Don't Be Afraid of the O Word!

There is a café near my apartment that positions itself as ecofriendly and sustainable. The counter and tables are from reclaimed wood. Everything is compostable. And then one day, I asked if the milk was organic. "Well, it's local and, like, hormone free," the barista replied, scanning the label. I did some research: The brand claims to free of pesticides, insecticides, and growth hormones, but there is no mention of The O Word: organic.

I've had a similar experience at my local "sustainable" burger joint, and at a few other eating establishments. I've noticed a trend to use the terms "local" and "sustainable" or "natural" instead of using the big O.

Perhaps it's because ORGANIC means something in a way that terms like "ecologically sustainable" and "local" do not. Organic is defined by law, and the standards are upheld by independent certifying agencies. Local, on the other hand, means 30 miles away to one person, 300 miles to another. Same with sustainable. Same with "farm fresh" and "from the farmer's market."

Because organic has definite meaning, people can use the word in the wrong way. By contrast, with a vaguely defined word, there's less risk of making a mistake and feeling dumb. We all like to avoid that feeling--it's totally natural (another one of those vague words!).

I feel bad when I ask cashiers whether something is organic and they mumble a vague answer, obviously not sure of themselves. I don't want to make them feel stupid, but I also want to know exactly what I'm putting in my body.

For establishments, using the term organic without the paperwork to back it up can mean trouble. So instead, they say it's natural or sustainable. To me, that's taking the easy way out.

So let's not be afraid to use The O Word!

ASK if something actually is organic if it seems labeled with a greenwashing term. You might find that the place is just awaiting the paperwork, or maybe they are organic in practice, but can't afford the certification. Or they may ask you a few questions about what organic means. Bottom line: Everybody learns.

KNOW what organic means:

"Broadly defined, organic is a method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products, and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. The United States Department of Agriculture has strict regulations farmers must follow to be certified organic and to carry the USDA Organic logo. __Here's what certified organic is not: chemical fertilizers and pesticides, GMO seeds, biosolids (sewer sludge), or irradiated food. Certified-organic meat, eggs, and dairy are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. They are produced in environments where animals are fed 100 percent organic feeds and have access to outdoors and pasture."
--from the Rodale Institute

USE The O Word if something is organic. Don't be shy! The more we use the word, the less weird it becomes.

At the end of the day, I'm thrilled that all these restaurants and cafés with "greener" ingredients are popping up and thriving, and that we're even talking about better farming, no matter the terms. Having fewer chemicals in the environment is the most important thing, no matter what you call it. But let's rally around The O Word because it does mean something that we can all get behind.

Maya Rodale is the author of numerous historical romance novels. She lives in New York City with a rogue of her own and their dog, Penelope. Find her on FacebookTwitter, or at Her most recent book is Dangerous Books for Girls.

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