What does “organic” mean?

November 25, 2013 Edited by  
Filed under Organic

What comes to mind when you read the word “organic”? Do you picture happy cows eating lush green grass under the shade of an oak tree? Or a small family farm full of happy workers and buzzing bees? Or the bright colors and mouth-watering flavor of a freshly picked heirloom tomato? Do you associate “organic” with words like healthy, humane, and environmentally-friendly?

Unfortunately, none of those visions or associations may be true. Why? Because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the word “organic” not by what it is, but rather by what it’s not. There are essentially six things permitted in conventional foods that are NOT allowed in organic foods (National Organic Program):

  1. No synthetic fertilizers
  2. No synthetic pesticides (herbicides or insecticides)
  3. No antibiotics or growth hormones (in animal products)
  4. No municipal sewage sludge (applied to fields)
  5. No irradiation
  6. No genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)

Some folks proclaim that the simple absence of the above items is no guarantee that organic foods are any healthier, more humane, or friendlier to the environment than conventional foods. Other folks firmly believe that the absence of any the above items makes organic food better by default.

Food for thought

What do you think? Is organic food “better” than conventional food? Why or why not?

Obviously this is not a straightforward, “apples-to-apples” comparison. The quality of your food, organic or conventional, depends on the practices of your farmer, as well as the additional processing and/or distances that the food is submitted to before it arrived on your plate. There are a host of other factors to consider as well. What factors matter most to you?


National Organic Program website. Accessed November 24, 2013. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop


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