The Problem with the Word "Organic"

Kenneth Chang, guest-blogging at TeirneyLab, laments the use of the word "organic" in both the contexts of organic chemistry and as a term for natural foods:

Organic derives from Greek, organikos. The original meaning was, logically, something related to an organ of the body. The meaning later generalized to "characteristic of, pertaining to, or derived from living organisms."

Nowadays, the most prevalent meaning of organic is in the supermarket -- natural, without artificial ingredients, grown without chemical fertilizers -- a fuzzy notion codified by 27,000 or so words of federal regulations...

Between the original definition and the new-age "natural" definition, chemists also adopted "organic," originally to describe the chemistry of carbon-based molecules derived from living things, but they quickly took those starting pieces and synthesized many more molecules that look nothing like anything found in anything living.

But, to chemists, these chemical reactions are still organic chemistry and the products of these reactions are organic molecules.

That leads to the confounding situation that plastics, the epitome of artificial materials in the modern age, are organic molecules. (Even though plastics are usually made out of petroleum, which came from once-living organisms, I don't think most people think of plastic as remotely organic.)

I couldn't agree more.

With respect to organic chemistry, the use of the term to suggest compounds found only in living systems belies the fact that nearly all of these compounds can be synthesized in the lab through decidedly non-living means. Chang prompts readers to come up with an alternative term in this case. One option he discusses is "carbon-based" but this would include diamonds and carbon dioxide.

Maybe we should abandon "organic chemistry" in favor of "biochemistry." Biochemistry makes clear that it means the chemistry of life. However, biochemistry courses often include stuff like metabolism and protein synthesis. As a science, I feel like biochemistry focuses mostly on the biological context in which these reactions take place, rather than the biological compounds themselves.

With respect to natural foods, the term "organic" poses even more problem. Whenever I see the term "organic" in the supermarket I think, "As opposed to what? Food made out of silicon and heavy metals?"

You could make an argument that "natural" would be better, but it is also a loaded term with a 500 year history. Anyone reading a history of ideas realizes pretty quickly that "natural" is whatever you think society should look like and "unnatural" is a rhetorical club for stuff you would like to get rid of. An example is Rousseau labeling the city as unnatural and the country as natural. Whether or not something is actually present in nature seems does not enter the discussion.

Our concept of natural vs. unnatural is partly a social construct. Having less pesticides in your food is probably better for your health (depending on the pesticide and the dose). Free range is indeed more humane. On the other hand, at least some of the fascination with natural food has nothing to do with the health benefits. It derives from a spirit of primitivism in our culture -- a desire to get back to nature and away from a world that is too complicated. Because they are wrapped up in this social phenomena -- primitivism -- "organic" and "natural" are suspect and imprecise scientific terms.

A better set of terms -- though much more lengthy -- would be to describe the precise way that the foods differ their unnatural counterparts: "pesticide-free", "free range", "hormone-free", etc. While it would take a lot more words, at least it wouldn't package a lot of different things in a single ambiguous term.

Any ideas?


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I have actually wondered about this before. Although organic chemistry is the study of carbon chemistry, wouldn't everything living and nonliving--as long as it has carbon in it--be classified as organic? Even more confusing, aren't pesticides, which also have carbon in them, also organic? Thanks for explaining a little bit more about it. I'm glad someone else finds the classification system of "organic" annoying and primitive.

I also never liked the term organic which I see when I'm
in the US. the word used in German for this (bio, short for biological) is even worse though (or at least as bad).

For marking products using a single term with a fixed definition makes some sense though. Otherwise you could end up with lots of different variants with conflicting requirements. e.g. some shop offering you "hormone-free" or alternatively the "pesticide-free" food. What if you want both in your groceries?

Mick, I was taught that "organic" formally meant compounds involving both carbon and hydrogen, although I've seen it used to mean simply carbon-based.

And, yeah, this always bugged me too. And I annoy my New Age relatives no end by doing things like holding up a ballpoint pen and saying, "hey, this is organic, too, you know!"

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 10 Jul 2008 #permalink

On the other hand, at least some of the fascination with natural food has nothing to do with the health benefits. It derives from a spirit of primitivism in our culture

False dichotomy! I keep running into this idea that the only possible reasons for preferring "organic" produce are (a) direct health benefits to the end consumer, or (b) the naturalistic fallacy. There are a whole bunch of other reasons, such as reduced energy inputs, reduced exposure to hazardous chemicals for agricultural workers, reduced ecological impacts (ranging from loss of beneficial insect species due to indiscriminate insecticide use through to eutrophication of vast areas of the ocean due to fertiliser run-off), maintenance of intra-species biodiversity, etc, etc...

Personally, I an not in any way convinced that there are any health benefits to the end consumer - I'm really not convinced that typical levels of pesticide residues pose any risk to health. However, the sort of occupational exposures suffered by agricultural workers in much of the world are a completely different matter. I buy "organic" because I'm concerned about the wider impacts of our current agricultural systems, not because of "primitivism".

I agree that the term "organic" has problems, but I think this is because it is generally interpreted to refer to the end product (the "organic" tomato) rather than the process, which is really what is being regulated when the term is bestowed on that particular product. And, penetrating the next layer, the current organic standards are mostly couched in terms of what inputs are or are not allowed on the farm, which still misses the larger picture.

I think a better term might be something like "ecologically grown." This would highlight the approach used by most organic farmers, namely cultivating ecologically diverse systems - in the soil, the plants, insects - that are resilient and long lasting.

Many people also seem to think that "synthetic" automatically means "dangerous," and "natural" means "harmless." In fact, many synthetic substances have very low toxicity, while some natural substances (such as strychnine or cobra venom) are extremely toxic.
Another common misconception is that complex chemicals must be inherently dangerous, while simple chemicals are safe. Of course, there are some very simple chemicals, like arsenic and cyanide, that can ruin your whole day.

I see that the original article and some of the comments have been tainted by lies pushed by the "big organic industries."

1. Most foods are not hormone free. No meat or milk is hormone free despite claims by big organic producers that they only sell hormone free.

2. Organic production does not mean that it is the best from an energy standpoint or an environmental standpoint. One example is that organic milk and meat production results in the release of about 25% more greenhouse gases than does traditional production. Another example is with fertilization. Manure is considered organic. Yet manure has far more phosphorous than is needed in relation to nitrogen. This excess phosphorous is a major cause of algae blooms on the east coast and Chesapeake bay. Yet most consumers of organic production have bought into the lies promulgated by the big organic companies.