As consumer demand for transparency in the food system grows, we see many terms used to describe food, such as local, organic and fair trade. The challenge, however, is understanding what these terms actually mean. Local Orbit believes that the best way to ensure people understand how a product is produced, as well as its environmental impact, is through a simple narrative. We’re always on the lookout for discussions that help clarify, or debunk assumptions about, the language used to describe food.
The Michigan Organic Food & Farm Alliance featured an interesting article about the definition of organic in their May 2016 Newsletter, which we’re posting here. Learn more about their work to promote organic agriculture and the development and support of food systems that revitalize and sustain local communities.
The Organic Conversation: What is Organic?
by Leah Smith
Who knows? Sometimes it seems not many people do. To be fair, I suppose those who already know or think they know don’t ask me to define organic for them, and so don’t make themselves apparent. I have a lot more conversations with the “don’t knows.” I know what organic meant to the Organic Growers of Michigan, thanks to some old pamphlets my father was careful to save from decades long past. And I quote:
The word ORGANIC as we use it here means, ‘derived from living organisms.’ Organic growing methods encourage the development of soil organisms by the incorporation of organic matter. This organic matter feeds soil micro-organisms which regulate the supply of nutrients to plant roots, making a living soil without which fertility cannot be maintained. Organic farming works with nature, accepts nature’s restraints, in order to create a sustainable food system for generations to come. Organic agriculture promotes plant, animal, and HUMAN HEALTH through the growing of crops on soil that is nutritionally balanced.
That pamphlet was from the early 80s. By the early 2000’s there was talk of using less fossil fuel energy and more renewable resources, as well as GMO avoidance and the utilization of CSAs to encourage farmer/consumer interaction. So you see, definitions change and evolve all the time. Still, if you are talking green manures and crop rotations, companion plantings and rock minerals, polycultures and biological pest controls, you are talking organic.
To get back to the “don’t knows,” it is clear all of the details above don’t go through their minds when they hear the word organic. But they think something, accurate or not. Sometimes it can be hard to drive home accurate information. The conceptions some people have can be revealed by the statements they make when opening the “organic” conversation. What value and characteristics have been attached to organic foods in the minds of many people? Let’s see.
“So I don’t need to wash this?”
Interesting, don’t you think? This woman must have been given the impression that organic food is safer to consume, cleaner, without knowing exactly how. I have gotten the impression that many believe pesticide residues can simply be washed off and you are left with safe food. Therefore, there is no need to wash organic food. No, organic doesn’t mean equivalent to those greens sold in the grocery stores that have been triple washed and packaged with the proclamation that you can immediately eat them without washing them. Any organic produce that I have harvested has a very good chance of having an errant cat hair floating on to it from my clothes. Song birds will fly over organic gardens, you know, and could leave you know what behind. And I have seen many customers rummage through our tomatoes and lettuces before they buy what they want. So always wash your produce and remove these environmental traces. We will talk more about pesticide residues that are located inside produce, and not just on the skins where it can be washed, later.
“Organic food is more nutritious, right?”
This is a tricky question. All things being equal, yes??? I hesitate strongly, because all things are not equal. A lot goes in to making nutritious food. Variety and color. Age and soil nutrients. Non-organic red cabbage could be more nutritious than organic green cabbage, or one variety of tomato that is a good concentrator of nutrients will have more nutrition than another red tomato even if this other red tomato is organic. How long ago was it harvested? Organic vegetables in the grocery store probably can’t compete with locally raised produce, organic or conventional. Many, many nutrients depart after harvesting. Of course, the conventional will also have pesticide residues which are not wholesome. Nutrients have to be in the soil on which food is grown to make it into the food at all. Is everyone’s organic soil equal? Will someone whose organic soil has been organic longer or uses green manures superbly or employs excellent crop rotation raise more nutritious food than someone whose organic soil these traits don’t apply to? Yes! So is organic food always more nutritious? No. Is local produce organically raised by someone who really knows their stuff always more nutritious than the competitors, no matter who they are? Yes! It pays to know your farmer!
“Organic! That means it will have bugs in it!”
I admit, over the years I have found this to be a rather irritating question. I realize consumers at large are used to produce with no insects or insects nibbles or any hint that the produce ever saw the light of day. All right, an exaggeration. I just find it hard to picture a garden or field with no insects in it because I know how much they love to live. Organic doesn’t mean the food will be riddled with insects. There are many cultural practices and environmentally friendly pesticides that are used for insect pest control. So the amount of bugs and bug nibbles you will find varies greatly case by case. It is also very likely that with organic food you will find organic farmers who are not as bothered by bug nibbles and who, like myself, don’t quite understand this fear of bugs. Happily, more customers seem to be coming around to the idea that there can be scarier things lurking in your food than bug bites.
“That means you fertilize with manure.”
Possibly. Animal manure can be used by organic gardeners to fertilize their soil, as opposed to the synthetic fertilizers used by conventional farmers. It is organic material and it improves soil quality. However, animal manure can also be used by conventional farmers too. Naturally, you wouldn’t want an “organic” farmer to use manure, even though it is a natural product, if their only source is a conventional farm. That manure will be of suspect quality. What you feed animals affects everything they produce for you, from their milk to their eggs to their, well, you know.
“Does this mean the vegetables will be dirty?”
That question was put to me when I was at Michigan State and helping with one of the first organic meals done on campus at the Shaw Hall cafeteria in an effort to raise awareness about organic food. I don’t think the young man who asked thought much about the food he ate or cared about it, as long as it tasted good to him. What had managed to penetrate his skull was that organic means unclean and untidy, rough in appearance. I told him most vegetables that come out of the ground have a little soil stuck to them and that in this case we washed it off just for him. So no, organic doesn’t mean unwashed vegetables but actually means a whole lot more.
“Does that mean you don’t eat meat?”
More people than you might think seem to assume that our enthusiasm displayed at the farmers’ market table for our vegetables means we have no room left to love beef, pork, and chicken. True, some organic produce enthusiasts are vegetarians. But not all of them, not this one. We love vegetables and we love animal products of all sorts. It is also a good way to farm, by making use of domestic animals. I am a big proponent of the integrated farm. Animals can make use of land that might not be ideal for gardening due to being excessively sloped, for example, a gardening situation that would lead to runoff. They produce manure that can improve soil structure. They can be used for pest control (chickens and ducks, typically) or can consume garden products that otherwise would go to waste. Farm animals and the garden have a mutually beneficial relationship; they give and take and both benefit, as does the farmer and the consumer. And the environment. Together they create a wonderful, self-sustaining system. And we reap the wonderful, edible benefits.
“Organic flowers? Am I going to eat them?”
A joke made by many a humorous fellow who doesn’t understand the need to value an organic bouquet of flowers. No, you are not going to eat the flower bouquets we sell at our market table. But you are going to be sharing an environment with them. And the flowers you buy determine what kind of a contributor you are to the environment in general, for better or worse. While many people now know that the average produce found in the supermarket has traveled 1,500 miles from it’s point of origin, most don’t know that the average flowers found at the florist shop have traveled 2,500 miles. That is a lot of fuel and pollution! Additionally, the need for blemish and bug free flowers leads to the use of a lot of fungicides and insecticides. That is a burden on the environment, and on you depending on how much contact you and your loved ones have with the pesticide residue on these flowers. Even with fresh-cut flowers, going organic is important.
Sometimes I wish we were asked more probing questions about our organic production, like how we try to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels on our farm or how we make the benefits of using an integrated farming system (plant and animal production on the same farm) outpace the challenges; and I would like to see these questions asked to all local/organic sellers. Maybe someday. It would show a great level of concern and awareness on the part of the consumers, that they are mindful of the fact that part of their contribution to the environment is determined by the farming practices used to raise the food they eat. Yes, the consumer is a major participant in the continued health of the environment. All they have to do is eat physically dirty, residue free, nutritionally superior, bug laden produce raised with manure by a vegetarian!
Leah Smith is a Michigan State alumna (B.S., Crop and Soil Sciences) and a MOFFA member. She works at Nodding Thistle, her family’s farm, which has a history of organic gardening and farm marketing since 1984.