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What does the word "organic" mean to you?

If your response immediately includes the words "silly," "neurotic" or "excuse to be overpriced" please go on to another thread. I am looking for thoughtful responses that are not immediately hostile to the concept of organic.

I read a NY Times article about the politics of what ingredients can be included into foodstuffs and still maintain the label "organic."


So I post to the people who buy organic, or those who would like to buy it if it were more affordable or more available in their area. What does the term mean to you? What do you see as the goal of "organic food?"

Personally, I believe that it espouses a method of growing food that is not dependent on vast amounts of herbicides, pesticides, or chemical-derived fertilizers to ensure continued fertility of the land.

Within meat, it should imply that the meat is grown without hormones or preventative antibiotics, two practices that have evolved as a result of large scale agriculture. I don't think vegetarian eggs are better, since chickens are designed to grub for worms and bugs as part of their diet. On the other hand, I don't think they should be eating food comprised of slaughterhouse meal.

I think mono-cultures tend to foster inherent problems in food production. Greater efficiency also breeds greater ruthlessness in dealing with problems. Perhaps my Pollyanna viewpoint is a holdover from children's books, but I can't help thinking that on a smaller scale farm, cow manure is a fertilizer. On CAFOs, (concentrated animal feeding operations) it is a pollutant.

What are your thoughts? Do you accept the organic label as a be all and end all? Do you think that it is better than nothing? Do you think that the system all went wrong somewhere? I lean towards the latter two.

Disclaimer: I am no expert. I am also no farmer. I favor farmers markets conventional over supermarket organic. If I talk to a farmer about their production methods, I will trust them when they say that they use no pesticides, but don't bother with expensive certification more than I trust that someone with an organic label has been vetted thoroughly and conscientiously by the government on an appropriate basis. I buy "happy meat" when I can afford it, but still sometimes buy supermarket meat too.

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  1. I am on the same page as you. I teeter between how things are, how things need to be, how things should be, etc. I think that change is seriously needed for both health and the planet, but I can see how things came to be the way they are and why the necessary changes will be difficult. This will be a good thread to follow, I hope.

    1. Nothing to add - you've just about covered what I understand by "organic." But I confess I don't care enough about organic to investigate whether what I buy at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods really is organic. I rely on their reputations and take their word for it.

      1. I'd prefer a tiered certification level of organic so that people can choose which definition they want to adhere to rather trying to come up with a single standard of "organic food".

        13 Replies
          1. re: FoodPopulist

            We do sorta have that (i.e. Organic, All-Natural, Grass Fed, and non-gov't certifications like Certified Humane, etc.), but, since the Government has their definitions, and larger companies can help influence the exact definition, they are likely to rule the day.

            If, say, Whole Foods were to attempt to have as much Biodynamic produce and Certified Humane Meat as possible, they would still likely end up with only a small amount of each.

            Personally, I am in favor of having multiple programs, in line with your thinking, but having none of them defined by the government. (Things like state inspections by the USDA or OSHA are a different matter).

            1. re: DougRisk

              I'm thinking more along the lines of different levels, of increasing level of strictness. So, let's say that the strictest level would be called Organic-A and would be the tightest definition of "organic". Then, Organic-B would be a less strict standard that permits some things not permitted in Organic-A, and Organic-C would permit even more things.

              Basically, have shades of organic-ness, instead of an either/or rating.

              1. re: FoodPopulist

                They basically have something like this. Don't quote me on the actual wording of these things, but, the Federal Government regulates things like:
                - 100% Organic
                - Made with Organic Ingredients
                - Organic
                - etc.

                There are various levels of "Organic" according to the Feds.

                And, that is my point. They already have what you are asking for, but, since it is the gov't, it is not that great a system.

                Whereas Certified Humane is pretty great. Of course, that is not a government program.

                1. re: DougRisk

                  I would strongly prefer a government-run labeling program.

                  1. re: FoodPopulist

                    FoodPopulist, I was away for the weekend, but, you did not read what I had said. We DO have a government run labeling program.

                    I understand that you may respond with: "Well, I want a better gov't run program", but, such is life. The Federal Governement, and almost all large centralized programs, are almost doomed to being bought bureaucracies.

                    1. re: DougRisk

                      That's the cynical way of looking at it. Another way is to consider that the USDA and FDA are responsible for the food supply for the entire nation, not merely for small minorities with an extremely narrow view of acceptable food production and labelling practices.

                      1. re: GH1618

                        But our food system does need change/improvement, and history shows that with a bureaucracy it takes noisy people with somewhat extreme views to push through change.

                        1. re: GH1618

                          That's fine.

                          But, I stand by my beliefs when it comes to large centralized bureaucracies. They have proven time and again how effective and efficient they are. Though, I am certainly not interested in making this discussion overly political.

                2. re: DougRisk

                  As I understand it, the term "All-Natural" means absolutely nothing from a regulatory standpoint.

                  1. re: thinks too much

                    Well, it depends on what you mean. But, the USDA does define what All-Natural means:

                    "According to the USDA, which has defined the term natural only for meat and poultry, products labeled natural or all natural must not contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients. Currently, no standards exist for this claim except when used on meat and poultry products. There is no organization behind the claim other than the company manufacturing or marketing the product, and there is no third-party certifier."

                    1. re: DougRisk

                      So not much better than "magically delicious".

                      1. re: ennuisans

                        Right, All-Natural basically means that the animal was not raised in a nuclear reactor.

              2. One thing that organic does NOT mean to me is the produce I bring home from the store smelling like store disinfectant.

                1. The US Department of Agriculture defines the meaning of "organic" in the US:


                  While some people may disagree with details of the USDA definition, it is preferable to have a single, regulated standard than to have individual producers using it to mean different things.

                  1. I'm pretty much an agnostic when it comes to organic but to me it means "likely to be of somewhat better quality," if I'm not happy with the conventional produce I often find that the organic section has better looks produce. And shopping at Publix means I'm very often not happy with the conventional produce.

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: redfish62

                      To me, it means "doesn't have poisons all over/throughout it"; this doesn't guarantee what might often be considered "better quality".

                      1. re: redfish62

                        "likely to be of somewhat better quality,"

                        Not at all in my limited findings.


                        1. re: Davwud

                          That would depend upon your definition of quality. I consider a smaller, less "beautiful" apple without poison in it to be of higher quality than a large, plastic-looking specimen that has been soaked in poison.

                          1. re: sandylc

                            Redfish specifically says "better looks" and I, like Davwud, have usually found the opposite to be true.

                            1. re: acgold7

                              But my point is that better-looking rarely translates automatically to better-tasting or healthier.

                              1. re: sandylc

                                Got it, but that wasn't Redfish's point, which is what this particular subthread is about. Just trying to stay on point.

                                1. re: sandylc

                                  My point is that I've found that better is better. Not organic or non organic. I've found stuff on both sides of the line very easily.
                                  I will say first and foremost some of the best meat I've had is from a local farmer that sets up shop at the neighbourhood farmers market. Fantastic stuff. Not organic either.


                            2. re: Davwud

                              I buy most of my food at Publix and their conventional produce isn't very good. Usually the organic will take it up a notch to "halfway decent."

                              1. re: redfish62

                                Again, thank you redfish for a pragmatic and honest reply!

                          2. Made of carbon-based compounds.

                            1 Reply
                            1. I figure 100 years ago you just bought food, and it was mostly good except when people tried to cheat and screw you over. Now you have to buy organic to get that level of quality control.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: ennuisans

                                I am a bit of a hobby-est historian when it comes to food, and, I can tell you that things were not that great way back when. There was a lot of cheating, mis-labeling, and other under-handed things happening back in the good old days.

                                This seemed to be truer for larger metropolises than for smaller towns. But, of course, choices were much more limited in smaller towns.

                                However, if you are specifically referring to things NOT being sprayed with chemicals and animals being injected with god-knows-what, then, you are right.

                                1. re: DougRisk

                                  I think we're mostly in agreement. Nowadays my worry is that the organic requirements are being fudged, and I'd expect that to happen more often with national brands than with small/local productions. But I can buy organic and reasonably expect that no one has outright dosed it with poison, and conventional foods offer no such assurances.

                                  1. re: ennuisans

                                    "Nowadays my worry is that the organic requirements are being fudged"

                                    Hence the scam argument.


                                    1. re: Davwud

                                      "But I can buy organic and reasonably expect that no one has outright dosed it with poison, and conventional foods offer no such assurances."

                                      Hence the not-scam argument.

                                2. Folks, as with all threads, if you don't like the question being asked, you're not obligated to answer it. But derailing a thread by taking it off on a tangent about whether the poster is asking the right question really doesn't help.

                                  1. When I think of organic produce I think of something that probably does not have any pesticide residue but quite possibly does have some contamination with 'organic' fertilizer. By the way, the plants cannot tell the difference between organic fertilizer and 'chemical' fertilizer. Nitrogen is nitrogen.

                                    1. To me, "organic" implies the following three concepts:

                                      1) Avoidance of synthetic chemicals to control pests or weeds or to regulate growth;

                                      2) Sustainability, i.e., implementing a growth system in which water and soil nutrients are not depleted faster than they can be replenished so that the land can be productive indefinitely; and

                                      3) Refusal to expose plants, animals or food products to artificial and potentially harmful practices, such as genetic modification and irradiation.

                                      "Organic" is not synonymous with with "certified organic." It is perfectly possible for a farm to be organic without being certified organic.The USDA's certified organic label is expensive to obtain and maintain, and imposes burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements. Large farm operations that sell regionally or nationally can afford the time and expense, but most mom-and-pop farms can't. For this reason, many small farmers who previously had government certification wound up getting out of the program, even though they didn't change their farming practices one iota. There are also alternative certifications, such as Certified Naturally Grown, which are geared more toward local farmers.

                                      Personally, I trust people in my local area who farm organically but have no certification more than I trust the big guys who sell all over the country and are USDA-certified. There are a lot of loopholes in the USDA program. For example, some of the big players grow both non-organic and organic food (and usually a lot less of the latter). They have not bought into the philosophy of organic farmiing, but are merely responding to a market demand for organic products and see it as another revenue/profit stream. In some cases, they have their organic crops growing in a field directly surrounded by conventionally grown crops and the chemicals from the non-organic side leach into the organic field and contaminate it. To be sure, there are honest, reputable people who have the USDA seal of approval. However, the USDA hasn't been particularly vigilant in cracking down on the shadier operations, nor have they been proactive in tightening the requirements to obtain or keep organic certification.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: cheesemaestro

                                        Thank you for a clear and articulately expressed opinion!

                                        1. re: cheesemaestro

                                          Nice synopsis. If you want to be "organic", you need to be more knowledgeable than looking for a label.