What Does "Organic" Mean?

Everybody hears about "organic gardening", "organic farming", "organic food", organic this, that, and the other.  I think the word "organic" is used in so many different contexts that it is probably taken for granted a lot, but it also sometimes seems a little confusing.  So let's look at some online dictionaries (Merriam-Webster and Oxford), and see what they have to say.

The three primary uses of the word center around (1) life or living things, (2) organs of the body, and (3) a relationship between necessary parts that harmoniously fit together into a whole.   Note that number three derives from how organs of the body do the same thing.

The first definition has applications in biology, chemistry, and agriculture (gardening, farming, food).  It's the agricultural uses that we're most interested in, but we'll come back to that.  "Organic chemistry" deals with chemical compounds that have carbon in them.  The reason for this is that carbon is the basis for all of life.  Almost every chemical in living things is a compound that has long strings of carbon atoms, surrounded by various other atoms .  Even our three basic types of foods (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) all follow this form.  The reason all these long molecular chains are based on carbon is because of its molecular number (6) and its place on the periodic table.  Carbon has 6 protons and 6 electrons.  The first shell of electrons has 2, and it is filled.  The second shell has 4 electrons, and it needs 4 more to be filled.  So carbon has 4 electrons it can share with other atoms in order to complete this shell.  That provides a lot of different opportunities for different combinations of atoms in molecules.  Silicon (below carbon on the table) also has this capability in its outer shell, but because of all the extra electrons it has, it is harder to squeeze its electrons into tight places and form the double bonds that appear in virtually every complicated biochemical.  So even though silicon is one of the most abundant elements on the planet (think sand), it is carbon that is the basis of all of life.  And those "sharing" bonds, or covalent bonds, happen to be very stable, unlike ionic bonds in salts and so on.

The second definition is merely a linguistic derivative of the word, ie. organic refers to organs.  However, the third definition is interesting.  It derives from the second, but it expands its use to many applications.  For example, Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term "organic architecture".  (One of his most famous buildings, Fallingwater, is a perfect example.)  Organic architecture is a philosophy of architecture which promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world through design approaches so sympathetic and well integrated with its site, that buildings, furnishings, and surroundings become part of a unified, interrelated composition."   In other words, all of the necessary parts fit harmoniously together into an integrated whole, just like the organs of the body.

Getting back to organic gardening and farming, we see that the early developers of the practice, such as Rudolf Steiner, Sir Albert Howard, and J. I. Rodale, all thought a farm should be viewed as an integrated, living thing, with all its parts fitting harmoniously together into a whole.  Additionally, they viewed soil as a life-filled thing.  And so we see that historically, organic agriculture stems from both the first and third definitions of the word.  The basic idea was that the health of the plant came from the health of the soil.  If the soil could be helped to be made the most vibrant and life-filled, plants would just naturally be healthy, and by extension, so would the produce.  They were trying to reverse the trends of "modern" agriculture which, through intensive tilling, application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides,and so on, has turned rich topsoil into lifeless dirt.  If the soil is healthy enough, there is no need to add chemicals, not even counting the fact that they are long-term detrimental.

I think that today, the common view of organic agriculture revolves around what not to add to the soil or plants.  But that avoidance just naturally results from building up the soil, which I think should be the primary focus.  In other words, just refraining from putting toxic chemicals onto the soil or plants doesn't necessarily mean that the soil is going to be rich.  What is foremost should be building up the soil so it's full of life.  This we do by adding lots of compost, manure, no-till, and so on.  Farmers should do everything they can to increase the humus, or organic matter, in the soil.  A natural result of increasing the organic matter (ie. carbon-based material) in the soil is to reduce the amount of carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere.  A double bonus.  One of the farms we've learned about that really has this concept and practice nailed is Singing Frogs Farm in California.  We think they are really on the right track and hope to emulate them.

An additional step that we've stumbled on and promote is to use biochar in the soil.  Biochar is almost pure carbon (basis of "organic"), extremely long-term stable (reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide), and, it provides arguably the best environment for beneficial microbes in the soil (adding life to the soil).   Tomorrow we'll be at the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition "Urban Farming" Expo in Keene, NH.  If you're in the area and would like to learn more about biochar, stop by our table.  We'll be happy to talk to you about it.