What Is Organic Food?

A lot of parties—notably farmers, distributors, retailers, consumers, government agencies, and environmentalists—have an interest in the answer to the question "What is organic food?"

| August/September 1998

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    What is organic food? With so many product on the market making the claim, it's only fair to wonder.
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    A certified organic farm in Watsonville, California, owned and operated by Brad Partin.
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    Brad Partin and his dog Cody survey their crops.
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    The proposed label for USDA-certified organic foods.

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Wouldn't it be wonderful if something so simple, so down to earth and almost folksy as organic agriculture ushered in an age of reason in national government? I'd better correct myself right off the bat. Organic agriculture is not simple. The brouhaha over the proposed National Organic Standards that were put out for public review earlier this year is not about something simple. There are over 40 organic certifying entities around the country. Each has its own set of standards. Each set of standards was arrived at through rigorous review. Many are reviewed and revised each year.

Why doesn't one certifying entity use the standards painstakingly drafted by another and settle once and for all "What is organic food?" There are valid points of debate. As president of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in the early 1970s, I was involved with certification standards during some of the early drafts. MOFGA was one of the first organizations to certify growers. To this day, the MOFGA Certification Committee reviews their standards annually, usually makes some changes, and then passes their recommendations on to the board. I attended the board meetings for the past two years when the standards were discussed and voted upon. It doesn't seem any easier 25 years later. One of the problems to be faced from the start is that even a definition of organic is not simple.

Definition of Organic and the Dawning of the Mad Scientist Era  

When I began being an activist for organic agriculture, the agricultural chemical industry tried to put down our methods through confusion and derision. One of their favorite attacks was to say that "organic" was simply the branch of chemistry having to do with carbon. It is difficult today to believe that this was an argument that was put forward as having validity, or that we actually felt we had to defend ourselves, but chemists were scientists, and we were not even proper farmers. Back then, chemists and other scientists were "bringing good things to life." Today, chemists are seen with a more critical eye.

I don't want to vilify scientists. Scientists are learning wonderful things that do help us understand and live our lives. There is so much to study and try to understand, especially about living organisms. Who can deny that an understanding of genetics is a good thing? It can lead to a better understanding of how the natural world works. It can also lead to new paths of philosophical discussion. But releasing into the world man-manipulated organisms designed for a very narrow purpose and without a clue of the potential impact on nature, on us, or on future generations is mad science.

To take a technology like irradiation and apply it to our food to "make it safe" seems like madness to me. Sure, zapping the food will kill off the microorganisms that cause food poisoning. But, just like a contact poison pesticide, it kills many more good or benign insects than harmful ones. Won't the irradiation kill good or benign microorganisms? Where might this lead eventually in the health of our bodies? Does anyone know? Sometime in the future, will we learn that irradiated food is a serious health problem? It is this kind of science that we are leery of. Cleaning up our food production and delivery system would certainly make our food safer, too.

Let me digress a moment with a favorite story of mine. A friend had a few cows. He milked the cows by hand into a bucket in the barn with who-knows-what floating around in the air. He sold this raw milk coming right from the udder of a cow. The high school science teacher bought some milk from him one day. He came back the next day to say that he had bought the milk to show his students the difference between raw and store-bought milk. He put both under the microscope where they could observe the number of bacteria in each. Which do you think was the cleanest? The science teacher was amazed. He thought the packaged product from the store would be bacteria-free and the raw milk would be swarming with bacteria. It was the other way around. Most of the problems arise after the product leaves the farm.

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