the "organic" designation -- particularly U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic, although some other certification bodies are reliable, as well. "Pesticide-free" actually means very little. It's not a regulated distinction. Produce labeled "pesticide-free" probably was grown without synthetic pesticides, but there's no federal regulation regarding the use of that particular phrase. "Organic," however, is a well-regulated word. Food labeled "organic" has to be not only free of all synthetic pesticides, but also grown in soil that has been free of synthetic pesticides for a minimum of three years.

Ideally, organic food contains no harmful chemicals. Ideally, it's healthier and more natural.

There are some issues, though, that make it somewhat difficult to be sure that when you buy organic you're getting the ideal -- and whether the ideal is worth the price.