Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Sustainable Organic Pesticides

Neem tree picture from Wikipedia
Organic cotton relies on plant-derived insecticides such as Neem oil.  The veggies from my CSA box also rely on Neem oil.  Farmer Glenn Tanaka of Tanaka Farms told subscribers that Neem oil needs to be applied before insects get a toe hold because it's really a pest repellent rather than a pest killer.  That means he spends a lot of money and time buying and spraying Neem oil.

Neem oil is relatively safe and breaks down quickly according to fact sheets from both the Missouri Botanic Garden and Oregon State University. (STEAM is a family business.  ;-)  One of my uncles got his PhD in Botany at MBG/Washington U.)

According to Neem Oil and Crop Protection: From Now to the Future, Neem oil has over 100 different biologically-active compounds, but one ingredient, azadirachtin, is responsible for ~90% of the action. Synthetic azadirachtin, made in a lab, is just as effective asazadirachtin from Neem tree oil.  But, if farmers use synthetic azadirachtin, they lose the organic designation and the higher prices that their cotton would obtain at market.

Additionally, Neem trees are being harvested unsustainably in the wild to meet the exploding demand.  This is so alarming that scientists at Kew gardens are trying to help organic cotton farmers in Mali learn to use Neem oil more optimally and to switch to farmed Neem trees rather than make them extinct in the wild.

It also takes water and land to grow Neem trees to obtain their oil.  Perhaps farmers have more pressing uses for their land, water and time, e.g. growing food.    This is so wrong and deeply troubling to me.

Another thing that troubles me is the extra labor required to grow organic products.  As I've written before in Embedded water: cotton, growing cotton organically requires more labor.  How do you increase labor without cutting into profits?  By using slave labor.  Children were sold into slavery to meet the west's appetite for organic cotton at prices we are willing to pay.

Much of the child labor is to haul water.  What if farmers had access to GMO cotton seeds that require half the water at a price they could afford?  Would you pay extra for that?  I would.  How would we label and certify products that are grown sustainably and equitably, but not organically?

This is just about stuff happening in west Africa.  India and west Africa are the two major sources of organic cotton.  I knew about the problems with organic cotton in California and west Texas, but, the more I researched what was happening in other parts of the world, the more alarmed I became.  It has definitely made me rethink my assumptions and consumption habits.

This is a complex issue and cognitive shortcuts like organic=good isn't the best way to go about it.  I'm thinking about inequality and climate change every day, sometimes several times a day.  What about you?  Do you talk about it with your friends and family?  Is it considered impolite?


  1. As ever, so much good thinking.
    My children lead the way in discussing the tradeoffs between sustainability and organic. The younger one is the usual 19 year old vegetarian low impact no plastics kid. The older one goes to college across the mountains to the state college, and is close friends with a kid whose family sells pesticides to farmers. That kid's goal is to change his family's entire business plan to working with nonproprietary (read: not Roundup) natural pesticides. That's his line of study at the AG school, and he's not alone. And this is where we meet up with your post. Is the organic product better if it is created in an unsustainable way? Is a synthetic version of nontoxic (targeted to time and insect) pesticide possible?
    That's the kids are up to in AG school. God bless em.

  2. Grace, I think about this stuff everyday. The issue comes when it is such a complex problem that you really have to decide for yourself what is important to you. There is no such thing as simple messaging which can go out to the public, except to buy less use less - everything else has its pros and cons. A couple of weeks ago when I asked about GOTS I think you said GM cotton without pesticides is the best choice if you are choosing cotton. But this doesn't account for the social fairness aspect that GOTS has (or did you factor that in already?) Thank you for educating me about Neem oil. Appreciate your work and can't wait to speak to you more


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