by Shara Rutberg
“Kills fast!” is not a promise many organic and natural products boast on their labels. But even the most peaceful earth muffins can get violent when it comes to roaches, stinging ants and bloodsucking mosquitoes, particularly when they’re biting their kids or decimating their heirloom tomato plants. Free-range chickens are one thing. Free-range cockroaches are another.
Slowly but surely, like an ant marching up the leg of a picnic table, the market for organic and natural pesticides for home and garden use is growing, tapping into what the Environmental Protection Agency says is a $32 billion worldwide market for pesticides. “Organic food production is enjoying tremendous growth, but things are moving more slowly in the consumer sector than in agriculture,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. But there have been some promising signs in favor of natural and organic pesticides, he says. Canada has taken the lead, with two provinces passing ordinances this spring banning cosmetic use of pesticides on lawns and gardens. In addition, Canadian Home Depot stores recently removed products containing toxic pesticides from their shelves. “That’s probably indicative of where we’re headed in the future,” he says.
Bottom-up change is moving a little more slowly in the U.S. than with our northern neighbors, but “we’re already seeing local jurisdictions cutting back on pesticides on public lands,” says Feldman, pointing to laws passed in Camden, Maine and Vorhees, N.J. “That will be reflected in what becomes available—and demanded— in the marketplace.” This can be seen in the nation’s largest marketplace, which has been instrumental in eradicating two of the most dangerous chemicals commonly found in insecticides in American homes. In 2006, Wal-Mart began an effort to phase out products containing propoxur and permethrin, characterized by the EPA as “likely to cause cancer in humans.”
“The No. 1 issue is awareness,” says Steve Bessette, who started EcoSMART Technologies, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based manufacturer of organic insecticides, in 1992, while trying to make his home safer for his pregnant wife. “Most people think about green cleaners and light bulbs and maybe farmers in California using or not using pesticides, but not organic pest-control products to use in their homes.” But that’s changing, he says, as consumers slowly overcome an inherent distrust of the efficacy of natural products. To help convince them, Bissette organized a litany of university research and field studies proving the company’s Ant & Roach Killer, Flying Insect Killer and Wasp & Hornet Killer work as effectively as synthetic products.
Getting the word out about safe pesticides is tough, says Robert Rod, aka “The Enviroman” of EnviroMan Inc., the Boynton Beach, Fla.-based manufacturer of Bugs ‘R’ Done, a natural formula so effective, Rod has licensed it to “two major corporations” that market it under a different name. “The problem is we’re up against the chemical lobby, one of the biggest and most powerful lobbies in the world,” he says. But the public is becoming more aware, says Tor McPartland, inventor and president of Carmel Valley, Calif.-based Orange Guard. McPartland has been in the industry for more than a decade.
With so many products trying to jump on the green bandwagon, determining which ones are truly safe can be tricky. “A general rule is that you know you’re buying conventional products when you see EPA regulations on the label,” Feldman says. The EPA’s Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act Section 25(b) exempts some minimum-risk products from regulation. “An added benefit to the 25(b) products is that all the ingredients are listed on the label; when you buy conventional products you can’t identify the bulk of the ingredients,” Feldman says. Another way to weed out the potentially dangerous products is to “avoid anything with a first aid statement on the label,” Rod says. For more details on the EPA’s pesticide-labeling laws, go to www.epa.gov.
How they work
The natural and organic insecticides on the market today smite pests in a variety of ways. The savvy homeowner can annihilate insects using a number of methods, the most popular being paralyzing the little bloodsuckers, dehydrating or suffocating the ceaseless invaders, or simply blowing them up—from the inside out. For consumers who can’t bear the karmic repercussions of such actions, many of the products can be used as repellents or barriers by applying them to places where pests may enter, as opposed to aiming right for the whites of their many, many eyes.
EcoSMART’s products use the power of essential oils, the stuff plants developed over eons to protect themselves from bugs. They block specific neural pathways in insects that regulate their movement, behavior and metabolism. More simply, it knocks them down, then they die. It’s safe for mammals, which don’t have the same type of neural pathways. So safe, in fact, that for years as part of his crusade to show the world that an effective and nontoxic insecticide was possible, at trade shows, Bessette would sprinkle EcoSMART dust on a tank of bugs, killing them, then stick his finger in the container of dust and lick it. “It didn’t taste good,” he admits, “but it was the only way to demonstrate that it wasn’t too good to be true.”
Orange Guard harnesses the power of orange peel extract to murder the mini masses. “It dissolves the waxy coating on the exoskeleton of all types of insects, then they suffocate,” McPartland says. “Plus, the fragrance is a repellent; you can spray it on cracks and crevices, creating a bug-free zone, without ever having to kill a single bug.”
Bugs ‘R’ Done combines the power of orange extracts with other food-grade ingredients, including perfumes used to scent cosmetics, to similarly suffocate the bugs, then fool others into thinking there’s no reason to visit your home or yard. “Bugs have a phenomenal sense of smell,” he says, “so in the case of a house, this fools them into thinking there’s no food there; it tells them, ‘Go next door and bother your neighbors!’”
St. Gabriel Organics’ pest control products use a variety of methods. Its most popular item, Milky Spore, is applied to the soil to control Japanese beetles when they’re still grubs. “The grub eats it and essentially explodes,” says Georgia Fisher, director of marketing and communications for the Orange, Va.-based company. St. Gabriel’s Anteater product uses organic diatomaceous earth, which contains fossilized plant cells that act as razors cutting through insect exoskeletons, leading to dehydration and death.
Beyond Pesticides maintains an extensive list of natural pesticide options, organized by pest, at www.beyondpesticides.org/alternatives/factsheets/index.htm.
Feldman urges retailers to merchandise pesticides with explanations of a systematic approach to healthy homes and yards, educating customers about how to use the products as part of an overall organic system. For example, he says, start with explaining composting products that help grow healthy organic plants that are more naturally resistant to infestations. Display caulking, sealing and screening products with the pesticides, as good exclusion techniques will help keep pests out. “Cleanliness is key to pest control,” he says, suggesting that retailers display the items with green-cleaning products and trash cans with solid-sealing lids. “Help [your customers] put a complete system together to prevent and control the bugs,” he says.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p. 26,28