Organic, sustainable, regenerative

Perhaps you have heard these words used to explain agriculture or produce.  What do they mean?  Who is responsible for overseeing their use?  And how does it impact us?

Originally these were all just words - adjectives really - with lower case lettering.  There's one more word missing from that list and it's industrial. As industrial agriculture took off, its reliance on sterile land, monoculture cropping (only one crop for hundreds and thousands of acres), noxious pesticides/herbicides and synthetic fertilizers became the norm. As this happened all across America (mainly in the wake of WWII when all the factories needed to not make bombs and planes, but rather fertilizer and tractors), in small (and revolutionary) corners of the world it became imperative to invest in other styles of agriculture. The flame of ecologically grown food has never been snuffed.

In the end, these words are used to let consumers understand more about where their food comes from. Over time one of them got a capital letter 'Organic'. Organizations began to certify farms as "organic" which had an established set of criteria. In the 70's and 80's this was fringe farming and "just for hippies." Simultaneously people began to note the impacts that industrial agriculture was having - reduced wildlife, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, health hazards to workers exposed to the chemicals - and organic food took off. The USDA got into the game and unified organic standards and created the seal you are all used to seeing. As time went by and corporations began to realize that the organic movement was capable of producing greater profit margins, and two things happened. One, they got involved and two, the standards required for organic certification began to get watered down. The power of lobbying took what was a powerful, grass roots movement and allowed it to become industrialized. 

We can see the current industrial organic movement that dominates the market today.  The idyllic sense of a family farm growing on small acreage helps make a sale, but that's not who's growing the corn for "organic" corn flakes or the tomatoes for "organic" heinz ketchup. With the co-opting of the organic movement by the industrially minded corporations, it became necessary to find a new word to describe the original ethos behind organic. 

We see words like sustainable, regenerative and ecological spring up to fill that void.  Most of them still are lower case letters that tell the story of biodiversity, soil health and social awareness, but with no standard or certification there is also no regulation on who can use these words. I imagine we will soon see certifying organizations pop-up that will begin to define the words and allow growers to label their produce as such. Hopefully they will not fall prey to same pressures that caused organic to, in the end, allow for industrialization to become the dominant force. 

In the latest organic standards meeting, it became permissible to have a hydroponic operation be certified as organic. Regardless of your thoughts on indoor growing, you tell me - does organic really care about soil health if soilless growing can be deemed organic? It will be interesting to see where the Organic movement heads. All of this said - industrialization moving towards more organic practices is more beneficial than not. If you can purchase from small-scale family farms, great! If eating organic produce is your best option, choose it! 

Here are a few helpful resources if you are interested in learning more. We look forward to connecting with you at Farm Days and digging further into this conversation.

The Third Plate - Dan Barber

Real Organic Project

Alex Meizlish