what is organic

What does it mean for something to be “organic”? What does it mean to grow something organically? Why should you care whether something is organic or not? What difference does it make? Well, personally, I think it matters quite a bit, but I also think that some people put TOO much emphasis on the term, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.

But, First, Let’s Define “Organic”

The term “organic” can mean different things, depending upon the context. Considering the nature of this site, it seems reasonable to restrict our definition to one involving fertilizer, farming and food, which are, obviously, all related.

According to Wikipedia:

Organic certification is a certification process for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products. In general, any business directly involved in food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, [food] processors, retailers and restaurants.

Requirements vary from country to country, and generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:

  • no human sewage sludge fertilizer used in cultivation of plants or feed of animals[1]
  • avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge;
  • use of farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more);
  • keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
  • maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
  • undergoing periodic on-site inspections.

So, as you can see, as relates to food and the production of food, the term “organic”, at least in it’s technical, legal sense, is really an exclusionary term. It is much more about what you CANNOT do than it really is about what you SHOULD do. What types of inputs can you NOT use, as opposed to what sort of growing practices you SHOULD use.

In this sense, I like the term because it still provides for alot of freedom on the part of organic growers in terms of what they CAN or SHOULD do, and I am all about freedom. So, in that sense, I like the term because, even though it does put some significant limits on growers, it still provides for quite a bit of flexibility as well.

On the other hand, I don’t like the term because it gives food buyers an “idea” about the food that they are purchasing that may not be entirely accurate.

No Chemicals, But What About Nutrition?

You see, to be “certified organic”, all you really have to do is NOT use any of the unapproved items/practices for a few years and you’re “in the club”. So, you can be fairly well assured that, if you choose certified organic foods at your local grocery, you’re getting foods that are free of pesticides and chemicals, which is good.

However, it leads to a secondary assumption that may not necessarily be all that accurate. People purchasing organic foods assume that they are nutritionally better than non-organic foods. And, although in many cases this may be somewhat accurate, in other cases the nutritional differences may not be that great.

Just being free of chemicals doesn’t mean that an item is nutritionally dense. It just means there are no chemicals. If a plot of land was chemically managed for years and then lies fallow for 3 years with no chemical inputs, it can then be certified organic. Throw out some seeds, let ’em grow and sell the produce for double the price.

Yields might not be that great, but if you don’t pay for any fertilizer and you sell what produce you DO get for twice the price, you could still make money, even though the produce coming off the field is probably pretty nutritionally deficient. But, the people buying that produce don’t know that.

Organic SHOULD Mean Nutritionally Dense

Organic, in it’s most ideal sense, should mean sustainable growing practices that enrich the soil, build plant health and avoid un-natural inputs. Prior to the introduction of chemical fertilizers, this was just the way it was done. There wasn’t any other way. And, as a result, soils were often very fertile and would yield produce that was VERY nutritionally dense. Unfortunately, that is not true today.

Much of the agricultural land around the world, whether it is CURRENTLY being farmed organically or not, is quite nutritionally deficient and so is the produce it yields. Without proper soil amendment, superior organic fertilizers and a focus on stimulating earthworm and microbial activity in the soil, these soils will remain deficient, as will the produce we harvest from them.

Worse yet, nutritionally deficient produce TASTES nutritionally deficient, and it really sucks to eat food that has no taste.

Organic, BRIX, Nutrition and Taste

Plants that are grown in a traditional, sustainable way where the soil is being enriched, earthworms and microbes are active and high quality, and organic fertilizer inputs are being used are extremely healthy plants that resist disease and insects naturally. The produce from these healthy plants is amazingly flavorful. You will NEVER eat a better tomato than one that is picked from a truly healthy plant.

Unfortunately, most people these days wouldn’t know a healthy plant if it sprouted up in the living room with a sign saying “I’m Healthy”. Seriously, most people have never seen a truly healthy plant and wouldn’t really even know how to TEST to see if it was healthy (even though there’s a REALLY simple test that anyone could do in just a few minutes).

Truly healthy plants have high TSS (total soluble solids), which is basically just the nutrients, minerals and sugars found in the sap of the plant. Likewise, the produce from truly healthy plants is also high in total soluble solids, and the flavor of such produce is amazing.

BRIX is a measure of the sugar content of a plant or the produce from it, and the BRIX levels within a plant are generally proportional to the TSS levels. So, the higher the sugar content, the higher the TSS, the better the nutrition.

Anyone can quickly test the BRIX of any plant or produce with a simple refractometer. They are inexpensive, easy to use and pretty small. You could easily bring one into the grocery store. However, don’t expect the store manager to be happy about it, because once you discover how low the BRIX values are for the produce they carry (even much of the “organic” produce), you’ll wonder why you both paying anything for it at all.

Organic IS a Better Option

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that organic IS a better option to non-organic products. I’m only saying that it doesn’t ALWAYS offer the quality that you might THINK you’re getting, so be smart in your purchasing decisions. Pay closer attention to the produce that you purchase. Consider purchasing a refractometer to check the BRIX levels of the produce you purchase (for more info about BRIX and what levels you should be looking for, check out my “Increase BRIX for Better Plant Health” article).

And, if you’re looking to do any organic growing of your own (which is a great idea), be sure that the fertilizer you are using is going to truly benefit not only the plant but also the soil in a significant way. AGGRAND organic fertilizers are a great option, but there are certainly other good products out there. Just do your homework and choose the product that will be right for you.