January 1, 2012

What Is Organic? (Part 1)


For food or anything else to be organic is for it to exist and evolve in harmony with the rest of nature and human history. Our natural history, in its culinary aspect, can be called grass farming. We worked hard to maintain the savannah as the best habitat for our food and for our safety.
Over thousands of years we were forced by elites into the strait jacket of agriculture based on annual grasses with giant seed pods: wheat, corn, rice. Although agriculture had many potential forms, on account of the malevolence of the hierarchies in control it became politically and socially destructive and environmentally unsustainable.
The idea of organic food production was originally a call to restore agriculture to its rightful context amid the flows and relationships of nature. By the mid-20th century agriculture was already largely converted to monocultures fed by synthetic fertilizer. Mechanization took over. Traditional practices of crop rotation and cover cropping were being driven out. The results were apparent in soil destruction. Air and water pollution were already visible. Industrial agriculture looked unrivaled and unstoppable.
The organic idea was a resurgence of the beleaguered traditional practices. Bolstered by new agronomic knowledge, pioneers like Albert Howard and J.I. Rodale called for an agriculture which would work in synch and mutual reinforcement with nature rather than in belligerent defiance of it, and in the process produce more than the destructive industrial practice.
This was the classical organic idea. It’s necessarily one part of a natural whole, and is inextricable from relocalization. This is because natural, sustainable food distribution is limited by perishability and energy efficiency. That’s why, except for a few imperishable basics as well as a few luxuries, food markets have historically been local/regional. Food commodification has never been possible except through massive subsidized energy, robbery including externalized costs, and many other forms of corporate welfare. I emphasize energy here since I’m discussing the most basic inherent limits of organic food production and distribution. By organic I mean the true, holistic organic. (Just as for terms like natural or sustainable I use their common sense English language definitions.)
By definition (the real definition, not the official credential, which is a pale shadow of the substance) organic must use as little input substitution (for example, fossil-based synthetic fertilizer for natural nitrogen-fixation; oil-based pesticides and herbicides for natural pest-fighters and pest resistance) and industrially transported inputs and outputs as possible (an “organic” strawberry from Chile on a US supermarket shelf is a contradiction in terms). Organic and relocalization must go together, if we’re to meaningfully conceive and seek either.
This is why it’s incoherent to try to separate organic from localism and even try to play them off against one another. Organic as a set of practices can be meaningful and benevolent only within its rightful context, the sum of natural interrelations – including those of a non-corporatized, non-propertarian economy, the real “free market” – which it’s meant to epitomize.
Organic, just like any other commons, cannot meaningfully exist amid a hostile capitalist environment. You can’t plunk it down amid the corporate food system and expect it to “be”. It has to be actively moving on an anti-corporate, relocalist, democratic vector.
This is a key part of the food movement’s political character. Organic and relocalization are vectors toward true democracy. Any diversion of either, any wanting organic to sit passively and stagnate, letting itself be corporatized, industrialized, even forming alliances with CAFOs and the GMO rackets, is to seek destruction of it. This is one of the basic flaws of the official USDA organic credential. Even if this credential weren’t weak and continually subverted (but it is), in itself it would still relegate the organic practice to the same sterility as processed food in general. One rips whole food from its natural context, dismantles it to its bigger constituent parts (remember “parts is parts”?), then mixes and matches and reassembles them in synthetic combinations. It’s the “food” of no context, natural or human. “The NPK mentality”, as Howard called it (referring to the three main soil nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, each removed from its context and then synthetically glued into combinations with the others) envisions soil and agriculture, and human society itself, as machines. This is scientistic reductionism. Chemistry supplants biology, and the tail wags the dog.
The same goes for the political context. Organic originally had a broad and deep social connotation. The health of the soil is a barometer and direct determinant of the health of society and democracy. As Howard put it, “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.” To destroy the soil by subjecting it to the endless shock treatment of artificial fertilizer and pesticide to produce endless unevolving generations of zombie monocrops is to destroy the nation, polity, and spirit. Environmental domination always indicates and helps enforce social domination.
Corporatized “organic” agriculture, industrial organic as Pollan calls it, is just another form of this reductionist, synthetic, out of context mentality.
That’s why it’s both unhistorical and philosophically wrong to see organic in a hermetic, instrumental way, as a one-size-fits-all spare part one can plug in anywhere (for example within corporate capitalism), rather than as an implicitly vast, profoundly intertwined social concept, or to see organic food other than within this context.
Meanwhile “industrial organic”, organic production and distribution which is part of commodification and globalization, is a contradiction in terms because it flouts every principle of nature. It’s “holistic” only within the temporary aberration of corporate agriculture dependent on the corporate state and cheap, plentiful fossil fuel. It’s the instrumental holism of an insane and ephemeral context. This is why organic credentialism is insufficient at best, and often a sham. We see where it leads – globalized, corporatized “organic”; “co-existence” with GMOs; predation on workers.
Organic food won’t feed our bodies or our souls unless it expresses the entire organic holism, which means the restoration of food to its rightful, historical, natural and human context. In part two I’ll expand upon this and extend it to other examples.
Part 2 here.


  1. I agree with ALMOST everything you’ve written here.
    I think that the concept of organic that you’ve developed here goes hand in hand with traditional societies.
    Western civilization is anything but traditional at this point in time. It seems to pride itself on building an ANTI traditional identity, in fact.
    What I’m really not sure about is the way you have stuck democracy in here.
    Because I’m afraid that our modern ideas of democracy go hand in hand with the rise of what made industrialism possible in the first place.
    I think I have already developed here the logic that I see behind egalitarianism : MORE for the largest number possible of people. Elimination of privilege in any form, hostility to ANY form of authority (not just hierarchical).
    Considering that egalitarianism is THE MOTOR, then the industrial society is a logical development of this well meaning desire to PRODUCE more stuff for EVERYBODY in the best of all possible worlds.
    See Shakespeare’s plays for good insights into what the organic conception of human life meant to our ancestors (i.e., the great chain of being as a cosmogony that assigns a definite hierarchical place to each element without instituting competition between elements)..
    What you called “the system” in the last post, isn’t it really.. a PERVERTED form of organic, to the extent that everything hangs together, whether we are aware of it or not ? (Toby would say this, and I am not sure he is wrong on this point.)

    Comment by Debra — January 1, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

    • That the idea of democracy has been hijacked is a reason to fight all the harder to redeem it. That’s part of my project here, as we’ve discussed many times before.

      Comment by Russ — January 2, 2012 @ 3:41 am

      • This is where we are irreconcilable, I fear…
        I don’t believe that “the idea of democracy has been hijacked”.
        I believe that what we are currently perceiving as corruption is the direct result of the INEVITABLE corruption of the democratic ideal ITSELF, playing out over time, and with increasingly less resistance from what it has been slowly replacing. (Dixit Nietzsche’s attitudes towards aristocracy. Nietzsche was no dummy on this one.) Corruption is the way of the world…it has always been so, and will always be so.
        Ironically enough, the “democratic ideal” has been tempered up until very recently, by institutionalized religion, and by the vestiges of the Ancien Regime, still visible in our society. (Lucky me, who gets to see the cathedrals from time to time…)
        These institutions, and the ideal(s) that they still manage to make present in the world are now in the position of being increasingly MARGINALIZED, and are now… the new… revolutionary, just as the Copernican “revolution” was revolution in its own time…
        The pendulum has been swinging back…
        In my father’s generation, “science” was NOT a religion. He could be a scientist AND still believe in God, and go to church (and give his money to the church too, while we’re at it…).
        In his son’s generation… it seems to be a religion… for that tyrannical majority without which the democratic ideal could not function (corruption of the democratic ideal ?).
        What has the democratic ideal produced ?
        The blogs… where atomized INDIVIDUALS write anonymously, for the approval of anonymous readers who read… to convince themselves that they are right. Or for the disapproval of other anonymous readers who consistently attack the person of the author, EQUALLY CONVINCED that “they” are right.
        How can you create a viable community out of so much individual virtuality, and federate people to want to ROLL UP THEIR SLEEVES ?
        I’m not convinced yet. Indeed, when I look at my loony forum, I can see all the insidious corruption that the democratic ideal itself has produced WITH NO INFAMOUS “THEY” in sight.
        Enough hot air from me today…
        If you guys get a chance to see the French film “The snows of Kilimanjaro”, grab it.
        It is one of the best French films to come out in recent months.

        Comment by Debra — January 2, 2012 @ 5:15 am

  2. “Organic” will not succeed as a concept or as a movement until we can grasp it in the context of a constellation of state and “civilisational” narratives, I think. Part of the problem is that, as you note, there are no universal best practices, so it’s at best a rejection of the productivist scientific/corporate ag model without an articulation of an alternative that’s usable by a grower “off the shelf”. To conceive of specific methods for a given ecological niche that are consistent with the principles and thermoeconomic realities we’re discussing here, we have to wipe the slate almost entirely clean. That means accepting a total, deliberate reconstruction of our culture outside of the confines of what’s deemed acceptable by the state or by corporate capitalism, and that can only happen in a piecemeal, local way.

    The evidence around climate change is getting increasingly alarming, suggesting that smaller changes will create more dire effects than previously predicted. This is a do-or-die movement at the last possible moment. We have about twenty years before the effects of severe drought begin to set in across much of the Mississippi basin. Being realistic, we have to acknowledge that there’s no way that a significant number of people will act on the implications of a statement like “natural, sustainable food distribution is limited by perishability and energy efficiency” anytime soon. If we follow the logic behind that principle, it’s self-evident that the end of energy subsidies for our economy mean a total reconfiguration of the oil-distorted geography of civilisation, or we end up with millions of souls in settlements that are simply non-viable absent enormous and coercive efforts to maintain the status quo.

    I think we need to start taking the possibility that “relocalise in place” isn’t going to work for a significant number of people (particularly those who will be affected by climate change) seriously. Legitimately sustainable agriculture (whatever you want to call it) is normally underpinned by generations of praxis and traditional knowledge. I think we have to acknowledge that we’re not going to get there without buying some serious breathing room on these other fronts. Placing our efforts to learn from the land within the context of a world that will increasingly be defined by the dialectic between collapsing states, neofeudal corporate fiefdoms, and increasingly impoverished, migratory populations is necessary to see the way forward.

    Comment by paper mac — January 2, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    • That’s an apocalyptic conclusion, but it’ll probably play out that way in many places. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to carry much intact through the impending fires, and we’ll simply have to endure their worst and then start over with what little’s left.

      I agree that whatever we can do, it will primarily arise organically at the local/regional level, bottom-up, piecemeal as you say.

      As for the practice and expression we need, I think it ought to be a term like local organic and the practices which can legitimately be encompassed in such a term.

      On one hand the official credential is insufficient at best, and on the other hand it’s economically onerous on many small producers. So even among those who could call themselves fully organic with proud legitimacy, many can’t afford that USDA seal. (My understanding is that if they’re small enough and adhere to the practice standards, they can abstain from the credential process but still call themselves “organic”, but they can’t display the seal.)

      I’m still not sure what’s the right strategy, but I’m completely clear in denying any contradiction or conflict between true organic and relocalization. On the contrary, both are necessary, and they’re inextricably wound.

      Comment by Russ — January 2, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

      • I 100% agree with that. We need to get back to the kind of local, specific knowledge that pre-industrial communities had about their agro-ecologies ASAP. Increasingly I’m seeing that not as an agricultural practice per se but as one component of a new indigeneity (particularly for settler peoples in North America). “Indigenous agriculture” seems to have all kinds of weird loading, but I think it’s closest to describing something like “the appropriate practices of a local group adapted for their circumstances”.

        I’m trying not to be apocalyptic, I think we have to remain hopeful that we can accomplish the most essential parts of the program in spite of what’s going to happen. The bleakness of the results coming out of climate change groups is really focusing my mind, though. Placing our local efforts in that context is mentally really difficult for me, I guess because of normalcy bias. But increasingly I think making preparations to take in and feed migrants entering our local areas, having some political base that they can integrate into in order to agitate for land reform, having some educational sites where they can learn the local agronomy, etc, will be hugely important. I think we’ve probably got a decade or two before we need to have anything concrete on that, but it seems worthwhile to kick around in the comments, anyway.

        Comment by paper mac — January 3, 2012 @ 5:40 am

      • Those are good ideas. Building the movement skeleton, ready to be fleshed out when the material is ready.

        You think we have ten years? I’d bet it’ll be less than that, at least in many places. I don’t know whether that’s more optimistic (that things really get moving sooner rather than later) or pessimistic (since we have less time to prepare) or optimistic (since the kleptocracy has less time to become fully totalitarian).

        Indigenous agriculture is good, once it’s clear that we’re referring to right here right now. I also think “the appropriate practices of a local group adapted for their circumstances” is a principle which applies to far more than just agriculture, and just material things.

        Do you know anything about mycoremediation, the use of mushrooms for soil detoxification? I’ve heard of using sunflowers and other things, but an e-mail yesterday was the first I heard of mushrooms.

        As far as educational sites, I was thinking again of the SMF site. I think I’ve been lazy about not trying to really do something with that. But that kind of forum can be more useful for our purposes than individual blogs. What you said about collecting so much decentralized knowledge makes me think again of my old idea


        about shared responsibility for reportage on all the issues. (I just read a book which also said that was critical.) It sure would be good if people who agreed on democracy, relocalization, and anti-hierarchy principles, and on the need to build a decentralized democratic movement, could divide labor that way. Which would in turn help us all be the broadest sort of generalist.

        Comment by Russ — January 4, 2012 @ 5:41 am

      • When I mentioned “a decade or two”, all I was referring to was climate change- I think we have about that long before those of us in the North and Northeast start seeing more than a trickle of climate migrants from other regions. Climate change is pretty much the only facet of the world-system I bother with predictions for anymore, since it’s mostly-tractable to synoptic modelling. As far as the political side of things, I just don’t know. I’m on track to be done with the PhD this year and head to a farm for training in 2013- I hope to have my own farm by 2015 or so and hopefully have a house and enough fields in to feed a fair number of people by 2020. If things start to go to shit before that, well, I’ll need to get flexible, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that we’ve got 10 years. If I can get to the point where I’m growing food, my carpentry’s good enough to do permanent shelters reasonably well, and I can get some help on the energy side of things, it might be enough to form a “nucleus”.

        Mycoremediation I’m only vaguely familiar with. I’ve read some of Paul Stamet’s stuff. It looks promising, and the sorts of mushrooms that can be used (oysters in particular) are exceedingly easy to grow. Stamets has a number of useful and accessible books if you’re interested in getting into mycoculture. It’s really cheap and is a decent secondary income stream if your local restaurants buy from foragers etc. I have a couple of mycologist friends if you need info on specific applications.

        I see your plan for internet-based communication and confederation as ideal. I think something like this: http://www.rhizzone.net/ might work, where there’s a forum (under “discussion”), and some of those threads, based on the usefulness of the content, are promoted to a “frontpage” digest, which people who don’t want to wade through a discussion forum could use to quickly access the most important/active conversations. I think having single-user “digests” which would function as traditional blogs, as well as a tagging system, would round that out. That forum is an admittedly weird amalgam of theory and humor, but I’m pointing to the structure rather than content. One of my goals over the next 12 months is to play around with a system like this so we can see whether or not it’s useful. I’ll let you know what I’ve got when I get a little time to mess about.

        Comment by paper mac — January 5, 2012 @ 4:19 am

      • By coincidence, I just read about your plan yesterday. Our first Farmers’ Market Committee meeting is next week, so I was boning up by rereading some material from last summer. I came across your comment where you mentioned that plan, and I made a note to ask you how it was coming.

        I haven’t closely followed climate change predictions since spring of 08 when I decided that voluntary mitigation was a lost cause, that humanity would never do it, and therefore I saw no point to expending energy continuing to follow it and agonize over it. (Since then I’ve seen how all proposed mitigation and adaptation measures are really corporatist scams. Show me someone who advocates straight command-and-control enforcement of existing laws like the Clean Air Act and I’ll at least believe he’s sincere, though I don’t think that can work either. But anyone who advocates e.g. cap-and-trade is either a con artist or an ignoramus.) But I see your point that these projections are important for movement-building plans, if these migrations really occur.

        The rhizzone site does seem to have a pretty good combo of forum and blogging. By contrast, sites like LATOC had/have (I don’t know if it still exists, split in two, blew up completely, or what) just the forum (which of course anyone can turn into a de facto blog), while the various “progressive” sites I briefly haunted in latter 2009 were mostly blogs, including member blogging. Chris Martenson’s site was like that too. Before getting my own blog I briefly used it as a de facto blog. The Drupal site I’m familiar with is one of those “progressive” sites. (Ugh, you don’t want to know the horrors of our time bank’s software conversion from Community Weaver 1.0 to a Drupal CW 2.0. I don’t think it’s the Drupal’s fault, but the fault of terrible planning and the typical engineer combo of incompetence and arrogance.)

        Thanks for the suggestions about mycoremediation. Someone here is proposing it for a contaminated site and looking for participants. It sounds like something good to learn, but my plate’s already pretty full. Still, I wrote her back saying I’m interested in hearing more about the plan, if there’s to be one.

        Comment by Russ — January 5, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

      • The plan is still gestating, I’m still plugging away at my degree, but I’ve got the thing simmering now, at least. I’ve got an architect working on some of my chinese vernacular house design stuff, and have been pursuing a self-education in soil microbiology, crop biology, soil structure, etc. Slow going, I wish there were more hours in the day.

        I do think that at least loosely following the climate projections is useful for long-term strategy. The IEA is saying now that BAU scenarios are going to take us to 6 degrees C of warming before the century’s out. I don’t believe that business-as-usual is possible for that long, but if it looks like we’re getting anywhere near that, we’re going to need to totally reconsider what kind of fight needs to happen and where it needs to be based, for instance.

        I really hate dealing with software, it’s always such a nightmare. I’ve been thinking of just contracting out the site design, I’m not sure how much it would cost, but if it could be done for a few hundred dollars by cobbling together existing components (django, or the rhizzone code, or whatever), it’d be worth it just to avoid the hassle, I think.

        If the person running the mycoremediation project is looking for someone to consult with, I strongly recommend these folks: http://www.sporometrics.com/ . I’m personally familiar with a good chunk of their staff, as well as the founder, and they’re very smart, very competent people who would probably be quite happy to provide advice, monitoring, and the like. They’re worth dropping a line to just for a read on the feasibility of the project, in any case.

        Comment by paper mac — January 6, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

      • One example of climate change awareness is how those planning seed libraries should take into account how the climate of their region is projected to change. A year ago when I drew up a list of possible criteria for our projected seed bank (still on the drawing board, alas), I included how things will get hotter, drier, with more extreme weather events and weather unpredictability in general.

        Thanks for the mycoremediation suggestion. I’ll send that address along and check out the site myself.

        I’m glad to hear your plan’s coming along, even if it’s slow going.

        Comment by Russ — January 7, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  3. I think that one of the most insidious and deleterious effects of the thinking that has culminated in the industrial paradigm is our implicit belief that our actions on a daily basis CAN be separated from their effects, and thus have no bearing on a global evolution. (To me, this separation is very different from an organic vision of universe. An organic perception of the universe is one which sees and welcomes the LINKS between DIFFERENT elements of creation.)
    For example…. when I go to our LOCAL, and cooperatively run “organic” outlet, I see…
    People shopping with the same (basically…) shopping carts that can be found at the GLOBAL hypermarket half a mile away, and filling them chock full with LOTS OF STUFF (that is supposed to be good for you…).
    While I DO see some attempt to encourage reducing packaging, there is still LOTS LOTS LOTS OF STUFF, and a dizzying amount of new items that have arrived almost overnight because of the new “organic” bubble. And the same old… organization of work which is a big part of the problem.
    And the clincher for our non organic thought ?
    That we still manage to argue about how we could possibly CONTROL our… CONVERSION out of hyperproductivist, consumer thinking from the top down, at the government/social level.
    One positive note, though…
    My observation leads me to believe that the most long term destruction of our HOME has occurred during what I like to call “les cent ans de progrès sans merci” : translate to the last “100 years of merciless progress”.
    It seems to me that 100 years in the earth’s lifetime is a drop in the bucket.
    IF… we managed to stop bickering so much, stop finger pointing, and got some true solidarity going, we MIGHT be able to turn things around… (but no global governance. I don’t think that I have to worry about that though, because Babel/dispersion is setting in with a vengeance right now.)
    Better to believe that than the contrary, don’t you think ?
    In other words, I now believe firmly in the necessity that we reinvest our SMALL LOCAL INDIVIDUAL LIVES, and get busy, to the best of our ability, in trying to perceive and observe all the ways in which we are LINKED to other SMALL, LOCAL, INDIVIDUAL lives, human or not. In the hope that the new ability to perceive will help develop OUR WILL to act in a SMALL LOCAL CONTEXT. A great place to start ? THE HOME.
    End of sermon. 😉
    Travaux pratiques, as we say : this morning, I was talking with two friends on the market, and we ALL liked the idea of BEING BURIED in rudimentary caskets with no embalming… Since I am a contrarian lady, I particularly like the idea that my two kids LIFT THE SHOVEL to dig the grave several times at least (like Harry Potter who forewent the magic (machines) to do such ungrateful HEAVY LABOR for his friend, Dobby).
    It all hangs TOGETHER… that’s what organic means, anyway).

    Comment by Debra — January 3, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  4. […] From Russ on his “Volatility” blog: […]

    Pingback by What is “organic”? | The Bovine — January 3, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

  5. Russ,

    The folks at The Automatic Earth have a relevant post up today: http://theautomaticearth.blogspot.com/2012/01/january-3-2012-storm-surge-of.html

    Enjoy. And Happy New Year!

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — January 3, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

  6. Tao, Thanks for the interesting piece. Xoxo, tawal

    Comment by tawal — January 4, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

  7. […] Earlier I wrote about how the term and concept organic applies to a network of relations and vectors, a holism, rather than to a discrete, stagnant item which can be removed from or plugged into any context at […]

    Pingback by What Is Organic? (2 of 2) « Volatility — March 30, 2012 @ 2:40 am

  8. […] restore natural food markets (local/regional), and build the Food Sovereignty movement based upon truly organic agriculture.   Meanwhile anyone, like these elites in Chicago, who claims to want to “feed the […]

    Pingback by African Wannsee Conference; Or, Bono Parties With Monsanto « Volatility — May 28, 2012 @ 4:37 am

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