What Does “Organic” Mean, Anyways? – The Kitchen Rag

In this post I will explain why choosing to eat “organic” has some great benefits as well as some substantial drawbacks. I will begin by defining the word “organic”. This information is mainly focused on plants; dairy and meat products get their own treatment.

According to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) the term organic is used to describe raw or processed agricultural products and ingredients that have been organically grown and handled in compliance with the standards of April 2001, which have been fully enforced since October 2002. These standards prohibit the use of:

  • Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
  • Sewer sludge fertilizers
  • Genetic hormones
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Antibiotics
  • Artificial ingredients

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between “organic” and “made with organic ingredients” so here is a clear explanation of those terms:

  • 100%  organic – must be made out of  95%-100% certified organic ingredients
  • organic– must have at least 70% certified organic ingredients
  • made with (specified) organic ingredients– organic ingredients will be listed on side panel
  • made with natural ingredients– not organic, not recognized by the USDA

Most organically grown products have to be grown on land free of fertilizers or pesticides for three years prior to the harvest. There are organic farmers that use the rotation system, which is alternating crops from year to year in order to restore nutrients to the soil, or permaculuture principles, which create sustainable ecosystems that produce nutrient dense, healthy produce.

After reading and researching all this information about organic produce, I was very impressed; eating organic clearly means no pesticides in my food!

However I was very curious to see how the whole idea of “organic” started and what I learned was both fascinating and disappointing.

The organic movement started in the 60’s via hippies who refused to participate in social norms such as highly processed and packaged food. People’s Park was born on April 20th 1969 in Berkeley, California. Here a group of hippies calling themselves “agrarian reformers” began planting a vegetable garden that was “uncontaminated” by pesticides. Their garden did so well that they started selling the produce to all sorts of people as a curiosity food. Michael Pollan writes:

The moment for such a turn to nature was ripe in 1969. DDT was in the news, an oil spill off Santa Barbara had blackened California’s coastline, and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught on fire. Overnight it seemed “ecology” was on everybody’s lips, and “organic” close behind.
Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Page 142

The whole movement caught on like fire. Small, organic farms run by hippies slowly became a natural occurrence, especially in the Northwest. The demand for this food became higher and higher. Gene Kahn, founder of Cascadian Farm Organic T.V. Dinners, started as a farmer in the 70’s with a few hippie friends. He is one of the first people to move organic food into the mainstream and he is also the owner of one of the most notable organic companies in the United States. Earthbound is another hippie start-up that began with a husband and wife bagging their lettuce and selling it on the side of the road. Now Earthbound alone grows 80% of organic lettuce sold in America. In three decades the original idea of “organic” as curiosity hippie food turned into a huge agro-business empire.


Now-a-days, whole-food stores are packed with organic labels with descriptions invoking the happy image of a plant being watered by a rosy cheeked little boy, but reality couldn’t be more different.

Once filled, the trucks deliver their cargo of leaves to the loading dock at the processing plant in San Juan Bautista, essentially a 200,000 square foot refrigerator designated to maintain the lettuce at exactly thirty-six degrees through the entire process of sorting, mixing, washing, drying, and packaging. These employees, mostly Mexicans, are dressed in full length down coats; they empty totes of aragula, radicchio, and frisee into stainless steel rivers of lightly chlorinated water, the first of three washes each leaf undergo. Viewed from the overhead, the lettuces-packing operation looks like a hugely intricate Rube Goldberg contraption, a tangle of curving silver watercourses, shaking trays, and centrifuges, blue band and detectors, scales, and bagging stations that in about a half hour propels a freshly harvested leaf of a baby lettuce into a polyethylene bag or box read-to-dress spring mix. The plant washes and packs 2.5 million pound of lettuce per week.
Michael Pollan, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Page 166

Of course some whole food stores also carry local organic farmer’s produce. But most stores will choose to do business with large organic companies simply because it is more cost efficient to buy from a hundred thousand acre farm than from a ten acre acre farm. Due how difficult and expensive it is to obtain the “certified organic” insignia, a lot of genuinely natural farms can’t get it; even if they can, they often have to let it go.

Still, standing in a 160-acre block of organic broccoli in the Central Valley makes you appreciate why farmers who come closest to achieving this idea tend to be smaller in scale. These are farmers who can plant literally dozen of different crops in fields that resemble quilts and practice long and elaborate rotations, thereby achieving the rich biodiversity in space and time that is key to making a farm sustainable in something of the way a natural ecosystem is.
Michael Pollan “Omnivores Dilemma”, page 161

The farm Michael Pollan mentions in this excerpt is the kind of farm that fits the USDA requirements. It is the  farm that yields healthy and delicious plants, grown with honest dedication and effort. It is the kind of plants I would like to have daily on my table.

Unfortunately, we hear of more and more cases where organic corporations cheat the system and use certain pesticides that they label as natural.

But this approach, which I discovered is typical of large-scale organic operations, represents a compromise at best. The heavy tillage-heavier than in a conventional field-destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces its biological activity as surely as chemicals would; frequent tilling also releases so much nitrogen in the air that these weed-free organic fields require a lot more nitrogen fertilizer than they otherwise might. In less disturbed, healthier soil, nitrogen fixing bacteria would create much of the fertility that industrial organic growers must add in the form of compost, manures, fish emulsion, or Chilean nitrate- all inputs permitted under federal rules. ( International organic rules, however, forbid the use of Chilean nitrate, a mineral form of nitrogen mined in Chile, often using child labor.) Not surprisingly the manufacturers of these input lobbied hard to shape the federal organic rules; in the end it proved easier to agree on a simple lot of approved prohibited materials rather than try to legislate a genuinely ecological model of farming.
Michael Pollan, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Page 160

In my next post I will be exploring the question “What then shall we eat?”, where I will explain the values of some organic and local foods versus conventional foods.

This post is featured on Party Wave Wednesday, Allergy Free Wednesday, Real Food Wednesdays,