We are asked all the time to explain the difference between organic and non-organic. It’s hard to sum up such that the person you are talking to doesn't regret asking the question.
It is such a basic question yet the answer can go from the scientific to the metaphysical and everything in between. Sometimes I will give a one word answer, TASTE, then there are the studies that point to the twenty-five percent increase in vitamins and minerals when compared to there counterparts in the conventional field (see University of California-Davis study). But, you will find counter arguments to those studies, then there are the cost comparisons, why is organic so much more expensive and is it worth it? As I was writing this blog CNN Health came out with what I thought was a good article at http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/06/16/best.organic.produce/index.html
Not everything was right in the article, especially about the start of Organics. The father of modern day organic techniques comes from a man named J.I. Rodale and the Rodale Institute that was founded in Kutztown Pennsylvania in 1947. The studies done at the Rodale Institute are the longest recorded studies on the subject, "Our Farming Systems Trial®, the longest-running U.S. study comparing organic and conventional farming techniques, is the basis for our practical training to thousands of farmers in Africa, Asia and the Americas." Copy Right Rodale Institute.
Most people look at organic as the end result but it is just one variable in the whole sustainability model when talking about growing. At Miolea we've been saying we are beyond organics for awhile, because organics speaks to how vegetables, poultry and meats are grown and handled. It does not address all aspects of sustainability on a farm. When we first started growing professionally I looked at sustainability as making enough money to be able to live and produce in the next year. Until you start to make money you can not support the operation unless you have capital or some sort of financial backing, which is why 90+ percent of all small farms have income from off farm activities, i.e. another job. This is from the 2002 USDA census. However large or small money is the other part that cannot be ignored is environmental which are air, water, soil quality and treatment of animals. The whole sustainability model as professed and proven by Joel Salatin of "Polyface Farm." in Swoop, Virginia looks at the farm as a whole with intricate parts woven together in a concert mimicking what Mother Nature does on her own.
Because of farm practices that emphasize environmental consciousness, soil and nutrient replenishments, water resource conservation and protection of scarce resources the sustainable model re-enforces what is right and wrong with today's farming practices. In Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivores Dilemma," Joel Salatin points out the difference between a farm that does one thing only, like growing corn or just beef and that of a farm that uses the sustainable model. Paraphrasing Joel he said look at a corn field and look at a field that has been left alone to Mother Nature. What do you see in a conventional corn field? You will find one species of plant life, the corn and maybe an insect if it was away when the insecticide was sprayed. Looking at the other field you see Mother Nature’s diversity, you will see thousands of insects and plant varieties in that field and that is what the sustainable model is designed to accomplish. How do these plants in the field get nutrition from year to year as opposed to the corn field that gets sprayed with fertilizer and insecticides?
Simplistically stated, plants, trees, insects and animals get nutrients through a complex dance of decay, replacement and rejuvenation. Much like rotating and resting fields planted with green manure and nitrogen rich grasses and legumes, then letting your animals graze on those grasses to keep it down. You don't let the animals eat the grasses until the grass can't replenish itself, you let them eat enough to maintain the stability of the grasses in the field and then you move them on. Management intensive grazing is a sustainable practice that uses the grass but not enough to abuse the grass. An example would be to bring cows onto land, let them eat some and move them off to the next section of field. Next you would move chickens in the grass that the cows have left behind. Cows like higher grass heights while chickens like grass to be between two and three inches. When all is said and done what is left behind is incorporated into the composition of the field replenishing nutrients and minerals naturally, you get to see the complete cycle of life in this field. Grass is eaten, the cow gets nutrients and gains weight, it leaves behind manure, enough to attract bugs, that lay eggs and then the chickens get a crack at the grass and bugs which helps them they lay eggs high in Omega-3's. The chickens through pecking and scratching have aerated the soil leaving enough manure behind to feed the flora and fauna. This dance takes place such that a cow and chicken are never on a previous field until that field has fully become reestablished (usually in 8-12 months). Our production gardens get rested and fertilized this way. Although we don't have cows we keep moving the chickens from space to space in order to evenly fertilize the whole garden.
What is organic? In my own mind it is the tip of the iceberg.