A discussion on defining “organic”

My capstone, also known as my senior thesis, is my proudest academic achievement. I wrote it during my senior year in college (August 2010 – April 2011) as one of the graduation requirements. My topic emerged when I wanted to understand what “organic” meant. I should have just checked with the USDA but I took the long route and don’t regret it. If you went to college with me and never saw a single food book in the library, I probably had it.

Let me introduce another segment on my blog where I share bits and pieces of my capstone. I plan on running a food-related business in the future so this platform will be used to discuss relevant issues. Today’s topic is an introduction on defining “organic” and what the philosophical definition means to me. Here’s today’s snippet:

“For many, ‘organic’ represents all that industry is not and supports the movement by rejecting methods, such as pesticide use, that destroy ecological balance. For others, this practice represents a way of life that respects the laws of nature and developing a relationship with the land. Embodying the organic lifestyle, however, is much more than the practice of organic farming. It goes beyond rejecting industrialization such as machinery and scientific developments but addresses the ideological changes that took place in society.”

First, I am not an “organic foodie.” I wrote this in college during ungodly hours of the night so I sustained myself with instant shin ramen and caffeinated energy drinks. I did what I had to do to survive. (And just for the record, I got an A.) Generally, I don’t make a decision on what I eat based on fancy vocabulary on my food such as organic, natural, clean, fair-trade, non-GMO, etc. Does it taste good? That’s what I care about the most. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll use the term “organic” to describe all of the fancy vocabulary intended to imply anti-conventional.

You would think that after spending an entire year immersed in books, articles, podcasts and documentaries on this topic, I would approach my meals differently. To a certain extent, yes I do. But I’m not fully convinced that today’s organic market is a true reflection of the philosophical values of the movement. It’s more of a crowd-pleasing market. They are filling the world with food-related buzzwords that sound great and have little meaning. The organic movement started as a way of rejecting conventional methods of food production. But aren’t we producing “organic” food conventionally anyway?

Depending on what one’s definition of “organic” is, the starting point of the movement varies. I believe that it can be traced all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution (also known as the Agricultural Revolution). This took place in approximately 10,000 B.C. where humans, who supported themselves through a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, began to settle. As hunter-gatherers, humans were nomadic and could never fully depend on a particular resource for food. That had changed and the permanent settling lifestyle allowed humans to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. This revolution completely changed the way people lived in the sense that permanent settlement encouraged the rise of civilization and the emergence of various social classes.

For most people, however, the emergence of the organic movement began in the 1960’s. It was a decade where radio had become popular and everyday people, regardless of social class, were able to access news. Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” in 1962 and uncovered the detrimental effects of pesticide use on our environment. She created this vivid imagery of spring without the sounds of birds chirping and bees buzzing because our continued use of chemicals would wipe out wildlife. If we didn’t take action, we would be in for a silent spring. Although she was not the first to write about these issues, the context of the 60’s made it appropriate to cause a viral reaction from people. They saw exactly how they were interconnected with the ecosystem. We all eat, we all live on this planet and we all enjoy the sounds that define spring. People were no longer passive witnesses but instead active participants.

Pesticides, however, play an important role in the food industry. They kill pests that carry diseases so that food production could be increased and people wont get sick from eating. It was a solution for controlling famines, which have disturbing consequences for the economy and the people. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 wiped out more than a million people because of several failed potato crops and remains as one of the most devastating in 19th century Europe. Because of pesticides, we have the luxury of not worrying about the food we eat. But perhaps that’s the reason why people focus on the detrimental effects of chemical use. We don’t have to worry about our food containing diseases and potentially losing our life over it. Although there’s no denying that pesticides are harmful to the ecosystem, I also understand that it has many benefits in our society. For that reason, I can’t completely jump on the organic bandwagon. At least, not just yet.

In order to fully go organic, I would need to ditch civilization and pull a “Walden.” Just as Henry David Thoreau has done, I need to go back into nature, build my own house, grow my own food and live on the simple necessities of life. That actually sounds appealing. I might get some writing done and at night, I’ll see how truly beautiful the stars are. But alas, I can’t change my lifestyle until I’ve at least paid off my student loans. If we think about it, this back-to-the-land approach has profound implications. Going organic isn’t just about choosing the pack of spinach with the USDA label. It’s a lifestyle change that addresses everything wrong with our society. Why should we depend on a government-stamped label to tell us where our food comes from? I’d rather have a garden in my back yard, dig my hands into the moist soil and shoulder the responsibility of cultivating all the food I put inside my body. That makes more sense than depending on an entity that has a reputation for being deceptive.

Today, the definition of “organic” is based on USDA’s guidelines. I’ll take that for now but we can do better. I’ve always believed that food industry is a materialized manifestation of the true problems in society. Pesticides were supposed to be a solution for a major issue but in actuality, it’s doing more harm to the land that supports our life. Perhaps we may be tackling a social issue with a particular solution that appears to fix it but instead, harming a significant part of the population and making matters worse. So how do we fix it? That’s for another discussion but upon grading my capstone, my professor said that my proposed solution is a “Titanic struggle.” You have that to look forward to.

Why don’t we start here: let’s understand that everything, no matter how unrelated it seems, is profoundly interconnected and that it always goes back to the food on our plates and the land that supports our lives. I’m baffled when I see people buy organic but end up wasting so much food. I don’t understand how we continue to pollute the world with all the food packaging we create and waste. When did it become okay to be fully distant with the one thing that sustains our existence to the point where I hand someone money and prepared food is at my doorstep? Food keeps us alive. Why, then, are we tampering with it and the environment that nurtures it? Let’s stop viewing food as an afterthought and instead put it first on our agendas of things to care about.




Start typing and press Enter to search