What does organic mean to you?

Last weekend, I stopped by the hardware store to get some potting soil for starting spring vegetables. I went right to the big, green bags that read ‘Organic Choice’ in bold white print across the front. And above that? There were the words ‘Miracle-Gro’ — one of the biggest household names in synthetic garden fertilizers.

 On one hand, this is a classic example of a phenomenon called “greenwashing,” wherein conventional products are marketed in such a way that consumers get the false impression they’re buying something that’s made in a relatively sustainable manner.

On the other hand, Miracle-Gro’s chemical-packed Organic Choice potting mix got me thinking about organics: in the end result, ‘organic’ is only as good as people’s perception of the concept.

Of course, in its first life,  ‘organic’ had a host of definitions ranging from biological to chemical to military to metaphorical. But in the common parlance of the early 21st century, I would say it’s understood best as food produced without chemical fertilizer. Now, this is a subjective assessment, but again, my point here is first to talk about how organics are perceived; then we can get on with the business of definitions. But first, it’s important to unpack some of the assumptions that many of us bring to the table when we think about organic food.

Organic doesn’t mean local or ‘natural.’ It doesn’t mean herbicide- or pesticide-free, or that you don’t need to wash your produce when you get home. It doesn’t mean that food hasn’t traveled thousands of miles on fuel-guzzling jets to arrive in your kitchen, or that it was grown on a small family farm.

Though the question is hotly debated and much-researched in the scientific community, organic food may not even be any more nutritious than other food.

On the most technical level, ‘organic’ is a legal marketing standard, adopted by governments and subject to all kinds of political and industrial pressures. Consumers should know these things if they’re thinking about buying organic products.

But things get messy here, because ‘organic’ was an ideal, an ethic, and a movement long before it became an institutional seal of approval. Fundamental to this ethic is the idea of health, broadly defined: not only the well-being of human consumers, but that of soil, animals, microorganisms, air, workers, water, and entire ecosystems.

Since being institutionalized in the US in 1990, though, the legal definition has become increasingly confused with this organic ethic, even where it shouldn’t be.

As one recent study puts it, “the high profitability of organic food has drawn corporate agribusiness into the industry once dominated by counter culture farmers and consumers. These large corporations now dominate many sectors of the organic food industry.”

That means that while some organic food is undoubtedly produced according to the organic ethic, there’s plenty of organic-certified food out there that isn’t. Things are more complicated than that, though. In a food system that favors economies of scale, many smaller farmers who put incredible effort into running a sustainable operation also simply can’t afford the high costs of official accreditation. That means that the most organic food, so to speak, may not have a label on it. 

So what should certified organic food really mean to a consumer? At the least, it’s an alternative to a problematic status quo. Organic may not mean ‘sustainable’ in any absolute sense, but one could argue that anything grown without synthetic petroleum-based fertilizer is more sustainable than its conventional equivalent. Then again, one has to wonder whether organically grown bell peppers from Argentina are any more sustainable in a broad sense than non-organic ones grown right down the road. These are big questions without clear answers.

Organics are a complex and often baffling phenomenon, but ultimately a good one—an imperfect step in the right direction. The most important takeaway here is that a ‘certified organic’ sticker isn’t a panacea for an unhealthy food system; the only way to really trust the food you eat is to educate yourself about your local alternatives. And when it comes down to it, there’s no substitute for getting to know your farmer.

Michael Pursell, Blog Editor

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