The Word “Organic” Has Been Hijacked

The word “organic” has a precise definition in chemistry. It has been hijacked to refer to organic farming. Good communication requires that both parties use the same definition.

Words matter. Imagine someone who only speaks English trying to communicate with someone who only speaks Mandarin Chinese. Imagine a physicist trying to discuss energy with a Therapeutic Touch practitioner who claims to be sensing and manipulating a mythical human energy field. For a meaningful discussion, both parties have to speak the same language and have to agree on the definition of the words they are using. Precision of language is essential, especially in science.

I recently learned that Costco is selling “organic protein.” My first reaction was to laugh, because all protein is organic and there’s no such thing as inorganic protein. But I laughed too soon. It seems advocates of organic food have hijacked the word “organic.” They have taken what was once a very precise term in chemistry and have perverted it to serve their ideological agenda.

“Organic” was originally used in chemistry to denote the class of carbon-based compounds found in plants or animals. The opposite of organic (its antonym) is “inorganic”. I studied organic chemistry in college; it was a required pre-med subject.

Today it has an additional definition: any food that is produced using approved methods of organic farming. To be certified as organic, a product must meet strict USDA standards related to pesticide, fertilizer, and hormone use, soil quality and animal raising practices. Note that this is not a precise definition since it varies from country to country and over time as the required standards change.

The public is confused about the meaning of organic, as demonstrated by a conversation my husband overheard several years ago in a grocery store. Two women were discussing whether it would be safe to buy a cucumber that was not labelled organic. My husband couldn’t help chiming in: he told them that all cucumbers were organic and there was no such thing as an inorganic cucumber. One of the women responded that if it wasn’t labeled organic, you couldn’t be sure it didn’t contain fish genes.

Fish genes?!! She apparently wasn’t aware that humans already have many of the same genes as fish. We share 73% of our DNA with zebrafish, 60% with bananas, and 45% with cabbage. There have been alarmist stories about fish genes in tomatoes, but they are nothing but rumors. And what does she think would happen if she ate a vegetable that did have fish genes inserted through genetic engineering? Does she imagine it could turn her into a fish with gills and scales? It couldn’t; that’s not how genetics works. Consuming the DNA of another animal doesn’t mean our own DNA will change.

Myths about organic food

There’s no evidence that organic food is more nutritious or safer or better for health. People who eat organic foods claim that they taste better, but in blinded taste tests they may not be able to tell the difference, or they may say the conventional food tastes better. And the benefits to the environment remain controversial. With organic farming practices, the yield typically goes down and the price goes up.

Conclusion: the word “organic” has been hijacked, causing confusion

I see no convincing evidence to support choosing organic food. And I see no evidence to support avoidance of genetically engineered foods. I’m certainly not worried about fish genes.

Words matter. The misuse of the word “organic” has only served to confuse people. Its original meaning in chemistry is clear; its antonym is “inorganic”. I wish Costco would stop calling their product “organic protein”. It would be more precise to call it “protein produced in accordance with current regulations for organic farming”. Meanwhile, I will continue to laugh when I see advertising for “organic” meat, eggs, dairy, protein, or other foods that couldn’t possibly be inorganic. Maybe I should cry, but it’s more fun to laugh as I try to imagine an inorganic cow.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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