Eating Organic: How Farmers Manage Pests Without Pesticides

20 October 2015
 Categories: , Articles


The organic food market increases by about 20% each year. More and more Americans are choosing organic options when shopping. If you are considering joining the movement toward organic, locally grown foods, you might wonder about the process of how organic food is protected from weeds and pests. Since one of the main goals of organic eaters is often avoiding chemical pesticides and promoting sustainable growing practices, learning about the types of pest control needed to commercially grow organic foods can be helpful to you as you go to buy your food from the store or farmer's market.


Pests are controlled in a myriad of ways. Usually, experts in pest control assess the crop and make a list of information that will determine the battle strategy. Things to consider include the following:

  • what the crop is
  • what insects are naturally attracted to the crop
  • what pest behavior is normally like
  • the life cycle of the pest
  • the goal of the harvest
  • the type of soil and what fertilizer is to be used


These factors are important, because organic farmers need to anticipate pests in order to enact effective control methods. For example, a common enemy of lettuce and leafy greens is the aphid. Instead of spraying poison to kill the aphids, pest control professionals introduce a natural predator into the environment as the lettuce begins to grow: ladybugs. This is a simple example of how natural methods can be used for commercial pest control in the organic growing environment. Other pest control methods include the following:

  • Cultural practices. Farmers can make their crops more friendly toward insect or pest predators to encourage the natural control that comes from the food chain. Discouraging pests is another form of cultural control. Depending on the pest, discouragement can be achieved by changing soil composition, spacing plants at a specific distance apart, or mixing crops with other plants that repel insects. If an insect, for example, lays eggs in the soil for reproduction, soil acidity or drainage can make the land hostile, leading to less reproduction of the pest itself.
  • Pathogens. There are some pathogens that are harmless to humans and plants and occur naturally in insect populations. Some bacteria and viruses affect only insects, just like humans are affected by the common cold. If these pathogens are cultivated and released, they become a natural insecticide for the pest in question. Insects become sick and die without needing to resort to commercial pesticides.
  • Traps and barriers. Trapping insects may seem like a small-potatoes solution to big pest problem, but it can be effective if begun early. Barriers are also a good way to protect plants. For example, a farmer may place nets over organic strawberries to prevent wasps from devouring the flesh of the fruit as it ripens. 
  • Natural substance insecticide. As a last resort, farmers can use non-invasive insecticides to deter pests. Some of these are are simple as derived plant oils, like orange or peppermint, that repel pests. Others might include the use of diatomaceous earth, a fine white powder made from fossils that shreds the exoskeletons of insects but is harmless to animals and humans. Finally, organic chemical compounds can be used if nothing else works, but because this departs from the philosophy of organic production, it is only used when there are limited options available.


Fighting pests naturally when growing organic food requires extensive knowledge about the ecosystem, niche, and reproduction practices of thousands of pests. You might wonder why organic produce costs more than other commercially-grown foods. The knowledge and work it takes to deter pests naturally are of portion of the higher costs. However, when you buy an organic apple or head of lettuce, you can feel good knowing that the earth and the food were made without potentially harmful pest control methods.

Click here for more info on different forms of pest control.