Are homemade pesticides legal?

Homemade solutions to crop pests are nothing new, but are they legal?

Photo: Jill O’Donnell, MSU Extension.
Photo: Jill O’Donnell, MSU Extension.

Any internet search for pest management is sure to turn up a number of pantry-based control recommendations from dish soap to cayenne pepper, and an equal number of positive testimonials of their phenomenal effects. Michigan State University Extension does not recommend using homemade pesticides for a number of important reasons. In addition to poor efficacy and potential plant injury, many homemade remedies violate federal law. There are two laws that address this issue, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) Section 408.

FIFRA states that in order to legally apply a material as a pesticide, it must be either registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or have an official exemption from the requirements of the act. The FFDCA authorizes EPA to set tolerances or maximum residue limits for pesticide residues on foods. In the absence of a tolerance for a pesticide residue, a food containing such a residue is subject to seizure by the government. So, in the case of a home remedy applied to a food crop or livestock used for food, if a residue of that home remedy gets in or on the food, and there is no tolerance or food additive regulation allowing it, the sale or distribution of that food would be illegal under FFDCA.

Based on these regulations, let's discuss the legality of a couple of commonly utilized home remedies, specifically baking soda, compost tea and dish soap. If the material being applied is homemade (i.e., not sold or distributed as a pesticide), then it would not be required to be registered as a pesticide under FIFRA and would not be prohibited by FIFRA. However, on the FFDCA side, any potential residues of the homemade material on the crop for which a tolerance or tolerance exemption or applicable food additive regulation does not exist, may render the crop adulterated under FFDCA regulations and subject to seizure.

Currently, the FFDCA only includes an exemption for sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and not for homemade compost teas nor dish soaps, rendering their use illegal. If the treated crop is not sold or distributed, nor are any foods or products derived from the crop, that would not be a violation of FFDCA.

For a complete list of substances excluded from regulation by FIFRA (40 CFR 152.6), please visit 40 CFR 152.6 - Substances Excluded from Regulation by FIFRA from Cornell University Law School. For a complete list of tolerances and exemptions for pesticide chemical residues in food (40 CFR Part 180), please visit 40 CFR Part 180 - Tolerances and Exemptions for Pesticide Chemical Residues in Food from Cornell University Law School.

Michigan State University Extension does not recommend using homemade pesticides. In some instances, homemade remedies are inferior or economically unsustainable. Some materials have not been evaluated due to a lack of feasibility on a large scale or a complete lack of evidence that the material has any pesticidal properties. Some homemade materials even cause plant injury. If you are unsure of the legality of a pesticide or its use, contact your local MSU Extension office for assistance.

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