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From Organic-Only to Big-Picture Sustainability

Dan Long9 comments594 views
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I recommend a fascinating article in Wednesday’s Food Section of the Washington Post this week: “Organic standards fight over synthetics  shows there’s room for a third system,” starting with the news that proposed broadening of organic standards brought out the protesters at a recent meeting, and the police had to be called.  (And people wonder what’s to rant about in the world of gardening?  Oh, brother.)  Experts are quoted:

“The most sustainable, responsible system is a hybrid system.”

“Natural does not equal safe, or safer.”

And author/farmer Tamar Haspel says “Every toxicologist or environmental scientist I’ve ever spoken with says that the idea that natural substances are inherently better for planet or people than synthetic ones is simply false.”

And Whole Foods is working toward a broader and more flexible standard than simply organic.

Whole Foods is looking for another way. This fall, the company will roll out a system that classifies produce as good, better or best, depending on criteria ranging from those that the organic standard addresses specifically, like soil health, to those that the standard has nothing to say about, like farmworker welfare, pollinator protection, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Sounds good to me.

And in the world of home gardeners,  This Old House Magazine asked the very expert Dr. Jeff Gillman to educate readers about “bad gardening advice” in his article 10 Gardening Myths Busted.  Gillman naturally includes this persistent myth that “Organic Pesticides are Safer than Synthethic Ones,” recommending that “If you must use a pesticide, base your selection on how dangerous the active ingredients are, and how effective.”

Abandoning overly simplistic, black-white distinctions and asking gardeners to do some homework?   Sounds great, but I worry that it may be asking a lot.  Me, I skip the research and the careful reading of labels and just grow plants that need no pesticides, period.   For gardens that that are “ornamental”  like mine, it’s very do-able.

“All Organic” photo credit.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on June 20, 2014 at 11:03 am, in the category Eat This, Science Says.


  1. These articles are a gross oversimplification of the organic vs. synthetic decision. “Organic gardening” does not mean “no science” just as “organic pesticide is just as toxic as synthetic pesticide” does not mean that pesticide is OK.

  2. I agree with you, Oob – same old tactics. Now that they’re seeing that people are waking up (because of sickness and pollution and loss of fertile soil and pollinators) and choosing organic on a massive scale they’re saying a “hybrid” system is the answer! So predictable.

  3. There’s a difference between listening to scientists per se and listening to Big Ag shills. It’s not Monsanto, for instance that has been pushing for no till farming. Nobody in the article was claiming that because some organics are as bad as any synthetic, that all synthetics should be allowed; they were saying that some organics should not be used. Advising somebody not to eat an arsenic sandwich is not the same as reassuring them that petroleum by-products are good for them. Pretty much all organic product companies want our money. I would take their advice with a grain of salt, also. We can’t go back to Eden; there are too many of us and it’s now polluted.

  4. I deliberately used the word “pesticide” in my comment to refer to any pesticide, synthetic or natural. I wasn’t suggesting that all of the people quoted in the article are pushing for synthetics, but that we should be treating the discussion about pesticide as a discussion about pesticide, rather than organic vs. synthetic. I think framing it that way is a distraction from the issue of what’s harmful to us and the planet.

  5. It’s true that synthetic molecules are often not natural, but:
    1. Sometimes they are. If I make water by burning hydrogen, it’s the same H2O that we get in rain.
    2. Pulling weeds by hand or planting a crop or ornamental deliberately is also unnatural. If by “unnatural” we mean “it probably wouldn’t have happened if a human hadn’t done it”

  6. Since when are humans not part of nature? What separates us from all of the other species on the planet? The ability to reflect? I’m not so sure we have a monopoly on that mind trick. And, come to think of it, greed ranks pretty high in the playbook of species survival. Our challenge as a species is to take the longer view. It boils down to answering a few simple questions. Is it harmful, to whom, and how harmful? Is it necessary, for whom, and why? The motives of the players are abundantly clear. Hope lies in the wisdom of the hive.

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