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Monique Keiran: Organic? Depends on your definition

I hope the organic food I purchase is “organic,” even though I know all the food I eat is organic. I realize that sounds confusing, but the word organic has many definitions. The B.C.

I hope the organic food I purchase is “organic,” even though I know all the food I eat is organic.

I realize that sounds confusing, but the word organic has many definitions.

The B.C. government recently announced it would introduce regulations to govern the word’s use by food producers.

Some farmers undergo extensive and expensive certification to demonstrate they’ve eliminated chemically made fertilizers, hormones and pesticides and genetically altered seed from their operations. Under B.C. and Canadian law, these producers may legally call their products “certified organic.”

Some other farmers eliminate the nasty stuff, but aren’t certified organic. These operations tend to be small and often lease farmland instead of owning it. Current regulations permit them to call their products organic, unsprayed or pesticide-free, provided they don’t market or sell their products outside B.C. or claim certification.

A third group of producers and sellers might exist who don’t use organic practices, but market their goods as such. The intended regulations mostly are meant to stifle these claims.

In these examples, we use Merriam-Webster’s definition of organic: “of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically made fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides.”

The dictionary’s other definitions of organic encompass broader meanings — for example: “of, relating to, or derived from living organisms” and “of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds.” These definitions turn the organic word-world into a muddy, microbe-infested swamp of connotation and implication.

By these definitions, anybody who grows plants or raises animals could claim they are organic. All plants and animals are (Exhibit A) living organisms and (Exhibit B) contain carbon compounds.

Even farmers who rout weeds with Round-Up, wage war against weevils with DDT and own stock in Monsanto and Cargill could make organic claims. After all, many fertilizers and pesticides are hydrocarbon products.

As the word suggests, hydrocarbons contain (Exhibit B) carbon compounds. They also (Exhibit A) derive from living organisms. The liquefied natural gas of B.C.’s Peace River country, for instance, comes from the remains of billions of tiny plants and animals that lived and died in the shallow seas that once covered that region. The organisms’ remains sank to the seafloor.

Time, and pressure and heat from the layers of sand, mud and organisms piling up over them enabled microbes to work their magic, and chemical reactions and a few other processes to occur. And, before you could say “No pipelines here!” tens of millions of years later, natural gas resulted, waiting to be pumped out and shipped to energy-hungry markets worldwide.

For that matter, the recycled-plastic bags I carry my groceries home in are also organic, plastic being made from hydrocarbons.

It comes down to definition and context.

Yes, I hope the organic food I purchase is produced using organic farming practices. And, yes, I know that all food I eat (Exhibit A) was once alive and (Exhibit B) contains carbon molecules. If it weren’t organic in the broad sense, it wouldn’t be, by definition, food.

And, yes, we need to be specific and rigorous in our definitions when we speak of food-production practices.

We also need to be aware that everyday language cannot be policed. The French government has been doing that for centuries, and now its citizens look forward to “le weekend,” when they will do “le shopping,” provided they can find “le parking.”

Speaking of which, the French word for organic is “biologique” (biological), which provides as much fodder — carbon-based and once living — for interpretation as the English term does.

In the 1990s, lawyers for the Nature Publishing Group, publisher of the prestigious scientific journal Nature, sent cease-and-desist letters to every business in the English-speaking world that used “nature” in its name. The Nature group had trademarked the word, and threatened to sue everyone else who used it for business — even mom-and-pop nature shops like Calgary’s Nature Nook Bookstore.

The courts later ruled that single words cannot be trademarked.

It remains to be seen whether restricting use of another single, commonly used and variously defined word such as organic would survive such scrutiny.

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