Many farmers consider transitioning from chemical (or conventional) farming to organic farming. Organic farming can be both profitable and environmentally sustainable. To become an organic farmer in the US, there is a specific set of practices that farmers must follow to receive organic certification. One thing that farmers must do as organic farmers is use only pesticides that have been approved for use on organic crops. The transition from conventional farming to organic farming takes time; a farmer can expect it to take no less than three years to make the transition from conventional to organic.
So what are pesticides? Pesticides are chemicals that farmers apply to their crops or soil to destroy insects, fungi, and weeds. Any of these pests can severely decrease a field's crop yield. Pesticides are important to allow farms to maximize yield in any given season and remain profitable as a business.
Pesticides are widely varied in origin, mechanism, and effect. Organic farming is mostly concerned with the pesticide's origin, that is, how was this pesticide made? Chemical pesticides fall into three general origin categories: organic, synthetic, and inorganic.
Organic pesticides are those whose chemicals are naturally occurring. An example of an organic pesticide is pyrethrum. Pyrethrum is a chemical that naturally occurs in the flowers of chrysanthemum plants. That chemical acts as a neurotoxin to insects and kills them.
Synthetic pesticides are those that do not occur anywhere in nature. Rather, these kinds of pesticides are formulated in research labs. One very famous synthetic pesticide is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. DDT's insecticide action is also neurotoxic. It kills by affecting the insect's nervous system. Although DDT is no longer utilized as a pesticide, many new synthetic pesticides are continually being formulated and applied.
Lastly, inorganic pesticides are those that are mineral-based. An example of this type of pesticide is copper sulfate. The copper in this fungicide binds to proteins in fungi, causing the host fungus to die, thus saving the plant the fungus has infected.
To start thinking about conventional and organic pesticides, we need to define what we mean when we refer to each of those categories. For the purposes of this question, we will use definitions provided by the USDA: organic pesticides are those allowed for use by farmers who are USDA Certified Organic; conventional pesticides are those that certified organic farmers are not allowed to use.
When a farmer is making the transition from conventional to organic farming, they must follow the USDA's regulations, which include detailed notes on which pesticides are allowed for use on organic crops. In general, organic farmers are not allowed to use any synthetic pesticides on their crops. They may, however, use organic pesticides as well as some inorganic pesticides. The USDA provides documents that explain exactly which pesticides an organic farmer can and cannot use. An aspiring organic farmer will make the transition from conventional to organic practices by following those regulations to the letter. If a farmer has been using synthetic pesticides, the best practice is to research organic pesticides that target the same pests and substitute organic pesticides for synthetic ones.
Once a farmer is complying with all of the USDA regulations, they then apply for organic certification. A number of third-party organizations provide organic certifications. Once certified, the farmer is officially an organic farmer and can begin selling crops under that label.