What is Organic Food? And What Does Organic Mean Anyway?

What does organic mean exactly when it relates to food? What exactly is organic produce? Let’s dig in to the present day meaning and origins of these terms, and explore the agricultural usage of the term ‘organic’, and the difference between conventional and organic farming.

words and photographs by Christina De La Rocha

The Question: What Does Organic Mean When it Relates to Food and Produce?

After being hit by a foul cloud of petrochemical pesticide being sprayed on a field, I swore henceforth I’d buy only organic produce and grains. Enough with brewing in the toxic swill we spray over the food we intend to eat and over the soil from which it springs. I deserve better and the Earth deserves better, as well.

But then I was challenged: what does organic food even mean? I’d just jumped to the conclusion that it means no synthetic fertilizers or petrochemical pesticides, but is that really what I’d be buying if I bought organic food?

So What Does Organic Mean?

I must confess, I’ve always found the term organic used alongside farming or food odd and the more European use of the terms biological or ecological vague.

From the perspective of chemistry, all farming is organic and so is all food, because organic compounds are molecules, like the lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates that make up living tissues, that consist of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and generally oxygen as well that are bound to one another by sharing electrons.

Even though they’re most certainly not a part of organic farming, petrochemical pesticides, their solvents, and the surfactants added into the mix, with their ability to disrupt vital biochemical pathways in the body, their hydrocarbon hazards like benzene rings, and their power to permeate into living tissues are very, even dangerously, organic compounds.

But, it turns out there is logic here, once you dig deep enough (try not to till, though; that is so bad for the worms and the fungi and everything else down there in the soil).

Just as organic chemistry studies the structure and behavior of carbon-based chemicals originally considered constructible only within living organisms, organic farming considers the farm itself as an organism that lives and breathes, growing and rotting in complex cycles, moving energy and materials through a network of life, most of which is down there in the soil.

In other words, be thoughtful of the insects and decent to your livestock, but also kind to your soil. Their wellbeing is our wellbeing and that of the Earth around us.

So far so warm and fuzzy, but in practice, being kind to your soil means building up the amount of natural organic matter present in it, rather than striping it down to its mineral nubs like today’s conventional, intensive, overfertilized, pesticide-soaked farming practices do.

So not only is organic farming good for the beetles, birds, bees, plants, and waterways of the world, it stores billions of tons of carbon as organic matter in the soil, preventing it from hanging out in the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas that is carbon dioxide.

Or, to flip the coin, the added disaster of conventional farming is its dead soil’s expulsion of massive quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

What Does Organic Mean? A lush green organic wheat field, dotted with yellow, blue, and red flowers.
The organic wheat field up the hill from my house. I see it and think, oh, so pretty! The bugs and bees just get down to work. The conventional farmer is probably just appalled by what is clearly the lower yield per acre (since so much of what is growing there isn’t wheat). But this lower yield, this beauty, and this little bit of sharing with the insects and animals whose habitats we destroyed, this is part of what we’re paying for when when spend the extra money on organic food.

The other thing this means is that popular idea that organic farming just means no petrochemical pesticides and no artificial fertilizers is short of the mark.

The Involvement of Biodynamics

All organic farming as practiced today has grown from the philosophy of biodynamic agriculture of Rudolph Steiner, the same man whose ideas gave rise to Waldorf Schools.

Biodynamic agriculture has always been all about treating animals, plants, and soils as part of a single intertwined system, with the ideal farm acting as a self-enclosed, self-sustaining biosphere. Artificial pesticides and fertilizers are not welcome and composting has been elevated to a mystical endeavor meant to return nutrients and spiritual energy to the earth.

Crops are probably not literally planted to the light of the full moon when Aquarius is rising, but astrological considerations are a key part of the strictest expression of biodynamic agriculture.

Organic farming (when not merely following the letter of the law) also aims to replenish the soil, be at least minimally kind to animals, and not destroy the Earth around it, but has dispensed with the esoteric aspects of biodynamic agriculture.

Standards for Organic Food

Happily, for those of us who want to support organic farming and/or eat food not produced using petrochemical pesticides, there are, in many countries of the world, strict standards for what can be sold as organic and what institutions, be they governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, or private companies, have the right to certify those products as organic.

(For those people who want to be sure the farm was treated holistically, the biodiversity of the soil and surrounding landscape was supported, and strictly proscribed spiritual composting practices were followed, biodynamic certifications, like the Demeter label, also exist.)

If you’re buying meat (or honey and, soon, insects) labelled organic (or biological or ecological) in the European Union, there is a long list of standards regarding how those animals were bred, raised, fed, housed, and slaughtered.

The shocking thing about the list is that it reads like a social contract of minimum decency: in exchange for eating you, animal, we won’t treat you too terribly badly during your life that is short but at least of defined minimum duration, won’t pump you full of growth hormones and antibiotics, and will feed you organically grown, nutritionally balanced feed that contains a suitable amount of roughage.

Organic poultry chickens, for example, must be allowed to experience life for at least 11½ weeks and, if not kept outdoors, they must be held in a room of certain minimum size per chicken, with no more than 4800 chickens, with easy access to open air, and with lights that are not on more than 16 hours a day. They have to have perches as well, because, come night time, chickens want to roost (and, given how much they excrete overnight, this is also a far more hygienic way to sleep, then tucked up on the ground somewhere, soiling their own underfeathers).

All of it makes you wonder how stomach-churningly horribly conventionally farmed animals are treated in pursuit of the cheap meat we all like to be able to eat.

In contrast to organic farming, a conventional wheat field. The wheat is green and abundant, but no other colours are visible, there are no flowers to be seen, and the ground between the wheat rows appears to be dry and barren.
The conventional wheat field right next to the organic one.

Specific Rules for Organic Produce and Grains

The rules for growing organic grains and produce are simpler, but no less exact.

To qualify as organic, produce and grains must have been grown on land that was cultivated organically for at least the last three years (unless they’re meant as feed for organic livestock, in which case the number is two). To protect the local waterways, less than 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare of cultivated field can be applied each year in the form of manure that did not come from a factory farm (with all their diseases and antibiotics).

There are a limited number of pesticides of “natural” origin that can be used, such as pyrethrins extracted from Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium, gelatin, and paraffin oil as insecticides, iron orthophosphate to kill snails and slugs, and sulfur as a fungicide.

But organic pest control is in general more biodynamic (by which here I mean involving interplay between natural actors), involving rotating crops so pests specific to specific crops can’t get a foothold in a field, planting plants in companionship with others that are good at repelling the other’s pests, and making wise use of cover crops (or certain, alas, plastic ground cover sheets) to keep weeds from growing or going to seed.

Then there is the matter of organic food processing and storage.

Ethylene may be used as a ripening agent only for things like bananas and kiwifruit; likewise, aluminum sulfate can be used to prevent their ripening. The processing of organic milk, eggs, produce, and grains into things like bread, yogurt, and junk food (because, seriously, my local grocery store offers more shelf stable organic cookies and chips (crisps) than organic vegetables, and I suspect that’s pretty typical), there is a relatively short list of additives that can be added.

For example, annatto may be used as a coloring agent (e.g., in products such as red Leicester cheese), citric acid is permissible as a pH regulator, and silica can be included as an anti-caking agent in herbs and spices.

Organic Standards Outside of Europe

But that’s the European Union. What about the rest of the world?

The standards for organic meat, honey, produce, grain, and processed foods in place in the USA, Canada, Japan, and Korea are similar enough to the European Union’s standards that, for trading purposes, they’re considered equivalent. Products certified as organic in any one of these states may be exported to any of these other states and sold as organic without additional certification.

Many other countries, including but most certainly not limited to Mexico, India, and China, have standards that, in a case of one of the actual benefits of globalization, fall strongly along the same lines as those of Europe and the USA, even if there are no equivalency agreements in place.

Things are a bit more wild west in Australia and New Zealand where any product can label itself as organic if it wants to (although not as certified organic), but where there are several organizations and companies that issue bonafide organic certification (see lists for Australia and New Zealand) that (mostly) conform to the emerging international consensus on what is organic farming and organic food.

Future Hope for the Question ‘What Does Organic Mean?”

My mind has numbed thumbing through hundreds of pages of organic certification regulation from several different countries, but I am heartened by it all.

The market for organic food is currently expanding all over the world, and a fairly equivalent if also locally adapted set of official standards have emerged to allow us to know what we’re buying and to make play fair for those farmers who are taking the time, effort, and expense to work by these higher standards of animal welfare and preservation of the fertility of the soil.

Sometimes the human race does make progress (even if it is backwards towards the more traditional farming habits of our ancestors).

We all like to think that regulations are a ridiculous pain, but not only does the ability to have and implement them separate us from all other animals on Earth, having and implementing standards is the foundation upon which civilization stands.

But that’s another topic for another time.