Organic is popular. We eat organic food. We wear organic cotton. Even our household cleaners are organic. Organic is supposed to be good for us and good for the environment. But what does organic mean? Is it really always better?
To the dictionary, organic means “of, relating to, or derived from living matter.” So you and I are organic. The cement sidewalk is not. All the food in my fridge is organic. The refrigerator itself is not.
To a chemist, an organic molecule is “the kind normally found in living systems.” Organic molecules usually include hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. These atoms can be strung together into long chains or arranged into rings. Starches and proteins are organic molecules. Salt is not.
To a farmer, organic has a different meaning. Definitions vary, but most include some reference to what organic farmers do not do: they don’t use GMO seeds, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, or antibiotics and growth hormones. From a more positive perspective, guidelines might include practices such as crop rotation, composting, and other ways of working in harmony with nature. (The USDA has a specific definition of organic as it applies to farming; you can read their somewhat useless explanation here.)
When we are choosing organic produce at the market, or diapering our babies in organic cotton, we expect these products to have been grown in an earth-friendly manner. We assume they are free of dangerous chemicals. We also expect the food to be healthier and more nutritious. We might assume it tastes better. And when it comes to meat and other animal products, we hope that the animals were treated humanely.
Organic products come with claims such as:
- Start with an organic produce box subscription & you’ll be eating better & feeling healthier in no time. (door to door organics)
- Our milk comes from cows that are raised on trusted organic dairy farms that do NOT use synthetic pesticides, insecticides or fertilizers. (The Honest Co.)
- All the fruits and vegetables we use are organically grown. …This not only assures customers of no pesticide residues and no GMO ingredients but also provides financial support to organic farming. (Natural Vitality)
Unfortunately, our assumptions aren’t always valid.
It’s true that most organic gardening practices tend to be nature-friendly. Practices such as building soil fertility, preventing erosion, enhancing biological diversity, recycling waste into compost, and limiting the use of petroleum-derived fertilizers are good for the environment. But as we’ll see, not all organic practices are safer. What are the differences between organic and “normal” farming practices? How different are the results?
Every so often, over the next few months, I’m going to address these issues. Is organic safer? Is it better for the environment? Is food grown organically more nutritious? Is it worth spending more money to buy organic? The answers might surprise you.