Wednesday, November 2, 2011

the basic premise of organic

Are chemicals ever acceptable? Does 'natural' mean 'safe'? Is it even possible to feed the whole world sustainably?

Digress with me a moment to draw a comparison. I teach basic land navigation -- use of a map and compass -- to junior high school kids. There is so much I want to show them, from shortcuts for accurately plotting latitude and longitude, to how to navigate past obstacles like swamps and giant rocks. But increasingly, I find myself coming back to the basics. Many of these kids start out learning, for the first time, that the arrow on a compass points north. That fact is so basic, I sometimes forget to even cover it. But soon, I find myself backtracking -- starting at the beginning. Without comprehension of the most basic concepts, the finer points are mere hubris. Lately, I find myself doing the same thing when it comes to political and ethical arguments for organic farming. I'm defending even basic choices my family makes, like taking the time and effort to sort out the recyclables from the compost.

Here's a basic question:
What is organic?

I'd like to hear your answers, but I'll start with my own. The first thing that comes into my mind when I say "organic" is the absence of chemicals. But that requires us to define chemical. I remember a high school teacher who maintained that every single substance ever known to man should be considered a chemical, to be precise, whether it was synthesized in a laboratory or naturally occurred growing out of the ground. I disagreed with this assertion in 10th grade, and I still do. A chemical, to me, is something that is deliberately synthesized by humans, and doesn't occur naturally. Natural systems have trouble breaking it down, because it's new and bacteria don't recognize it. And because it's new, its long-term effects on human health and the environment really can't possibly be known for many generations, no matter how many studies we conduct or what interest groups fund them.

In my house, we do nearly all of our cleaning with vinegar. We don't have oven cleaner, countertop cleaner, bathroom scum cleaner, or even bleach. We do this for money-saving reasons: From personal experience, the vinegar is just as effective for cleaning up all the things I used to use those other products for, and does it for less than a tenth of the price. We do this for space-saving reasons: I keep a 5-gallon jug, and a small refillable spray bottle, of vinegar in my cupboard and don't need to make space for thirty other types of cleaners. We do this for environmental reasons: vinegar is a naturally occurring substance, made from the fermentation of apples or other fruits. If I spill it outside or flush it down my drain, tiny creatures in my ecosystem know what it is and know how to break it down and recycle it. I'm concerned about the saponification of our watersheds and streams, and so I choose to use fewer chemical soap products. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we do this to protect our family's health.

Have you ever noticed that household products that we deem safe to use on a daily basis suddenly become off-limits once you are pregnant? Pregnant women are supposed to avoid everything from tuna fish (mercury) to oven cleaner (toxic fumes) to conventionally grown apples (pesticides.) Were I to suggest these substances were inherently dangerous, many people would scoff -- my great-grandmother used those products, and nothing ever happened to her! (You know, except that breast cancer she almost died from.) But tell the same people that they ought to feel comfortable using them while pregnant, and they pause. Hey, maybe a lady carrying a tiny being inside ought to avoid regular apples. You know, just in case. Tiny beings can only handle a tiny concentration of pesticides, and several studies have shown that the human tissue containing the highest concentration of pesticides is breastmilk.

I'm sure there's some debate as to what concentrations of various pesticides, herbicides, and poisons is considered safe. But my conclusion is, if I know it's deadly in any reasonable concentration, why would I voluntarily introduce it into my home? Doesn't my family already face enough stress that is completely outside of my control? Reducing the number of poisons we ingest is one thing that is completely within my control.

Look for a part II of this discussion coming soon. I welcome your comments.


  1. I could not agree more! It bothers me that I have to explain my personal choices at all, but far worse when people argue that chemicals are good things and natural is bad. Sorry, I think if we were intended to live in a chemically induced, sterile environment, God would have made it so from the beginning. Why wait until the world is nearing it's end to implement this "perfect solution". That is on a very long list of things I do not understand about people.

  2. I use vinegar for cleaning everything, too! People around me are always shocked at this, since they've been conditioned to think everything needs to be disinfected by various man-made, chemical-laced products in order to be truly clean. Yet, I don't think all chemicals are bad--the invention of soap and antibiotics did give us a huge benefit in fighting infections--it's the overuse/abuse of these things that's bad. And there are certainly organic, natural componds that are also harmful or poisonous (to us, anyway). That being said, I think the real issue is that we've gotten far away from the basic intention of the organic movement--there are now companies feeding confined cows organic grain and selling us their "organic" milk, but I would hardly call this "natural."

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Looking forward to part 2. -Jaime

  3. Excellent post. Our family farm is certified organic and has been for twelve years. The problem with organic is that it is labor intensive and impossible for the big corporate guys to do on a giant scale so they keep trying to get the standards lowered so they can play too.

    The other big problem is the GMO fiasco being forced upon us by Monsanto. The world can be fed without these frankenfoods, but they would have us believe otherwise. GMO to me is scarier than chemicals. There has been little to no testing on genetically altered crops but the wild animals avoid them, so why should we embrace them? Why aren't we entitled to labeling that advises us if there are GMO products in the cereal? Fact of the matter is that 90pct of all corn and soybeans in this country are now GMO. If it isn't labeled organic, you better assume there are GMOs in the box.

    It amazes me that people buy Roundup to kill the weeds around their sidewalks and trees and mailboxes,let alone entire fields of beans and corn. This stuff will kill you. People spray fertilizers and weedkillers on their lawns and then send the dog and kiddies out to play. We bemoan breast cancer and call for a cure but nobody wants to talk about the cause.

    I use vinegar, just like my grandma. I use laundry soap with no sulfates or petroleum solvents. It does a wonderful job and doesn't linger in the creek bed doing dirty work like conventional laundry soap. We recyle and reuse, but I'm sure there is much more we can and should do.

    We need more bloggers like you pointing out these simple facts. Thank you!!

  4. I posted a link to you. Hope you don't mind.