May 22 2013 12:00 AM

Decoding the sometimes confusing terminology of organic food

“Organic” has become a buzzword that seems to be everywhere these days. Essentially, organic refers to agriculture that’s conducted without synthetic chemicals, but as with any trend, there are a flurry of issues, contradictions and confusions infused about what it really means. 

Simply put, organic food means food grown without pesticides and other chemicals that are harmful not only to our health, but to the health of the land, farmers, plants and animals. “It’s farming in a way that’s using natural rhythms and forces,” said Dan Fillius, assistant manager of Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm. “It originated from those who were looking to get away from chemical agriculture.”

Chemical, industrial agriculture has spurred major social and environmental issues, like foodborne illnesses, degraded soils and water pollution, massive consumption of fossil fuels, obesity and diabetes, worker exploitation, small farm displacement and animal cruelty. So people are opting out through alternative food systems — but for different reasons. 

“If you’re afraid of pesticides in your food, then you’re going to be seeking out organic food,” said Wynne Wright, a sociologist who researches agro-food systems at MSU. “If you’re concerned about globalization and the (exploitation) that takes place on the other side of the world, you might be eating locally. If you’re distraught over the way workers are treated then maybe fair trade. Those who are concerned about the environment might turn to very strict organic or biodynamic.” 

The problem is all these terms intermingle; they get confused and mean different things to different people. Officially, “organic” is a legal definition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that defines what agricultural practices and inputs can and cannot be used. It holds the label “certified organic.” 

But some farmers, especially at the local scale, don’t think the organic certification goes far enough, and some find it cost prohibitive or unnecessary. “From what I’ve seen there aren’t a lot of people who are certified organic at farmers markets,” Fillius said. “But most people are practicing organic but have chosen not to be certified because they’re making just fine money, and they have relationships with their customers, and they can tell them directly how it’s grown or have them check out their farms.” 

The organic certification, then, is really just a substitute for a direct relationship between producers and consumers, which is almost unheard of in the industrial food system. “At a grocery store, you don’t ask a lot of questions — you take it or leave it,” Wright said. “We are passive in a capitalist marketplace. But the alternative food system encourages us to engage with each other. Agency is required on the part of both people.” 

The trick is, Fillius said, to ask a farmer or producer about their practices if you’re shopping locally, and if that option isn’t available, check the label. “If I’m at the store and I have no idea of knowing who grew the produce, then the organic certification is a verification of how it was grown,” he said. “It’s a replacement for an interaction you could have with a farmer.”

So “organic” doesn’t just refer to the USDA certifiable kind, at least not for the purposes of this column. Then there are other issues surrounding organic, like price, an elitist stereotype and the risk of falling into old patterns.

Bizarrely, organic food is more expensive than food produced with chemicals, although this is starting to shift, as it becomes more available and accessible. “Organic production practices don’t externalize as many costs on society, such as pollution, when compared to some other practices,” said Phil Howard, an MSU professor of community, food and agriculture. “Nor do they receive as many subsidies. They’re typically more labor intensive and expensive as a result.”

This can lead to snooty stereotypes and  “us versus them” divisions. “There’s lots of potential,” Wright said. “What can be important is that opportunity to peel back the layers and think reflexively about the way we live our lives, how our food system is organized and what our food system is helping to reproduce.  

“But there’s also potential to fall into the same old traps that plague the traditional food system. We’re still the same people, and the same people who invented the conventional food system are trying to reinvent the alternative food system.”

But I think there’s reason to hope in Lansing. Since moving here two years ago to research sustainability and agro-food systems as a geography graduate student at MSU, I’ve been constantly impressed by the food-related happenings I see and experience around me. Urban farms and community gardens, farmers markets in diverse neighborhoods accepting Bridge Cards, farm-to-table vendors, humane meat options and community supported agriculture.

Maybe it’s because in hard times people come together and make things happen. There are challenges ahead, but we have strength and possibility, too. Things seem to be happening organically around here, in many senses of the word.