What does the term “organic gardening” actually mean today? Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines “organic” (in terms of gardening) as “the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides.” Maria Rodale, in her book “Vegetables” defines organic gardening as “using materials derived directly from plant or animal by-products to maintain soil and plant health.”
Caution is advised as the word “chemicals” is not, in itself, organic or non-organic. Many organic substances, if not most, are indeed “chemical” by definition and are used in organic gardening practices as fertilizer, insecticides, fungicides, etc., are low in toxicity, occur naturally and pose no threat to the environment if not used in excessive amounts. A better word to describe non-appropriate materials would be “synthetic” (i.e. manufactured). The intent here is the implication that “organic gardening” is a system that allows one to proceed with actions, materials, products, etc. that are not in any way harmful to the environment.
As the “organic movement” gained popularity since the 1960’s, the government became involved through regulatory agencies to assure consumers that a product for use in organic practices or stated to be grown “organically” was indeed, organic. Now the fun begins!
The Federal Government, along with Trade Organizations, State Governments, private regulatory agencies and others have now published standards as to what is “organic”. In 2002, under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Organic Program (NOP) came into being and consumers started to see the “USDA Certified Organic” label on shelves in markets. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 mandated this organization. It consists of a member board, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and is made up of farmers, food handlers, food processors, a retailer, a scientist and others. It is a marketing program within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Now, products and crops can become “certified organic” by various independent agencies to guarantee their compliance with some recognized standard.
The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is now the national, nonprofit organization that determines which products are permitted to be used in organic production. OMRI listed (or approved) products may be used in operations that are “certified organic” under the NOP.
Unfortunately, there is no individual national standard and “approved” products can (and do) vary in different locations. On the good side, in most cases, the following items are now prohibited from being termed “organic”:
On the down side, many organic growers feel the standards as written into law are “watered-down” and they are not renewing their certification. Most large retail food outlets carry “organic” products, but they must carry the USDA organic label. Large growers are able to obtain this label by paying the certification renewal fees and obtaining required products and organisms without actually developing the sustainable ecosystem, which the smaller, original organic farmers so cherished.
In many cases, the lower food prices set by the “big business” farmers are forcing the small, truly organic growers out of business. With more organizations getting into the act, such as the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA), the Organic Consumers’ Association and others, the “organic legislation” remains in a state of flux.
So, “organic” to many people has become a legal term, defined and governed by the USDA.
Where does all this information lead to with regard to the meaning of “organic gardening” at this time?
My early indoctrination into organic gardening originated from J.I. Rodale’s writings from the 1940’s. He was the leading advocate against the use of what he called “chemical” fertilizers and pesticides in that they were destroying our environment. His support of using “natural” materials and processes, manure, compost and crop rotation paved the way for the organic gardening principles and practices that are gaining in popularity and support today.
For the gardener today, wanting to garden organically is relatively simple once removed from the governmental agencies’ legal definitions. Organic gardening is still (and will always be) a system where soil fertility is maintained and replenished by utilizing organic matter, compost and mulch without the use of manufactured, synthetic chemicals. It has to do with understanding and supporting the soil food web and caring for the millions of living organisms that make up a healthy soil. In J.I. Rodale’s “Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening” under the section “Organic Gardening” he states: “The soil must become rich and fertile; Insect parasites and predators must be encouraged. Safe measures for control are handpicking of insect pests. Encouraging birds, interplanting with crops that repel insects, planting resistant varieties…….Good yields, truly safe food and sensible insect controls is the answer.”
Over half a century later, every aspiring organic gardener is still following that advice.
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