Let’s Define Some Terms

I’ve read several articles/books/blog posts recently about organic/non-GMO/pesticide-free, etc. I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here, but just for fun, let’s define some terms. I”m not trying to take sides here. There are pros and cons on this issue, as with every issue. However, I think that the average consumer should be knowledgeable about their produce.

**UPDATE** To clarify, this post is only intended to address these issues surrounding produce. Especially when we’re talking about GMOs – only produce. There are lots of GMOs out there, but only a few in the produce realm.

“Organic” – Usually, when someone says that they buy organic, what they mean is “USDA-National Organic Program Certified Organic,” or “certified organic” for short. To label something as organic, in the U.S. it has to be certified through the USDA-NOP, and has to meet the standards set out in that program. Certification is quite a process, and many small farms find that it isn’t worth the cost of the paperwork, the certification expense, and the headaches.

There is one small loophole in this, which is that if a farm sells less than $5,000 worth of product in a year, but still follows all the USDA-NOP rules (and could prove it if asked), they can call their products “Organic” without needing to pay for certification.

What “Organic” Does NOT Mean:

  • Organic does not mean that no fertilizers have been applied, just that no synthetic fertilizers have been applied.
  • Organic does not mean that no pesticides have been applied. In fact, much organic produce has probably been sprayed MORE times, simply because the organic pesticides are often (not always) less effective than the synthetic pesticides.
  • Organic does not mean “chemical free.” I’m sure that what is intended is the same as above – no pesticides. See above.
  • Organic does not mean that there are no pesticide residues on a given piece of produce.
  • Organic does not mean that a particular pesticide is less toxic than a synthetic pesticide.
  • Organic does not mean that a piece of produce is more nutritious than its conventional counterpart. There are many complexities that affect the nutrient density of produce – you can find a study that will back up almost anything you want to say about nutrition in produce, which means there is no consensus.

Chemical Free & Pesticide Free – I don’t like it when I see people using these terms to describe what they are doing, because I’m never sure what they mean. Do they mean that they never ever spray anything whatsoever? Because that is what that implies, but I’m not sure how feasible that really is here in Kansas. As nice as the idea of using only beneficial insects and other methods to control pests might sound, it isn’t always realistic. You can lose a lot of your harvest by genuinely doing nothing about pests. Or maybe they are using “organic” pest control, but not counting those as chemicals? I just don’t know, and I don’t like the confusion! The folks using these terms are good people and well-meaning. Maybe they are really successful growers that don’t any sorts of pesticides whatsoever. I’m just afraid it adds to the confusion.

Fertilizers – I really struggle with this category, because all fertilizers are chemicals, and all fertilizers ultimately break down into the same forms that plants use. This is regardless of the source of the nutrients, whether it be manure, compost, bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, or a synthetic fertilizer.

“Organic” Fertilizer – An organic fertilizer generally means a fertilizer that is somehow derived from something plant or animal based. Organic fertilizers usually have much lower analysis (the amount of nutrients in them), and a higher amount of other materials. Sometimes that filler material is just humus/humic acid (an organic component that’s good for the soil). Just because a fertilizer is derived from plants or animals doesn’t mean that is has only healthful components. Organic fertilizer, especially non-regulated, homemade fertilizers like manures or compost can have heavy metals or whatever is naturally occurring where you live.

Fillers/Carriers – Often a synthetic fertilizer has carriers – other components than just the Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium  – that keep the nutrients stable and ready to be broken down into a form that plants can use. Your phosphorus may be in the fertilizer in the form of Calcium Phosphate. And that’s okay – calcium is a naturally occurring mineral, and your plants need calcium too. Sometimes fillers will be used to make the fertilizer easier to spread, because it can be hard to evenly spread 1 tablespoon of fertilizer over 100 sq. ft. Fillers are things like sand, not random toxic chemicals.

Just because a fertilizer is “organic” doesn’t mean that it is pure. In fact, organic fertilizers are usually less pure than a synthetic fertilizer, because they haven’t been processed to be pure nutrients.

(There is a whole discussion inherent to the fertilizer discussion that would cover energy use/consumption, fossil fuels, etc. We aren’t going to go there, because I don’t think there is a way to deal with that conversation with all the facts in hand. I don’t think ANYONE knows all the facts, and it would be hard to track them down.)

No GMOs – GMOs are the short way of saying “genetically modified organism,” which is another way of saying “genetically engineered,” etc. Usually, the type of genetic engineering that gets people excited is when a gene from species A is spliced into species B.

(I’m not going to go into all the different types of genetic engineering. If you want to learn more about it, I’d recommend a book called “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.” The authors do a great job of defining basic terms.)

When you are talking produce, it is rather pointless to make a big deal of saying that it is GMO-free or non-GMO. There are only 3 types of produce currently on the market that are genetically modified in the above manner. Papaya (all papaya – every last one of them), which was engineered to be resistant to the devastating papaya ringspot virus, some plums, which are engineered to be resistant to the plum pox virus, and some sweet corn, which is Bt sweet corn, engineered to kill corn earworms when they feed on the corn. To my current knowledge, that’s the extent of GMOs in the produce world.

THEREFORE, to say that organic produce is GMO free, while conventional produce has been produced using GMOs is generally untrue. The only exceptions are papaya, some sweet corn, and some plums.

Furthermore, to say that organic produce is grown without using GMOs is also likely untrue. A number of those organic pesticides, especially the biopesticides, are likely produced using genetic techniques that are in the same family as genetic engineering. It’s just that the plants are being sprayed with the genetically modified components, rather than having them inserted into the plants, and that is a significant difference.

In Summary – there are a variety of reasons to choose organic produce or to minimize how many/what types of pesticides you use. However, it’s always good to make those decisions based on facts. You should talk to any producers you buy from so that you understand what they do and why they make the choices they do about the products they do or do not use. It’s also best if you try not to have a preconceived notion of what you expect. Things are rarely as cut and dried as it might seem at the surface.

In your home garden, you are free to choose for yourself what you want to use. You can choose whatever type of fertilizer you want, you can add compost to your heart’s content, you can spray any pesticide you want to use (as long as you follow the label instructions – but please, stop putting Sevin Dust on everything!), and you can call it whatever you want to.

I’m not trying to bash organic produce or folks that are pursuing as healthful a diet as possible. Really. I HATE spraying pesticides, especially the more toxic ones. In my actual practice, I come down on the “organic” side of the line more often than not. If you go back through the blog archives, you’ll find many times when we should have sprayed before we did, or should have used something stronger than we did to really keep our plants in good health. However, that decision is made with all of the above things clearly in mind.

About Rebecca

I'm a Horticulture Educator with Sedgwick County Extension, a branch of K-State Research and Extension, located in Wichita, KS. I teach about fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Posted on June 20, 2011, in Around the Garden. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Really no matter if someone doesn’t be aware of afterward its up to other visitors that they will help, so here it occurs.

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