Several months ago, I posted a question on Facebook: What is an organic coconut? There was an immediate response—if there is a cell phone tower next to the palm, will it still be considered organic? It was just a jocular response.

The question on Facebook was asked in earnest though. When we see the label “organic” what does it really mean? The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) formulated the term in the Farm Bill of 1990. Organic foods are produced through farming methods where the following may not be used: Synthetic fertilizers, petroleum based or sewage sludge based fertilizers, industrial solvents, irradiation, and other contaminants. A new industry was born with the action of the USDA, and it has grown from about 11 billion dollars in 2004 to 27 billion dollars currently.


Let us look at the tomato, one of the most common vegetables used in cooking. Years ago, my daughter looked horrified  when she saw a green-horn worm, which can be frequently found under the tomato leaf. This is one of the most common pests to affect kitchen gardens. She stayed away from the fruit for several years after seeing that worm. If the worm is meticulously removed by hand or by a tool, the fruit can be called organic. If a pesticide is used, the label cannot be used. It is very difficult to identify any product as being 100% organic. There are too many uncertainties.

Approximately, 90% of the corn and soybeans produced for commercial use now are genetically modified. We have many derivative products such as corn syrup and soy sauce made from these genetically modified ingredients. It becomes almost impossible for the devout organic consumer to find the remaining 10% of organic corn and soybean ingredients in the market to claim strict adherence to organic products, unless they grow these crops. Even then, the source of the tender plant or the seed should be known. When we grow organic crops along with other crops on adjacent tracts of land, factors such as wind, water, birds, bees and human or animal movement all contribute uncertainty to the nature of the final product that carries the “organic” label.

The role of the honeybee in agriculture cannot be belittled, especially here in America. We are the sole suppliers of almonds to the world, and Kern county in California is the center for almond production. Artificial pollination with bee swarms accounts for about 75% enhancement of the nut yield here. But, the crop yield cannot be labeled as organic anymore.

The oceans are, by and large, the most natural habitat for a long list of edible marine species. The fishing catch in the vast areas of the ocean far away from the coastlines, is more likely to be natural since there is less human activity. In Washington state, the existence of hatcheries for the enhanced production of salmon provides a sharp contrast.

More quality control is exercised on the production and distribution of meat and meat products in the United States than the requirements for the growth and distribution of vegetables, grains and fruits. Examples of stringent quality control include the non-use of growth hormones, radiation, and antibiotics in the production of meat.

Given all of these factors that exist, choosing a food item that is truly organic can be confusing. Here are solutions to help the consumer solving this conundrum.

The USDA has set labeling requirements where four categories are defined. These are: 100% Organic, Organic, Made with Organic ingredients, and Natural.

The first category where a food item carries a “100% organic” label requires no further explanation. An “Organic” label requires that the item be made with 95% organic ingredients, while a “Made with Organic” label requires at least 70% compliance with using organic ingredients, and a “Natural” label simply means that no synthetic products were used.

Farmer’s Markets
The farmer’s market is one of the most direct methods for marketing directly what the single farmer produces in a very limited scale in his backyard or small farm to the local population. His resources are small; so, too, is the field he gets to work on. The product therefore, in many cases, remains an organic one. In the United States `the methodology of including organic farmers in local markets is supervised closely by local authorities.

Even as we worry about ensuring the labeling and availability of organic foods in the marketplace, we have to remember that we are currently tackling the enormous challenge of providing food for the world’s burgeoning population.

The population of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka in the 1930s was about 330 million. Now, in less than a century, the same geographical area has approximately 1.5 billion people. The same multiplier effect on population can be seen in other parts of the world as well. In order to feed the projected numbers for the next century, food scientists will have to work seriously on all aspects of food production—increasing the availability of food, labeling and availability of organic produce and meat, and the distribution of food to the world’s needy.

P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes research and program management for the Dept. of Defense. He taught physics at the University of Kerala at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly. He can be reached at