'Organic' Loses Its Freshness

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 22, 2006

The term "organic" gardening has never been clear to everybody, and recent efforts to define it have only made things worse.

The phrase "organic farming" first appeared in Lord Northbourne's book "Look to the Land" in 1940, at a time when agronomists in England (and J.I. Rodale in the United States) were advocating fertility sources derived from living things -- manure, compost, straw mulches, nitrogen-fixing legume crops. This was the conventional way to farm before nitrogen fertilizers (initially called "artificial manures") began to flood agriculture from the idled explosives plants after World War I. Defenders of organic methods (then as now) felt that the chemical approach endangered the biological life of the soil and that we still had much more to learn about how nature raises healthy, nutritious plants and animals before we gave up on her as a model.

In most people's minds, organic is defined by a list of "don'ts," mainly the avoidance of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. The "do's" are more numerous and complex. They include basic practices such as compost-making and crop rotation as well as far-reaching efforts such as growing mixed crops, promoting a diverse ecosystem around the farm or garden, providing trace elements, and preventing erosion. Other efforts embrace philosophies as well as practices: maintaining healthy and contented livestock grazed outdoors on pasture rather than fed indoors on grain; using on-farm inputs or sourcing them locally; ensuring safe and fair labor practices; preserving seed diversity; saving farm communities; and putting freshness, nutritiousness and flavor ahead of profit.

Until recently, organic practices were sneered at by those in academia, in government and in chemical agribusiness -- now called "conventional agriculture." Thanks to a fast-growing demand for organic food, the sneers are now reserved for those who practice organics on a small scale. Long accustomed to being marginalized, unsubsidized and told to "get big or get out," small organic growers stubbornly plug away at their work, but the "O" word that once gave them a special niche now means something entirely different. Currently it is used to lend credibility to "industrial organic" food produced on large, factory-style farms, and while its newfound popularity may have brought some of those do's and don'ts into the mainstream, I think more of agribusiness has rubbed off on organics than vice versa.

The meaning of the organic label rests on a shifting balance between what the corporate lobbies want and what the watchdogs can prevent. Most organic brands are now niche labels of larger food companies that have no interest in the finer, more holistic aspects of the grower's craft. And many who practice that craft are scratching their heads and asking, "What can I call my product instead?"

Maybe we need a new word. Europe seems to favor "biological" (as in the French "biologique"). It evokes the plant sciences more than it does the chemistry lab. Some committed growers describe what they grow as "beyond organic." Others have proposed "real food," "authentic food" or "food with the farmer's face on it." One I know sends his produce out with the trademarked slogan "Earth Passionate Agrarianism" and the tag line "Taking Organic Seriously." Farmers talk about organizing, beating the commodifiers at their own game, out-sloganing the mass marketers, creating stricter standards.

All these might work, but I'd rather play the one game the big guys can't get in on -- fresh, locally grown food. It can't be faked. It tastes better and has lost fewer vitamins than food that travels cross-country or around the world. What's more, it's knowable. You can visit local farms, talk to the farmers and the people who work for them. If somebody uses substandard practices -- whether they're organic or not -- the neighbors know about it. Even if you live in the city, meeting growers at a farmers market will tell you something about the food you buy.

There's beginning to be a parallel universe of small growers connected with shoppers who would rather pay a bit more than supermarket prices to have confidence in their food supply. By supporting small farms they can help keep the countryside looking bucolic, too. As this alternate universe expands, the benefits to all our lives will be great, and I don't believe there is a word large enough to encompass them.

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