History illuminates and informs today’s Organic

Organic. What’s in a Name?

by Alicia Harvie

Organic. What’s in a Name?

Nina Carelli

Philosophy, science, national standard: what is "organic" depends on who you are talking to, including the federal government. It's worth a look at the label.  

You may have encountered the word organic in your gustatory adventures. It’s been the subject of many controversies: Is organic food worth the extra cost? Is it healthier? Is organic farming better for the environment? Can it feed the world? As someone who’s studied organic agriculture for several years, I’ll tell you that navigating these questions is darn-near impossible without understanding what organic is. So let’s take some time to explore what, precisely, lies behind the word organic.

For starters it’s surprisingly old and surprisingly young. I’d wager that most Americans imagine organic farming got its start in the 1960s, a creation of hippie back-to-the-landers who wanted to make a go of farming and were wary of chemical agriculture. Many others say organic is way older—a most ancient kind of farming that was ubiquitous before industrial agriculture arrived.

Both are wrong.

In fact, the main tenets of organic agriculture were developed in Britain in response to an emerging field of crop science from the 1840s. In Chemistry and its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, German scientist Justus von Liebig maintained that soil and manures impacted plant nutrition through the work of just three key nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).

The resulting “NPK” mentality viewed soil as an inert medium. It promoted the development of synthetic, inorganic fertilizers. That view was well suited to the emerging Industrial Revolution, and its reverberations included the development of synthetic pesticides, the “freeing” of plant agriculture from animal agriculture (since animal manures were seen as superfluous to the health of the plant) and specialization and mechanization on the farm.

Enter the early organic philosophers. Led most prominently by Sir Albert Howard, organic advocates insisted on holistic approaches to farm management, utterly rejecting the reductionist NPK mentality. Soil, Howard maintained, was a complex living medium, the integrity of which was absolutely central to the health of plants, the health of animals consuming those plants, and hence the health of humanity. A healthy soil offered preventive action against plant diseases, which were viewed as signals of underlying imbalances in the farm system.

Howard was influenced by the success of Eastern agricultural systems—particularly the Hunzas of Pakistan—and promoted their “Rule of Return,” or the need to return the waste of plants and animals to the soil to maintain its fertility. Organic agriculture thus promoted diversity on the farm and the integration of plant and animal systems. It was insistent on the paramount importance of soil health and a rejection of synthetic inputs. Acknowledging that agriculture is inherently disruptive to ecology, organic advocates nonetheless promoted farm designs based on natural systems to the greatest extent possible.

In the early twentieth century, organic “hopped the pond” and landed in America, promoted by Jerome Rodale in publications like Organic Farming and Gardening and Prevention magazines. Organic was, of course, small potatoes compared to the churning growth of industrial agricultural after World War II. Still, as a movement, organic farming got a huge boost with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which exposed the dangers of synthetic pesticides on the environment and human health.

In the decade that followed, a grassroots movement of organic farms and distribution models like food co-ops, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, and direct markets bolstered organic in communities nationwide. Organic came to take on expanded meanings, often conflated with localism, democratic systems, and anticorporate sentiments. Some states issued organic certification programs, the first of which was created by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 1973, eventually followed by organizations like the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).

By the 1980s to prevent consumer fraud, the federal government saw a need for national standards instead of an uncoordinated patchwork of labels. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. In 2002, following a decade of public comments and negotiations, a uniform set of organic production, processing, and labeling standards was issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).


The USDA’s Organic


So what did USDA’s new National Organic Program—the arbiter of that “USDA Organic” seal we eaters look for in the grocery store—consider organic?

First, were the “don’ts.”

Certified organic farms cannot use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers (minus a select few), nor can they use genetically engineered seeds. Animals cannot be raised with artificial hormones or antibiotics and must be fed organic feed and provided access to the outdoors. Certified organic foods cannot be irradiated and must be processed and handled so that they aren’t comingled with non-organic products.

Then, were the “dos.”

Organic farmers must endure a threeyear transition period if their land was previously managed with synthetic fertilizers and inputs. They are encouraged to employ biological systems on their farms—for example, using natural predators, crop rotations, and soil health to control pests. To maintain organic certification, farmers must perform adequate soil management, appropriate buffering between their fields and neighboring conventional farms, and substantial record-keeping, among many, many other things.

Still, many maintain the organic standards don’t capture the holistic approach to farm management espoused by early organic advocates. A farm could, for example, effectively be a monoculture and still be certified organic. Hydroponic operations (those growing plants in water) can also be certified organic, even though they sidestep soil—the very soul of organic philosophy. Not surprisingly, several fractures in the organic community formed as organic transitioned from a movement to a federally regulated program.

Still, I’ll maintain that organic as a word has great meaning. What organic is continuously shifts and adapts through time and culture, but it always has. Yes, the organic standards don’t demand that plant and animals systems be united, but at the same time, Sir Albert Howard didn’t espouse the animal welfare standards of USDA’s National Organic Program, if for no other reason than animal science wasn’t developed enough in his time.

The jury’s still out on whether organic foods are more nutritious or whether organic farming can “feed the world.” To answer those questions, organic agriculture will need to receive its fair share of the research and development dollars that are disproportionately devoted to industrial agriculture.

Yet while nutritionists scratch their heads at why produce today is less nutrient-dense than it was fifty years ago, or economists forget to ask how industrial food systems will possibly feed a post-petroleum world, organic agriculture offers us important solutions. As the public grapples with the findings of the recent President’s Cancer Report (released May, 2011 by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health), we can know for sure that certified organic food is far less likely to carry pesticide residues than conventional food, lowering our exposure to toxic chemicals.

So does the word organic reveal or conceal? In truth, organic farming is only as good as the farmers who manage the fields. The standards that govern the “USDA Organic” seal are only as good as the people governing it. Thus, organic is only as good as the public demands it be.


Learn more:
To understand the national organic certification requirements visit the USDA National Organic Program website (www.ams.usda.gov/nop).

Stay updated on the latest in organic agriculture through the Organic Farming Research Foundation (http://www.ofrf.org), the Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org), and the Organic Trade Association (www.ota.com).

Follow the work of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (http://www.sustainableagriculture.net).