Monday, March 25, 2013

What does "Organic" mean, anyway?

"Organic" is a term that's thrown around a lot, and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Sometimes organic means that a tomato has been grown without pesticides, other times it means anything derived from living things, and to a chemist it usually means any compound that contains both carbon and hydrogen. An "organic lifestyle" could either mean that you're attempting to live in tune with mother nature or it could mean you don't get out of the lab very often.

The internet (or at least the chemistry corner of Twitter) has had some great discussion over the last few weeks dealing with chemophobia. Today I read a great article on the blog "Behind NMR Lines" with a surprisingly un-chemist-like approach to chemophobia. The standard response from chemists who hear complaints about "chemicals" is to say something along the lines of "well, even water is a chemical". The author points out that, while this argument is completely true, it sidesteps the actual concern. When people say "chemical" they obviously don't mean "all matter, everywhere", they mean harmful chemicals.

What it means to me isn't what it means to you
I wonder if we make the same mistake by being too rigid with our definition of "organic". As a chemist, when I hear the word "organic", I immediately think of...well...chicken wire (the chemistry "shorthand" for organic compounds often looks a lot like fencing for a chicken coop). I think of the definition I know. I've had years of schooling that drilled "organic" into my head as meaning "a compound containing carbon and hydrogen". This definition works, but it makes things like "organic sea salt" sound like absolute nonsense.

So for years I have argued that the term "organic", as used by the general public, is not only ridiculous but almost meaningless. However, I wonder if I've been wrong. I wonder if it wouldn't be more appropriate to see organic (chemistry) and organic (food) as homonyms, similar to bark (dog) and bark (tree). Certainly the distributors of "organic sea salt" think so - their product description says:
"There are no chemical additives or processing aids used in Marlborough Flaky & Pacific Natural Sea Salt production and there is just one ingredient - seawater. The process fits in with organic principles and is Certified by Bio-Gro New Zealand" 
It seems, then, that we are using the same word to mean very different things.

Semantic Drift or Homonyms?
In response to the "Behind NMR Lines" post, @V_Saggiomo made the following point:

Which I think applies just as easily to "organic". You could easily argue that organic chemistry began in 1828, with the synthesis of urea. Prior to this synthesis it was believed that living organisms had a special property (vitalism) that couldn't be synthesized in a lab. The synthesis of urea, a compound found only in living organisms, sent that theory right down the toilet (a pun that is totally intended), and organic chemistry was born.

Now let's look at the other use of the word organic. Proponents of organic farming claim that organic farming has been practiced for thousands of years, but I think you could easily reject that claim - ancient farmers didn't use pesticides and other modern farming techniques because they simply weren't available. The term "organic farming" wasn't coined until 1940, and it was used to describe a farm as an organism.

The term "organic" in both cases was used because of the connection to a living organism, but that's about the only things they have in common. Organic (chemistry) was used to describe a family of chemical compounds while organic (food) was used to describe a type of farming that avoided "chemicals". Whether semantic drift is the cause for the confusion or the words were meant as homonyms from the start, one thing is clear: We're not saying the same thing.

Great, we mean different things. Now what?
I think it's obvious that organic farmers are not using the definition that chemists are, and vice versa. Organic farming is a technique that rejects modern techniques because the "chemical" treatments are either a potential health hazard or rob the fruits/vegetables of some nutrient. Instead of arguing about the word organic we should be refuting those claims. Specifically, I can think of two reasons why buying organic food doesn't make sense:
1. There's not much evidence of any health benefits from an organic diet.In fact, there's not even evidence that organic food tastes any better, either.
2. The requirements for an "organic" label are easily manipulated, and you're probably not getting what you think you are when you buy organic foods.
So maybe, just like with the word chemical, we should be focusing less on which words people are using and help them understand what they are really saying.