What Does Organic Really Mean?

I used to wonder about the meaning and significance of “organic” in both meats and plant products. I thought of organic products as more sustainable and low impact, but never knew what the word truly meant. It turns out “organic” doesn’t really have a simple, one line definition. It doesn’t allow certain processes like genetic engineering or radiation. It prohibits the use of most, but not all synthetic materials and pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, etc. The allowed exceptions include chlorine, soap, vitamins, disinfecting alcohol, vaccines that are produced from natural products and processes, and lots of other substances we’ve never heard of but are deemed harmless and nontoxic to the land, our health, etc. The list of exceptions is ridiculously long and complicated, citing other lists like “EPA 3- inerts of unknown toxicity.”The term “organic” also means the maintenance of soil health and water quality through a variety of methods such as crop rotation, which also serve to stop erosion, and manage pests. The certification requires consistent record keeping of “production, harvesting, and handling” for years prior to certification.2 This seems like a lot of really important regulation, but the definition of the word is really only part of the story.

The certification process is long and expensive, so there are a lot of farms out there that don’t have the resources to keep records and pay for the certification. The system then favors large-scale farms that are more standardized and have more workers. In this way, there could be many farms that don’t carry the organic seal, but easily meet or go beyond what is required for the label.  Another criticism of organic foods is that the certification is in the end just a list of requirements, methods, and prohibited substances. However, truly sustainable farming is the result of a holistic practice, beyond a quantifiable list. In the words of vegetable farmer Morse Pitts, “It’s just a list of things you can and can’t add to your crops. I take a whole approach to farming. It’s not some checklist I can tick off.”3 Truly sustainable farming takes into account the nature of a specific site and is constantly adjusting, improving. This is not to say that I don’t agree with a lot of the requirements of an organic label. But maybe a quantified label isn’t the answer.

The way organic works in the US is that the NOP (National Organic Program) is in charge of “overseeing the organic system in the United States” including “training, accrediting, and monitoring the independent third-party bodies that issue organic seals.”4 The most common example would be something like the USDA, whose seal we constantly see on products in the grocery store. There are about a hundred of these certifiers, all managed by the NOP staff which was at most eight people between 2002 and 2008.5 It’s easy to see that no matter how strict the regulations are, the enforcement is what makes the difference. The certifying bodies send inspectors to a given farm every year, yet these inspectors are only required to complete a “visual inspection” which leaves out soil samples or chemical tests. The inspectors often have a lot to do, may only see the fields from a distance, or not even visit the farm. Certifiers are often motivated more to keep their business with the farms they inspect than to be strict and honest. Fraud is not unheard of.6 And when the farm being certified is in another country and more organizations get involved, there is an even greater likelihood that the farm doesn’t truly live up to the specifications or what we think of when we read the word organic.

Outside of all this, there are 3 levels of organic in foods with multiple ingredients: “100% organic,” “organic,” and “contains organic ingredients.” 100% organic means just that; 100% of the ingredients are grown organically. Organic means that 95% of the ingredients by volume (excluding water and salt) are certified organic. A product labeled as containing organic ingredients must have 70% of its ingredients come from certified organic sources.7

And this is just the beginning of discovering everything behind the word “organic.” It is so complicated and there is still a lot more to learn. The way I see it, there are “organic” farms out there that are great or awful to their land and earth. There are farms without the organic seal that have a similar range. This only makes it more important to know the specific farm and develop specific opinions. If this is interesting to you, I recommend the book Green Gone Wrong by Heather Rogers. I got some of my data and quotations from this book. I’m not finished with the book but I’ve learned a lot so far and I’ll definitely write about it on here once I’m done. For the sake of honesty and acknowledgement, I’m going to start citing my sources for specific facts in informal footnotes.

1 2 National Organic Program Electronic Code of Federal Regulations http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr;sid=dd55fb5a1230b3dde926629bf8e6a50c;rgn=div5;view=text;node=7%3A3.1.1.9.32;idno=7;cc=ecfr

3 4 5 6 Green Gone Wrong by Heather Rogers

7 The Daily Greenhttp://www.thedailygreen.com/going-green/3979

-Simon

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