What Does “Organic” Mean?
People think of organic agriculture in many ways. Some define it by what it disallows — i.e., organic production should involve no pesticides, synthetic chemicals, or processing technologies you wouldn’t have in your kitchen. Others think about it in terms of food value — organic food should be nutritious and safe to eat without washing. And some think of it as ecologically based agriculture. Still others think of the economic opportunity provided by a market for a premium product.
For the originators of the organic method, it was all about the soil. They believed that the soil must be regarded as a living organism. Organic gardening and farming literally grew out of the study of composting. As J.I. Rodale and the Rodale staff wrote in The Complete Book of Composting, "At the very foundation of good nutrition is the soil — soil that is fertile and alive, that is kept in shape to grow plants as nature meant them to be grown. The life and balance in this soil [are] maintained by returning to it those materials which hold and extend life in a natural cycle, and aid in replenishing the nutrients needed to produce healthy, life-supporting crops. Soils that lack vital plant nutrients cannot give these food values to what is grown in them.”
Hence the saying, “Feed the soil to feed the plant.”
The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was written with the intention of ensuring that organic food meets all of these expectations. And it offers opportunities to engage in protecting our vision of organic food. Protecting the integrity of the organic label depends on our views of what “organic” means to us being repeatedly voiced in response to proposals that might weaken the legal meaning. Under OFPA, organic agriculture embodies an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or irradiation.