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.

22 responses to “The ‘O’ word

  • Matt

    I think I need to put on my “O-face” for this one.
    I’m fine with the organic (natural … from life) definition. It’s really OK by me. What I don’t like is that organic automatically means “the best”. It’s the marketing that drives me absolutely batty. I’m with you on the whole organic water thing. It’s wrong on sooo many levels. Unless they are squeezing little chipmunks and extracting water from each furry little fella, their definition doesn’t stand.
    And, like all things, I’m sure this fad will pass. Give it another 10 years and I think it will be completely gone, and some new even more incredulous phrasing will take over.

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  • John Spevacek

    The National List… is fascinating. I just took a quick scan and found aspirina and BHT. BHT? A synthetic preservative That’s way too funny.

  • See Arr Oh

    Leigh: Nice job here! Wish you luck on the upcoming defense…

    I will say that (as an ORGANIC chemist who also works with decidedly non-organic things like those sneaky transition metals), the one use of “organic” that drives me absolutely batty is the one meaning “came together out of thin air, through no effort.” You know the type to use this connotation, the artisty (there’s just an organic feel to that piece) or business types (that meeting just went so organically).

    I know these could technically mean the “natural” sense of the word, but it feels more, well, subversive, like you’re using big words to cover something.

  • Matt

    That list is AMAZING. Still trying to digest all of it.
    Any other egregious “organic” additives?
    Also, I happen to think that GM foods should most certainly fall under the organic (non-synthetic) title. Anyone else care to chime in on GM stuff?

  • Chemjobber

    I think we’d all be in favor of changing the term “organic farming”, if we could. But I don’t think we’re influential enough with the public to make a PR campaign worth the cost.

    Unfortunately, there’s all the other “organic” stuff (water, etc.) and that’s more or less ridiculous.

    I’ll throw in another meaning of “organic”, which is closer to the “holistic” connotation. In the military, group that are a permanent subunit of a larger organization are referred to as ‘organic’ (as in “part of the organism”, I suspect.) It’s pretty weird to be reading some nerdy novel and hear a character refer to “organic artillery assets.”

  • Chemjobber

    P.S. That list is awesome. Love the reviewers of octyldecylamine: “Uh, hey guys, this is made by catalytic hydrogenation of stearic acid amide. It’s not organic at all.”

  • Chemjobber

    USDA: Hey, fellas, someonewould like to use ammonium bicarbonate from liquid swine manure in organic farm production. What do you think?

    Reviewer 1 (USDA Certifier): That’s not organic! There are natural alternatives, it’s a synthetic process and it might be bad for the environment if overused!
    Reviewer 2 (chem prof): Uh, seems non-synthetic to me.
    Reviewer 3 (chem prof): “This is a nice easy one. There is nothing really bad about ammonium bicarbonate other than the fact that it will readily produce ammonia.”

    Fascinating find, Leigh.

  • John Spevacek


    Thanks for the reminder. Business will talk of “organic” growth, meaning from within, as opposed to via acquisitions, mergers, JV’s…

  • El Selectride

    sign on a dry cleaner in Somerville, MA:

    “NEW! We are now using Organic solvent”

  • Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @John, BHT is actually a very common pesticide in organic farming. Way, way common. But most organic farmers are very much against using plants with the BHT incorporated gene. Which leads me to…

    @Matt: the GM issue. Organic farmers are vehemently against this. I think this is a bit weird, considering that all our modern garden plants are the result of years of genetic breeding. Yes, even the heirloom varieties. Without this, tomatoes would still be poisonous (they’re related to belladonna).

    • Matt

      I agree. I have a huge issue with people who are a priori against GM foods. Weren’t we just celebrating Mendel yesterday? He’s the first person to figure out “what” GM foods actually are. But, humans have been making GM foods for how long now? And … how long has evolution been producing GM foods. It drives me batty when people go on rampages against GM foods. If they were so against them, they’d just have to start fasting.

    • Jason

      I believe that the pesticide you’re referring to is called “BT”, short for Bacillus thuringiensis. It’s a bacterium that produces proteins that cause lesions in certain insects’ digestive tracts. The lesions usually get infected and the insects die. BT maize, canola, etc. are modified to produce the protein themselves. In the case of maize, it protects against rootworm, corn borer, cutworms, and a host of other larvae that can decimate a corn field.

      BHT, on the other hand, is butylated hydroxytoluene, an antioxidant added to food to prevent spoilage.

  • Paul

    @CJ: There’s a major Lewis structure FAIL in that TAP report for ammonium bicarbonate.

    I wish these farmers would invent a *new* set of unique terms and establish rules for what they mean and how they can be used. Why steal “organic” when you could call it just about anything else, like “level 12 gold certified” or something similarly stupid but (at least) unique.

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  • Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @Jason: Yes, you’re right. I got the two confused in my brain. I actually woke up in the middle of the night last night and realized that. Thanks for the correction.

  • Vader

    “Whatever beats in Rupurt Murdoch’s chest. ”

    Kind of a jarring gratuitous jab in the middle of an otherwise fairly sensible essay. There is nothing more authentically human than greed, vanity, lust, and other human foibles. They’re highly organic, in that sense.

    So now for my own gratuitous jab:

    “Should organic farming be called something else?”

    “Wasteful” and “inefficient” come to mind.

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  • Kradak Thomas

    Yes, as an organic chemist, I chuckle when I see “Organic table salt” offered for sale. Yet, words are all words, and words are just markers that refer to concepts or things. (everything is just a CAS number or a mixture of CAS numbers)

    If you consider organic to be “anything derived from living matter”, salt can certainly be organic (see David Foster Wallace in “Infinite Jest”), water is organic (if you are willing to drink urine), and limestone is organic since it derives from the fossilized shells of ancient sea creatures.

    On a side note, if you have read your shampoo bottle lately, you will see that colloquial terms are more often used than chemical terms–this allows for people to read the ingredients without getting scared. Marketing plays a role here, too, since you won’t see water as an ingredient as much as you will see “aqua” or “eau” as ingredients. As Fancy Nancy says, “why use an ordinary word when a fancy one will suffice?”

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