- Use eco-friendly pesticides whenever possible -

Summary: Most pesticides can be categorized as either synthetic, organic, inorganic and/or biorational. The first three indicate the source of the active ingredient while the term biorational means that the product is less toxic and has minimal impact on the environment.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

Definition of the term pesticide

The definition of "pesticide" is pretty simple: Pesticides are chemicals that kill pests or disrupt pest populations. A pest is an organism (plant, animal, fungus, or microbe) that causes some type of damage to something we value. Furthermore, pesticides can be grouped in a number of different ways based on their active ingredients and how they work such as synthetic pesticides, organic pesticides, inorganic pesticides and biorational pesticides.

Synthetic pesticides

Pesticides in this group, for example carbaryl (Sevin), fipronil (Termidor) and imidacloprid (Merit, Bayer Advanced), are manufactured in a laboratory and marketed/sold by a chemical company. Synthetic pesticides are further grouped into similar chemical classes such as organochlorines, organophosphates, pyrethroids, and carbamates.

Synthetic pesticides have been widely used since the end of World War II. During the last 60 years new synthetic pesticides have become more pest specific, exhibit lower toxicity and are less environmentally damaging. While synthetic pesticides have contributed to an abundant and cheap food supply they still present a certain amount of risk to human and environmental health.

Organic pesticides

Pesticides in this group, for example rotenone, pyrethrum, nicotine, neem oil, and all of the botanical pesticides are products of living organisms. Often they are chemicals that plants and microbes use to protect themselves from parasites, predators and pathogens.

Nicotine, for example, is produced by plants in the genus Nicotiana as a powerful herbivore (plant-feeding) deterrent. Nicotine is also a potent insecticide and is highly toxic to mammals. In small doses, delivered by smoking dried tobacco leaves, nicotine is a stimulant.

Organic pesticides are often lower in toxicity than older synthetic pesticides but this is not always the case. Organic does not necessarily equal low toxicity and environmentally safer.

Inorganic pesticides

Pesticides in this group, for example borates, silicates and sulfur, are minerals that are mined from the earth and ground into a fine powder. Some work as poisons and some work by physically interfering with the pest. Older "inorganics" included such highly toxic compounds as arsenic, copper, lead and tin salts. Current inorganic pesticides are relatively low in toxicity and have low environmental impact. Borate insecticides, such as Bora Care and Timbor have many uses in structural pest management and are very safe compared to older conventional pesticides (see Bora Care Insecticide and Timbor Insecticide).

Biorational pesticides

The term biorational refers to synthetic, organic, or inorganic pesticides that are both low toxicity and exhibit a very low impact on the environment. "Biorationals" also have minimal impact on species for which they are not intended (called non-target species). Biorational pesticides include certain plant oils, insecticidal soaps, microbials (such as Bacillus thurengienesis and entomopathogenic nematodes), botanicals (made from plants) and insect growth regulators. The biorational pesticides should therefore be your first choice whenever a pesticide is needed (see What are Natural Insecticides?).

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