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What does Organic mean anyway?

July 31, 2013

The words local, sustainable, and organic punctuate the aisles of every modern day grocery store, but do you know what these terms actually mean? When spoken, they’re often used interchangeably, and with varying definitions. Here’s why:


Defining “organic” is tricky. The USDA’s definition is murky at best, but what it boils down to is this: the inputs used to grow the food (i.e. fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides) must occur naturally. You may be surprised to learn that organic farmers use inputs, too, but it’s true. And it’s not a bad thing. Not all synthetic inputs are bad, and not all natural inputs are good — what matters most is the dosage in which they’re used. While it’s hard to find out which products have what amount of inputs, you can always support brands that practice transparency and are dedicated to quality.

Darya Rose from Summer Tomato sums it up nicely:

“One problem is that the word “organic” is a huge umbrella that includes sustainable, biodynamic farming practices as well as huge-scale industrial operations that barely squeeze under the “certified organic” labeling standards.”


Go to a farmers market and ask shoppers what they think local means and you’ll get a different answer from every single person. There’s not an official certifying agency for “local” like there is for organic, although some folks are trying to change that. As a result, there’s no standard definition for the term, but most people would agree that it’s somewhere south of 500 miles from plant to plate.

Obviously, the word “local” has nothing to do with the way food is grown, only where it’s grown. Shoppers choose to buy local for a variety of reasons. Among them is an opportunity to support their local economy, develop relationships with the farmers who grows their food, and in many cases (though not categorically), local food is organically grown.


Most people associate industrial food production with corn and soy, which is reasonable since they account for the overwhelming majority of US crop production, but industrial methods apply to products like organic vegetables, too. Simply stated, industrial agriculture is the practice of achieving economies of scale.


This may be the hardest of these food terms to define. Depending who you ask, the word “sustainable” could be associated with any of the words above. Two terms that seem to be antonyms, like “organic” and “industrial,” could both be perceived as sustainable. For example, an economist may argue that “industrial food” is more sustainable than “organic food” because more can be grown with less (especially when compared to examples like this). On the other hand, a concerned scientist may cite examples of fertilizer runoff and mutant weeds as reasons that industrial agriculture is not sustainable.

No matter who you talk to or how you slice it, the term sustainable is is a reference to a very simple ethos: Leave this place a little better than you found it.

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