What does organic actually mean? It’s tricky, because the word “organic” has at least two distinct meanings. It arose as the name for a movement with a particular belief system. Later, it also became a formal regulatory label governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, most of us just want to know if organic means “better”: if it’s healthier, more sustainable, and, in short, worth the money.

My unsatisfying answer: It depends. There are spectacular organic farmers, and spectacular farmers who don’t comply with the organic rules (and their opposites). I equivocate here because the organic rules are more about process than outcomes. Instead of governing results — i.e. defining organic by the nutritional content of food, or environmental quality measurements on farms — the rules mostly govern the tools used in food production.

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OK, let’s start with those official rules. What are they? And how good a job does each rule accomplish of actually making food “better”? I don’t aim to determine whether organic, overall, is “better” — I think that depends on the way farmers use their tools, not on which tools they use. Instead, I’ll try to tease apart the assumptions that link the rules to our judgements about goodness.

The fundamentals

High Mowing Organic Seeds
High Mowing Organic Seeds, Vermont.Sterling College

No synthetics

Basically, if humans made a substance, you can’t use it in organic farming. There are exceptions: There’s a list of approved synthetics that organic farmers can use under certain circumstances.