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The Pesticides I Wish I Could Buy


Botrytis (Napa Cabernet, 1979)

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Alright.  I know that the title of this post is controversial for this website, but I’m serious about this. Read a little further and this might not seem so radical.

Over the last 40 years I have gardened in Denver, Davis California, Western Colorado, Delaware and in San Diego county.  By far the most challenging place to garden has been in San Diego.  We have no winter here to knock back the pest populations.  We have lots of misty, cloudy days in May and June because we are only 2 miles from the ocean. It is pretty much of a pest and disease heaven.  I am constantly fighting pest issues in my garden and vineyard here, and I often wish I had better tools to do that.

I still try to garden because that is a “local food” option that I believe in (tomatoes, zucchini, basil, hot peppers…).  I also have a little vineyard (only 25 vines) that gives me about 15 gallons of wine per year.  Even as an “expert” on grapes diseases, there are serious pest issues for the grapes that are problematic for me to control.  I tried to do it with sulfur and insecticidal soap (things that would be allowed under Organic rules), but the results were dismal.

It is particularly frustrating for me because I work in agricultural technology and so I know all about the safe and effective pesticides that are available to real farmers.  We homeowners are stuck with very old pesticide options that you can buy at the Home Depot or even at a high-end nursery.

Closeup of Botrytis

For example, I wish I could buy Flint® fungicide.  It is based on the active, trifloxystrobin and it would control both the powdery mildew and Botrytis bunch rot (pictured) that are problems for my little vineyard.  It is essentially non-toxic to mammals.  The measure of that is called a “rat Oral LD50” and it has a value of 5,050 mg/kg on a scale where bigger numbers are safer.  Table salt has a value of 3,000 so you can see that Flint is pretty safe.  The “pesticides” that would fit most people’s negative image are things like azinphos methyl, a 60+ year-old insecticide with a “rat LD50” of 7 mg/kg. That would be 700 times as toxic as Flint®.  Azinphos methyl is only used today under extremely restrictive rules on a few crops.  It is certainly not sold to homeowners.

The copper fungicide they sell at Home Depot and which is approved for organic has an LD50 of 472.  That is not terrible, but it is a lot more toxic than the best, modern options and it is also much less effective against diseases.  It also accumulates copper in the soil where it is sprayed.  There is nothing particularly “green” about that option.

I would also like to be able to buy Vangard® fungicide for Botrytis control.  It is based on the active ingredient cyprodinil and it also has a “rat LD50” of > 5000 mg/kg.

Another good option would be fludioxanil which is similarly non-toxic.  In fact there is a product with both cyprodinil and fludioxanil called Switch® which would be even better.

I have been able to buy a product with a 20+year-old fungicide called myclobutanil (at least two generations of fungicides back from what is cutting edge today).  It does a good job on the mildew, but not the Botrytis.  It isn’t too bad from a toxicity point of view with a rat LD50 of 1,600 mg/kg.

When I need to use an insecticide for my garden or vineyard, I wish I could buy something like Altacor®.  It is based on the active ingredient rynaxypry and it too has a “rat LD50” of >5000 mg/kg.

These are just examples.  There are a lot of other really safe options that would make my gardening and small-scale viticulture easier.  Why aren’t these super safe options available for homeowners?   There are several reasons:

  • The consumer market will always be dominated by old, off-patent chemicals that are cheap.  That is just the nature of consumer marketing
  • Manufacturers of chemicals know that homeowners are the least responsible of all pesticide users (“a little is good, a lot is better”, “I’m done with this, I’ll dump it down the sink or the gutter”…) so they are reluctant to put their elite products in their hands
  • Homeowners have little access to accurate information about pesticides and little patience to learn about them

Does it matter on the grand scale of things that my grapes rot or that my tomato vines die too soon?  No, probably not. I just find it frustrating to know that I could solve these problems with really benign pesticide options that I can’t access.

Most people think that all pesticides are the same and that they are all “bad.”  In fact they differ dramatically in all aspects of toxicity and environmental effects, and there are many that are really quite safe. No one seems to talk about this.  Perhaps they should.

Grape Botrytis images by Steve Savage

29 comments
  1. Pat

    I can understand your frustration. Useful chemicals (like the pesticides you mentioned) are off limits while phthalate plasticizers, harsh industrial pesticides and the potentially harmful “new car smell” (a stew of volatile organics) find their way into our food, packaging and consumer goods without much thought as to their harmful effects.

    However, the LD50 is only a measure of ACUTE toxicity and gives no clue as to the long term effects of exposure. I have not studied the pesticides you mentioned so I have no idea if they present a threat through bioaccumulation or chronic exposure, but I do know that an LD50 rating is only one piece of a very complex puzzle.

  2. Steve Savage

    Pat,
    You are right that there are many dimensions to a risk analysis. These particular materials are quite good on many fronts, but there is no such thing as a risk-free option. Using no pesticide can lead to mycotoxin contamination which is more dangerous than even most old pesticides

  3. colluvial

    Although the pesticides you mention appear to have low toxicity for humans and other mammals, what about for other animals, and plants, fungi, microbes, etc.? Considering that your climate allows a huge range of fruits to be grown, maybe other plants are more disease-free. Any possibility of disease-resistant grapes? Maybe I’m just a jealous New Englander (and not a winemaker like you), but I’d trade grapes for figs, avocados, guavas, kiwis, citrus, etc., etc., any day.

  4. Mark

    Have you heard of Marrone Bio Innovations, developers of natural pesticides? They have a lot of good info and sell on the web: They are one of eight innovators chosen to present at the first sustainable agriculture investment conference, New York, Sept. 17, 2009. Details:

  5. Steve Savage

    Colluvial: actually I grow many of those other fruits you mention and they each have their issues. Figs probably the least. As for the other effects of the fungicides, they are really quite minimal and the rates are really low as well.

    Mark: I’m quite familiar with Pam Marrone’s new company and her first one, AgraQuest. Having worked for 7 years in the biocontrol business I also know its limitations. Still, its a good thing to try (but even biopesticides have some risks

  6. Greenearth

    Building up the strength of your plants through soil improvement and companion planting are two aspects of pest control I am learning about at my community garden. We also use manual barriers to protect from birds etc.

  7. Stephen Tvedten

    How to kill pests without killing yourself or the earth……

    Americans rank their fear of pest infestations third – only after their fear of fire and natural disaster – on the list of threats to their homes that they worry about most. This is why the buSINess of pest control is so lucrative and effects so many of us.
    There are about 50 to 60 million insect species on earth – we have named only about 1 million and there are only about 1 thousand pest species – already over 50% of these thousand pests are already resistant to our volatile, dangerous, synthetic pesticide POISONS. We accidentally lose about 25,000 to 100,000 species of insects, plants and animals every year due to “man’s footprint”. But, after poisoning the entire world and contaminating every living thing for over 60 years with these dangerous and ineffective pesticide POISONS we have not even controlled much less eliminated even one pest species and every year we use/misuse more and more pesticide POISONS to try to “keep up”! Even with all of this expensive and unnecessary pollution – we lose more and more crops and lives to these thousand pests every year.

    We are losing the war against these thousand pests mainly because we insist on using only synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers There has been a severe “knowledge drought” – a worldwide decline in agricultural R&D, especially in production research and safe, more effective pest control since the advent of synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers. Today we are like lemmings running to the sea insisting that is the “right way”. The greatest challenge facing humanity this century is the necessity for us to double our global food production with less land, less water, less nutrients, less science, frequent droughts, more and more contamination and ever-increasing pest damage.

    National Poison Prevention Week, March 18-24,2007 was created to highlight the dangers of poisoning and how to prevent it. One study shows that about 70,000 children in the USA were involved in common household pesticide-related (acute) poisonings or exposures in 2004. At least two peer-reviewed studies have described associations between autism rates and pesticides (D’Amelio et al 2005; Roberts EM et al 2007 in EHP). It is estimated that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year just in the United States – No one is checking chronic contamination.
    In order to try to help “stem the tide”, I have just finished re-writing my IPM encyclopedia entitled: THE BEST CONTROL II, that contains over 2,800 safe and far more effective alternatives to pesticide POISONS. This latest copyrighted work is about 1,900 pages in length and is now being updated at my new website at http://www.thebestcontrol2.com .

    This new website at http://www.thebestcontrol2.com has been basically updated; all we have left to update is Chapter 39 and to renumber the pages. All of these copyrighted items are free for you to read and/or download. There is simply no need to POISON yourself or your family or to have any pest problems.

    Stephen L. Tvedten
    2530 Hayes Street
    Marne, Michigan 49435
    1-616-677-1261
    http://www.theidealpesticide.com
    When a man who is honestly mistaken hears the truth, he will either quit being mistaken or cease to be honest.

  8. Sommer @greenmom

    I have to chime in here and tell you that Steve and his websites, products and online book really are amazing. We had a huge sprintail issue and Steve talked to me on the phone – guided me through what to do and now I’m a huge fan of his because the advice, book and products worked. Just wanted to share this with you.

  9. Steve Savage

    Stephen,
    I have to disagree with you on several points. We don’t use just synthetic pesticides for pest control. There are lots of cultural controls and conventional genetic resistance that are extremely widely used in agriculture today. As for the 300,000 farm worker acute pesticide poisonings, the single largest issue is with sulfur dust – something allowed in organic. As for your assertion that no one is checking the Chronic contamination, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
    As for homeowner use – I agree with you that there are probably lots of abuses because most consumers have no education about pesticide safety.

  10. MacDonald’s “Pesticide Conundrum” and the Solution it Will Probably Not Pursue (Part 1) : Sustainablog

    […] Recently, MacDonald’s has come under lawsuit pressure from a number of groups  over the issue of pesticide use on potatoes – one of the signature offerings of this chain.  They had to agree to work to reduce those applications.  It would be best to focus on reductions of the pesticides with the greater associated risks, but unfortunately the litigants probably don’t understand that there are huge differences between pesticides. […]

    1. Steve Savage

      Ivan,
      I think you would have to buy it at a regular “Ag Chem Retailer” where farmers buy their products and in that large a quantity. I once bought some of the fungicide fludioxanil to use in my little 25-vine vineyard. It cost me $180 and is enough to last me about 50 years! Altacor is really safe and super effective. I’d like some too!

  11. Joe Joe

    Everything that works is removed from the market, thanks to the EPA. It is time to ban them instead if the People will ever gain some Liberty back.

    1. dougq

      No kidding. Heavily regulated DDT use would do wonders for our country. County by county allowances for a single application on a 10 year rotating basis and insecticide use would be halved.

      1. Tom Chandler

        YOU GOT THAT RIGHT !
        Ever watch “INFESTED” ? Every one of those cases could be solved at a fraction of the cost and permanently with a little chlordane DDT Lethane, etc.

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