Monthly Archives: July 2011

The ‘O’ word

For those of you that didn’t get here from there, this post is the last in the series of CHEMisperceptions bloggy roundtable. Please read the other entries at ScienceGeist, Chemjobber, and ChemBark for your own enlightenment and entertainment.

Organic. What the hell does that word mean?

As with many things in life, the answer depends on who you are. Are you a chemist? (I am!) Then organic makes you think benzene, hexane, methane—almost any chemical compound that contains a carbon atom. Perhaps you’re a gardener. (Again, me.) Then organic means a way of tending your plants, using bat poo and insecticidal soap instead of Miracle-Gro and Roundup. Are you a writer of dictionaries? Then organic might mean something like this to you…

“of, relating to, or derived from living matter.”

So twigs, leaves, chipmunk carcasses, eyeballs, your wool socks, cat whiskers, whatever, all organic materials. Things that are not organic: Rocks. Metal. Whatever beats in Rupurt Murdoch’s chest. These things are known as inorganic, the opposite of organic. In the chemical sense, they (mostly) do not contain carbon. Some very familiar inorganic substances are water (H2O) and salt, table or other. (Table salt is sodium chloride, NaCl. The salt they put on the roads in winter is usually potassium chloride, or KCl. There are also numerous other salts that don’t contain chloride ions.)

By the way? That organic = natural definition is the oldest one. So if we want to be purists about it, that’s what organic really means.

However, in colloquial language terms, we are not purists. As such, organic means whatever we say it means. So what do we say it means? To most people, when they hear the word organic they think produce. The Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. The first thought of organic is in the farming sense. And that actually, is something very specific.

According to the USDA, if you’re a farmer or a food-seller, you have to meet very specific guidelines to call your food or product or whatever ‘organic.’ And they are thus:

“Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

The National Organic Program (NOP) regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling. As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.”

I think that last line is the most important there. That list? Is huuuuge. And some of the things on it are surprising (such as oxytocin). However, the point is that organic doesn’t necessarily mean natural, or non-synthetic. (The USDA even says so right here.)

So the general public somehow seems to have combined the older definition (organic = natural) with the farming definition (organic = non-synthetic, except for when it doesn’t). Because the general zeitgeist does seem to be that organic somehow means better for you. It does not. However, I’m not going to go into that here. It’s a complex and fascinating topic, and I highly suggest Christine Wilcox’s excellent post about the myths of organic here.

In this context, I’m more interested in where the term ‘organic farming’ came from. And the biggest name in organic farming is certainly Rodale. The Rodale Institute was started in 1947 by J.I.Rodale. The Rodale Institute publishes a lot of books on organic farming practices, as well as runs a series of farming trials comparing organic farming practices to conventional ones.

Rodale is considered by many to be the father of the organic farming movement. These ideas did not come from nowhere into his head, however; he was highly influenced by Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament, published in 1940. (Here is a pdf of the whole thing, if you’re interested.) Lady Eve Balfour also wrote upon the subject in 1943, in a book called The Living Soil (but that one’s out of print).

Regardless, no one’s really sure who coined the term ‘organic farming.’ However, it was a term used to differentiate between conventional farming techniques that used many inorganic salts as fertilizers. The big deal with Howard and Balfour and Rodale was the use of manure to add organic matter back into the soil. The use of inorganic salts on cropland will, over time, kill the millions of organisms that live in dirt, leading to ‘dead’ or inorganic dirt. You want your dirt to be alive to have healthy plants. Hence, ‘organic’ farming. It actually makes sense if you think about it.

So, I imagine that all the chemists reading this are gnashing their teeth about now. Because in chemistry terms, ALL farming is organic farming. Remember, organic to a chemist means containing carbon, and you’d be pretty dang hard pressed to find a plant without carbon in it.

Supposedly, the term ‘organic chemistry’ came about in 1807, named by Jöns Jacob Berzelius for compounds that were derived from living things. (I say supposedly because I can only find one source that says that, Wikipedia.) So it does outdate the use of organic for farming. But that means chemists win? Do we own the term ‘organic’?

So that’s the question I’m throwing out to you reader-types out there. Should organic farming be called something else? Or should we just all get along, and share the word?

Here’s my $0.02: let the poo lie. Organic can mean different things to different people. Although I am speaking as both a chemist and an organic gardener. (Yep. Before grad school, I used to teach organic gardening to kids in the summer. I also did soil science research as an undergrad, so I’ve got a lot of views of the issue.) So maybe it’s easy for me to see both sides.

Although this is what does piss me off: the use of the word ‘organic’ when it’s not government approved, or even reasonable. For example, those dry cleaners who put signs up in their windows touting their ‘Organic Practices!’ Or this organic water crap. This is just preying on people’s ignorance about the subject to make a buck. Or as it’s otherwise known in the modern world, “marketing.”

Unfortunately, it seems the only way that people can avoid being duped by this is by education: being aware what organic means, when it is applicable, and if it actually has any benefit. And the jury’s sure out on that last one.

Oh, organic. What an obstreperous obstacle you are.

Photo sources: chipmunk, cat. The other pictures are mine, that I took in my garden. So no stealing.