Thursday, April 22, 2010

How sustainable is "Organic"

How sustainable is the term organic? Will the term still exist in the future; will it have the same meaning? Now there is much confusion between organic and sustainable agriculture, thus a new term should be devised which encompasses both of these principles.

In the 19th century, the term organic described the opposite of industry, yet now it is capable of acting as a marketing ploy geared toward elitists. Michael Pollan explains in the Omnivore’s Dileman how the word seems to have lost its meaning. Today, it is possible for microwavable TV dinners can be considered organic.

There is a difference between sustainable and organic, but do consumers recognizes this? According to, “Organic farming generally falls within the accepted definition of sustainable agriculture. However, it is important to distinguish between the two, since organic products can be (unsustainably) produced on large industrial farms, and farms that are not certified organic can produce food using methods that will sustain the farm's productivity for generations.”

The Organic label primarily focuses on the regulation of the inputs in a processed food an on the farm. It regulates the genetic modification of seeds and the use of chemical fertilizers. The label also insures that few chemical additives are applied to processed foods. It fails to integrate carbon footprint, level of processing, distance traveled, promotion of local agriculture, and sustainable practices. Thus, the organic label is one of many steps of many toward promoting healthier and more sustainable foods. In the Omnivores dilemma, Pollan brought up how term Organic is owned by the government (Pollan, pg 132). Surprisingly, the government permitted specific artificial additives are permissible in organic food (Pollan, pg 156).

Since the meaning of organic has evolved to encompass products which are not sustainable and do not promote community, will we need to create new terms to categorize our food? Should foods which are organic and unsustainable be privileged over those which or may violate a few of the governmental requirements of organic agriculture but produce a more sustainable and equitable systems of agriculture? I personally think that organic practices should integrate sustainability, and if they do not than a new term is necessary to describe products which integrate both organic and sustainable practices.

Pollan explains how some companies like Whole Foods seem to be depicting organic, as a “story” which convinces people to pay a grater price (Pollan, pg 135). In Newsweek, six experts debate the issue of whether or not Organic is in fact a marketing hype. Blake Hurst argues, "It affords a chance to enjoy a sense of superiority over the coupon-clipping bourgeoisie, to identify with beautiful actresses instead of old farmers in overalls. But mostly, organic food is marketing hype." The proliferation of organic food may be a marketing fad word to attract a specific customer base rather than a means of instilling positive long term practices.

Milk which is produced on factory farms, processed, and travels long distances to the consumer is still capable of being designated organic (Pollan, pg 139). Organic farming does not necessarily instill the sustainable agriculture practices or revolutionize the industry. “the same farmer who is applying toxic fumigants to fertilize the soil in one field is the in the next field applying compost to nurture the soil’s natural fertility” (Pollan, pg 158). It seems as if the government’s definition of organic contains many loopholes which permit unsustainable practices.

Yes, now there are degrees of organic, but these indicate the percentage of ingredients in a processed food which is organic, they do not indicate the integrity of the principles. They do not indicate the distance it has traveled, or how it is not associated from industry. I think there should be some way for the consumer to learn more about the vital parts of the food commodity chain from the labeling.

On a similar note to the reductionist ideas of the contemporary uses of the certification of or ganic is the LEED Certification of buildings. Yes in general LEED promotes sustainability, but it is possible to have an exemplary building design and not receive the designation "LEED Certified Building" just as it is possible to design a building which is inefficient in is energy usage but still receives the LEED Designation. Today, many homeowners are electing to participate in sustainable practices, but don’t want to pay for the paperwork. Both LEED and Oorganic Certification require lengthy checklists, and promote sustainable practices, however LEED promotes more flexibility. It is possible to petition individual points of LEED if you are proposing a more sustainable solution. I think this flexibility should be integrated into the Organic Certification process, however this flexibility may only be possible from the expensive application fee.

Some farmers are saying it is too expensive and too difficult to obtain certification. I was surprised to learn the following about the cost of becoming certified organic: “Producers who market less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually are not required to become certified, though they have the option of doing so. These operations must still adhere to the federal standards for organic production, product labeling, and handling.” What happens to the farmers who produce more than 5,000? It costs within the range of a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars depending on the scale of the farm.

However some farmers wish to abstain from the organic because the rigid regulations do not permit the most sustainable practices of local farming. “Then there is this further paradox: Polyface Farm is technically not an organic farm, though by any standard it is more “sustainable” than virtually any organic farm. Its example forces you to think a lot harder about what these words sustainable, organic, natural – really mean. “ (Pollan, pg 131) At Polyface farms, the farmers value supporting neighbors and a reduction of carbon emissions more important than the use of a minor pesticide.

Is it even necessary for farms with sustainable and organic practices to receive the designation of organic? Will the public recognize if a product lacks the label organic and does it necessarily mean that the product is worse than those which are produced on certified organic farms?


According to,



11. pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals: organic farming; organic fruits.


–verb (used with object)

5. to keep up or keep going, as an action or process: to sustain a conversation.


  1. Nice Post~!!!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

  2. Organic and bio are the same terms.

    Sustainable is another thing.- it has the meaning of repeating and keeping going

  3. Thanks for the information I really needed it for my organic and non-organic essay. Im doing the essay for my science homeroom teacher so what I want to say is thank you for the great information.

    from a person trying to finish the essay B) :)