What is organic?

An amusing, but slightly disturbing, video about the difference between “natural” and “organic”.

Don’t get sucked in by labelling – make sure you are an aware consumer.

So what’s the difference between organic, chemical free, permaculture and biodynamic? The following is taken from the Transition Streets Challenge workbook.


According to chemists, ‘organic’ describes carbon-based molecules, whether or not they are actually products of an organism or products of laboratory synthesis. According to this definition, all food is composed of organic materials whether or not it contains harmful chemicals.

In terms of farming and gardening, ‘organic’ means that all inputs for growing and pest or weed control are non synthetic.

‘Certified organic’ describes production practices that meet independent certification standards. In general, any business directly involved in food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, processors, retailers and restaurants.

Generally, organic produce is healthier, and better for the environment, but not necessarily.

Organic producers may still rely on mono-cropping; for example, a farm can still grow carrots organically using monocultural methods, run a fossil fuel burning pump 24/7, drain the aquifer to water the crop, and use underpaid illegal workers in appalling conditions. The farm may be owned by a large corporation who will simply leave it and move on when it becomes unproductive.

Certification doesn’t guarantee that food does not contain pesticide residues. While synthetic pesticides are prohibited in organic farming, some ‘natural’ pesticides may still be used, and they’re not necessarily less worrisome just because they’re ‘natural’.

 Chemical free

Has no precise meaning, and food with this label may be any of several types.

Food might have been grown using the same organic practices as ‘certified organic’ food.

A farmer may have chosen not to pursue certification for a number of reasons, including the fact that gaining certification is a long and expensive process.

Growers may claim produce is chemical free because they have not used pesticides, but they may still have used liberal quantities of chemical fertilisers.


Permaculture is an integrated ecological design system for growing food, building homes and creating communities, while minimising environmental impact.

Permaculture has three fundamental ethics: 1. Take care of the earth 2. Take care of the people 3. Share the surplus (including limit consumption).

Practitioners have a commitment to mimicking nature using the interconnectedness of natural systems (no monocultures here!).

Through careful design, resources and effort can be minimised for maximum productiveness.

It encourages resourcefulness and self-reliance. By careful consideration of resources used, it is possible to get much more out of life by using less.


Biodynamic thinking recognises a spiritual dimension to life, enlarging the basis of science to include the cosmic (planetary and lunar influences) and energy forces that impact on the growth of plants and animals.

Each and every farm and farmer is different and each farmer is active in supporting the ‘livingness’ of their farm. The biodynamic method has no single recipe to offer.

Has a focus of creating healthy and well structured soils, by supporting the production of humus. Creating healthy soils involves the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays. By building and taking care of the soil, using these methods, the aim is to be less reliant on large applications of compost or organic matter, which, in practical terms, could not be applied on large commercial farms.

A focus on knowing the best time to plant prune, harvest etc., which occurs, not according to season, but by using the phases and signs of the moon.

Respects the interconnectedness of the soil, seeds, food and water, animals and people.

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. Transition Streets Challenge – comments from coordinators
  2. Ron Finley: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA
  3. 10 ways to reduce your consumption
  4. Consumption and the Transition movement
  5. Hmm, that’s an evil plan!
  6. “We didn’t just build a garden, we built a community”

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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