From Organic-Only to Big-Picture Sustainability


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:

3713987619_3d72beb0b2_z“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.


  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.

    Distilling pesticide from plants and spraying it in massive quantities on large commercial crops is not “natural” and arguably not what I would consider sustainable as the poison builds up in the soil and our bodies.

    A lot of these interviews with experts on the side of synthetics or a hybrid approach sound a lot like the same old disinformation campaign tactics they’ve been pushing for years.

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  2. 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”

    We can’t help but work with nature’s laws. Not acting from greed is no guarantee that we are not acting in ignorance.

  3. 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.

  4. I think there is also too much focus on finding organic pesticides rather than encouraging the use of beneficial insects. Bugs can be a good thing. Also utilizing native plants that naturally can withstand the environment. I use zero chemicals and if the plant can’t hold up its own, then it wasn’t meant to be.

  5. I am always reminded that growing agricultural crops is probably the hardest form of gardening and logically so, since we are coaxing tomatoes out of the earth from Saskatchewan to the Florida peninsula. Tomatoes aren’t native plants here – nor are almost all of the fruits and vegetables we grow – so growing them according to a natural system seems like swimming upstream to me.
    Like the energy crisis, I believe there are many good strategies to be implemented that could increase yields and productivity and I’m weary of a system that attempts to restrict all growing to one specific system.
    I grew up in the South and was raised by grandparents that produced most of the food we ate by means of a large garden and a yearly fatted calf. My grandfather used 10-10-10 fertilizer sparingly and sevin dust when he flea beetles got really bad. We ate very well and our garden was full of butterflies and spiders and toads. For many years I have attempted a wholly organic system for growing vegetables with really lousy results. I have given the garden over to zinnias and now get all my veggies at the grocery store. A little fertilizer and sevin might be better than buying California green beans in my Atlanta Kroger.

  6. The issue of natural vs. man-made is obscuring the issue. There just has not been sufficient long term testing to make me willing to feed genetically tinkered foods to my children or grandchildren. I know that pesticides are dangerous for the human body, so I do not want pesticide residues in my food, either. At this time, the organic label means something to me, but if it includes genetically modified organisms — so, ok, breeding is genetic modification, but that is beside the point, it is a term which is understood and accepted to mean mixing genes in a way that is not possible through breeding–It will fail to inform a significant part of the public that is demanding information. And don’t get me started on nano-particles quietly added to our food–chocolate! How could you do that to me?!) These new technologies may be a breakthrough for better living, but don’t use me as a guinea pig, please. Give me information about the food supply that allows me to make my own choices.

  7. Thank you Kermit and Erin Bailey! And thank you for this post Susan, I’m eager to know more about the new expanded ways of labeling. Consumers who care need all the info they can get! Others can simply not read the labels.

  8. Buying locally from farmers you know, growing your own and home food preservation and meal preparation are ultimately the only ways to know for sure what’s in your food.

  9. Its good you guys are having this discussion. Organic is certainly losing its shine over here, with a big drop in sales and land conversion since a peak in 2007. People are seeing through it, but are still very concerned about the real issues of sustainability and environmental safety. Discussing a ‘third way’ seems a really good thing to do. After all, organic standards were dreamt up by a bunch of anti-science dreamers in the early 20the century (some of them closely associated with fascist and Nazi politics) and have surprisingly little engagement with the issues we are faced with today.

  10. I agree with David’s point: all agriculture, even small scale, is ‘destructive’ in that it involves ecosystem disruption. So is gardening, for that matter, or building a house, or walking down a road. The mythology of a ‘natural’ garden filled with cabbages, tomatoes, and beans–all from far-flung origins–is nonsensical. And growing food as a business is very, very challenging. I don’t believe that farmers use synthetic pesticides because they’re lazy or don’t care about the environment; they make the best decisions they can based on many factors, which include the rate and frequency of pesticide application. Because some organic pesticides are less effective, they have to be sprayed more often. Other organic pesticides are far more toxic than their synthetic alternatives. That’s why the buzz term now is sustainable intensification: grow more food on less land with fewer inputs, using all the tools available, including GM. It’s not just a third way we need, but the ability to be adaptable, which is what humans are rather good at.

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