Do we need a new definition of Organic?

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From Gene Logsdon

Andy Reinhart and Jan Dawson have operated an organic market garden now for about 20 years. Jandy’s, as they call their farm, near Bellegountaine, Ohio, is remarkable for a number of reasons. Jan and Andy make their living from about an acre of produce, rarely having to dip into their savings. They say they would rather live modestly and have time to enjoy life. And although their operation is very strictly organic, they refuse organic certification. That would be a waste of money in their frugal eyes. Why should they spend money so someone from afar can assert that they are truly organic growers when they already know that and so do their customers.

But their reasons for balking at certification runs deeper than that. They don’t agree with the definition of “organic” that certification supports. “I don’t see anything organic about food shipped a couple thousand miles before it is sold even if it is grown ‘organically’,” Andy says. “That’s an extravagant use of fuel and in this day and age, burning fossil fuel unnecessarily is not organic to me.”

“Or is a crop organic, even if it is certified, if the work of producing it on a large farm is done by poorly paid immigrant labor?” Jan adds.

It is not uncommon to find organic growers everywhere rising up to answer these objections. In Mendocino County, Calif., for example, Tim Bates tells me on the phone that he and other local growers have started their own certification program that is much cheaper than the prevailing state wide programs. A caller from North Carolina says her organic grower organization no longer uses the word “organic” to label their food, preferring instead to emphasize the adjectives, local, fresh, and natural.

We all are aware of these trends, and perhaps we ought to be addressing the philosophical question that sooner or later must be answered. Does “organic” apply exclusively to the way food is produced chemically or biologically or is the defining moment tied into social benefits that should accrue from raising food “organically”? For example, should part of the definition of “organic” include the decentralization of food production rather than continuing along the present suicidal path of consolidation? Does it suffice that organic food makes the body healthier, or should it also make the soul healthier? Should organic food insist on social responsibility as its main purpose?

These questions becomes extremely important, it seems to me, as the chemistry and biology of food production gets more sophisticated. Science can still argue, and surely argue more insistently as time goes by, that organic food is not any healthier necessarily than food raised non-organically. It has become a troublesome fact of life that animal manures and certain composts can carry their own risks. Also, with the onslaught of new genetic manipulations to supposedly enhance food production, the battle will continue to rage over whether or not the food so produced is any different chemically than traditional food. If we are going to base certification only on the chemical or physical safety of food, why not certify irradiated foods?

Here is a riddle for your next meditation. If an organic tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, is it still organic?
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Current Books:
All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises of Pasture Farming
The Lords of Folly (novel)
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)

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