A Truer Meaning of the Word “Organic”

by Kwabena Nkromo

by Kwabena Nkromo

(This article first appeared in an Atlanta neighborhood’s paper called “Our West End Newsletter” & the July/August 2011 issue of Sevenanda Natural Food Market’s “Co-Options” newsletter. )

Many people now choose to buy food labeled “organic.” The popularity of this consumer option is undeniable. We will pay more for organic food because we are told it is better. But few of us visit the farms or factories producing “organic” food, and therefore we have no proof that this food is different. We trust the producers or the government to ensure that we have paid a premium price for something special.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers this definition:

Organic food is produced by farmers who use renewable resources and conserve soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.

I think this is as fine an explanation as a government agency can offer. But could there be a more meaningful definition of the word organic? Terms like “holistic” and “sustainable” are bandied about so often that one is reluctant to employ them. What other meaning could be embedded in “organic?” Are we getting our proverbial money’s worth from food labeled organic?

Cherry tomatoes of my childhood memories

I was born and raised in Roxbury, a concrete jungle of a neighborhood in Boston. Despite this backdrop,   have fond memories of my father growing vegetables within our sliver of a backyard garden. My favorites by far were the cherry tomatoes. I can see in my mind’s eye my father picking a small fruit from the vine, shaking a bit of salt on it, and either popping it in his own mouth or offering it to one of us 11 children. This experience is the root of my personal understanding of what organic really means.

But I had very little conscious relationship with my natural environment for many years. Like most U. S. citizens, I  behaved as if food were grown at the grocery store, and possessed practically no awareness of the source of my biological sustenance. I was an organic, carbon-based life form dependent on daily nutritional inputs for survival, but totally ignorant of how those were made available to me and where or by whom they were produced. This presented a precarious lack of knowledge of the food quality and safety I needed for optimal physical and mental health.

Dr. Bob Randall of Houston TX, founder of Urban Harvest

Even after a quixotic higher academic foray into agricultural study, at 27 years old I still was disconnected from my food sources beyond the checkout line. It wasn’t until I met Dr. Bob Randall at the Southwest Texas Urban Agriculture Conference that I fully understood how to end my dietary powerlessness. From Dr. Randall, I re-learned that food could and should be grown where the people who consume it live. Urban agriculture offers city dwellers the best opportunity to know what organic truly means.

I believe it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a full human being without a meaningful relationship with your environment, ideally as it relates to the source of your food. Our co-dependence and symbiotic partnership with Nature is so profound and pervasive that we could not survive without Her, even though we often lose sight of this immutable fact.

Just as one’s full humanity might be questioned if one were missing the brain itself, the absence of a robust conscious engagement with the natural world, especially that part of it ingested by us, leaves us handicapped in our humanness. If there were special cosmic parking spaces for those without a food soul, we all could place our bodies there and be closer to the doors of the grocery stores that act as our prosthetic “agricultural” limbs or synthetic “organ” transplants. We are often not well, and certainly not organic.

A possible better definition of organic, from a “Nkromo Dictionary of Good Living,” could be:

Organic food is produced by the person, family, or community who will consume it. Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals we actually have seen alive, and we know firsthand how they were slaughtered or processed for consumption. Organic food is produced with love and care for the person who ultimately will eat it or provide it to others he or she knows firsthand (i.e. farmers’ market or Community Supported Agriculture shares). Before a product can be labeled organic, it must have been grown by the consumer or passed directly from the grower’s hands into the hands of the consumer.

My suggestion is that it is our relationship with the natural world, and with each other, that makes a product coming out of these critical connections “organic.” Should urban farmers avoid conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation? Absolutely. But a bigger issue is understanding what would make proper choices sustainable and verifiable beyond the imperfect regulations of a government agency or the self-regulated ethics of a corporate industrial agricultural company. Only a holistic relationship with the earth, water, and air around us, and with those who grow our food, will lead to authentic organic food and give us the opportunity to truly live well.

Kwabena Nkromo is the Lead Partner of Atlanta Metro Food & Farm Network and a frequent commentator of food security and urban agriculture public policy issues.


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