The many definitions of "organic"

I love analyzing words, and "organic" is by far one of the most complex and multifaceted terms in American English. We most frequently use it to describe different kinds of growth and food options, but I also recently heard a marketing director speak of the organic marketing efforts she conducted. 

In my capacity as county extension agent for Texas A&M, I get plenty of questions and comments about organic foods. And for years, I thought I had a good understanding of what country living folks meant when they used that term. But now, when someone says they want some food item to be "organic," I pause and ask them to define what exactly organic means in their experience. To date, I've heard four different meanings. There's the legal meaning, the home remedy definition, a "my-grandparents-did-it-this-way" explanation, and, last but not least, the scientific classification.

"Organic means several different things in different contexts."

Let's look at it legally. To be clear, if you sell any food product and want to label it organic, you must first file an application with the Texas Department of Agriculture. The TDA is a an accredited Certifying Agent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Under federal parameters, "organic" refers to agricultural products produced in accordance with stipulations found in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. 

To be legally organic, a producer must comply with the Act's rules and regulations, which include adhering strictly to a list of approved pesticides. For my farm in Clawson, I'd have to submit my forms, pay $2,400, be inspected and wait three years after not applying unapproved pesticides on my farm. Only then I can legally sell organic produce and meats. Regardless of the price of land in Texas being fairly reasonable, these tangential expenses do add up.

Now we all know there are plenty of home gardeners who call themselves and their produce organic but haven't completed the requisite legal processes. (To them, organic may refer to little more than the most recent vegetable-based recipe they found on the internet.)

Then you have the issue of so-called "home remedies," which some may mistakenly refer to as organic. Favorites among these include cornmeal, vinegar, tobacco, beer, salt and even urine. Although there's some truth and pest-deterrent value to each of these, one could do more harm than good by using any of them without understanding the rate of application and other mitigating circumstances.

The many definitions of "organic"Legally speaking, "organic" has a very specific definition, bound by federal regulations.

Take vinegar as an example. Scientifically speaking, vinegar is the common name for acetic acid. We can all agree that applying strong enough acid to living tissues will cause damage. It is realistic, then, to suppose that application of this household acid to weeds could kill them.

Just as the old saying goes, the devil in is the details. Research shows that the 5 percent acidic vinegar from the grocery store isn't a strong enough acid to do the job, while concentrations from 10 to 20 percent provide a pest-control rate of 80 to 100 percent.

But is is safe to use that strong a product? Acetic acid any stronger than 11 percent pure can cause burns upon skin contact. Eye contact is far worse, and may result in severe burns and even permanent corneal injury. Also, imagine the damage that could come from the acidic spray drifting to other plants nearby as well as the adverse impact on microbial life in the soil. 
Others have explained to me that they mean "growing organic" as a reference to the techniques they learned from previous generations of farmers in their family - those who've owned farming and hunting land in Texas for ages. But some of the products commonly used in farming decades ago are no longer available - in many cases, because their residue stuck to the soil for too long or had too many other negative side effects. 

I consider myself to be steeped in tradition in many areas, but just because old methods are comforting and passed down almost as tradition doesn't mean they're appropriate for this era of farming. No matter how long you, your parents or your grandparents have used Sevin dust, it is not classified as an organic pesticide and can be dangerous.

In college, I took a class in organic chemistry: This sub-discipline of the science involved studying the structure, properties and reactions of organic compounds and materials - in other words, matter in any form that contains carbon atoms.

Going by the scientific definition, almost every pesticide I can think of has carbon in it! 2,4-D, glyphosate, horticultural soaps, kitchen soaps, Malathion, diatomaceous earth, and Bacillus thuringiensis all contain carbon. But it's become something far different in common parlance, and only very contrary folks are likely to strictly use organic to refer to carbon-featuring matter.

Instead of fretting excessively over what is and isn't organic, approach issues of pest control as follows: First, identify the pest. Some suspected problems aren't really offending pests at all.  Second, explore other methods of control, including cultural or mechanical methods. Adjusting your management options can, often as not, be the only remedy you need. Lastly, use the least toxic pesticides available on the market if you have to use them at all.