Agriculture Garden Sustainability

Sustainable vs. Organic

This is a section I wrote up for a community gardening manual for Central Texas that I thought worth sharing.

hostess-twinkies.jpgWords are funny things. Their meaning is usually obvious, but used enough in the wrong hands words start to lose their integrity. You can now buy organic makeup, organic clothes, organic supplements, organic cleaners and organic pet food. Organic is now a regulated word when applied to products. The USDA has standards for the ingredients in any product that is sold as “organic.” These include no use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, certain land, pest and weed management practices among other things.

Sounds good, right? Technically, though, you could make a twinkie that could be certified organic. If the only concern is fulfilling the USDA regulations, then an organic twinkie makes sense. If it’s about more than marketing and gimmicks, then we have to dig deeper.

Some people, have turned to the word “sustainable” to help fill this gap. Sustainability is something that is “capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.” Thinking sustainably forces us to move beyond the organic (or any other) USDA label and think about the whole ecosystem and our role in it. It’s not only about particular methods for growing things, but more how we live in better relationship with the earth.


Sustainability is also about the long-term viability and profitability of an enterprise. In the garden, you might have to make tough choices between organic principles and the sustainability of your project. In order to build enthusiasm for your project and have a good first harvest you might use a rototiller, even though not tilling at all might be better for the environment. Not using herbicides might fit your philosophy on good wholesome food, but there are no proven organic alternatives. You will have to manage the inevitable onslaught of weeds in other ways. There are always trade-offs in whatever system you use.

The thing that worries me most is the continual retreat to new and different words when terms like “organic” are co-opted by government bureaucracies. Instead of finding better words, sometimes we need to fight for the words that are being taken from us. I like words like “sustainable” and “holistic.” We should also fight for better standards, reforms and regulation that bring modern agriculture closer to the original meaning of organic as applied to agriculture by Lord Northburne in 1940 who talked about “the farm as a living whole.”

Here’s a graphic from chews wise on the ingredients of the Twinkie from the author of Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats.


2 comments on “Sustainable vs. Organic

  1. Way to go. I love language and dislike when people pervert or distort it.


    • Thanks. Language is tricky, but sometimes the corporations and government are trickier. 😉


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