Don’t Be afraid of The O Word!

by guest blogger Maya Rodale, writer of historical tales of true love and adventure.

There is a café near my apartment that positions itself as ecofriendly and sustainable. The counter and tables are from reclaimed wood. Everything is compostable. And then one day, I asked if the milk was organic. “Well, it’s local and, like, hormone free,” the barista replied, scanning the label. I did some research: The brand claims to free of pesticides, insecticides, and growth hormones, but there is no mention of The O Word: organic.

I’ve had a similar experience at my local “sustainable” burger joint, and at a few other eating establishments. I’ve noticed a trend to use the terms “local” and “sustainable” or “natural” instead of using the big O.

Perhaps it’s because ORGANIC means something in a way that terms like “ecologically sustainable” and “local” do not. Organic is defined by law, and the standards are upheld by independent certifying agencies. Local, on the other hand, means 30 miles away to one person, 300 miles to another. Same with sustainable. Same with “farm fresh” and “from the farmer’s market.”

Because organic has definite meaning, people can use the word in the wrong way. By contrast, with a vaguely defined word, there’s less risk of making a mistake and feeling dumb. We all like to avoid that feeling—it’s totally natural (another one of those vague words!).

I feel bad when I ask cashiers whether something is organic and they mumble a vague answer, obviously not sure of themselves. I don’t want to make them feel stupid, but I also want to know exactly what I’m putting in my body.

For establishments, using the term organic without the paperwork to back it up can mean trouble. So instead, they say it’s natural or sustainable. To me, that’s taking the easy way out.

So let’s not be afraid to use The O Word!

ASK if something actually is organic if it seems labeled with a greenwashing term. You might find that the place is just awaiting the paperwork, or maybe they are organic in practice, but can’t afford the certification. Or they may ask you a few questions about what organic means. Bottom line: Everybody learns.

KNOW what organic means:

“Broadly defined, organic is a method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products, and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. The United States Department of Agriculture has strict regulations farmers must follow to be certified organic and to carry the USDA Organic logo. __Here’s what certified organic is not: chemical fertilizers and pesticides, GMO seeds, biosolids (sewer sludge), or irradiated food. Certified-organic meat, eggs, and dairy are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. They are produced in environments where animals are fed 100 percent organic feeds and have access to outdoors and pasture.”
from the Rodale Institute

USE The O Word if something is organic. Don’t be shy! The more we use the word, the less weird it becomes.

At the end of the day, I’m thrilled that all these restaurants and cafés with “greener” ingredients are popping up and thriving, and that we’re even talking about better farming, no matter the terms. Having fewer chemicals in the environment is the most important thing, no matter what you call it. But let’s rally around The O Word because it does mean something that we can all get behind.


Maya Rodale is the author of numerous historical romance novels. She lives in New York City with a rogue of her own and their dog, Penelope. Find her on FacebookTwitter, or at Her most recent book is Dangerous Books for Girls.


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6 Responses to Don’t Be afraid of The O Word!

  1. Paula January 13, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    I’m all for using the O word and buying O items as long as it is not industrial O produced to the letter and not the spirit of the definition. For this reason, I sometimes buy local instead of O, especially if I am familiar with the grower or producer.

    Here in Germany, we have Bio certification instead of Organic, but a similar situation has developed in that large overseas companies market produce that is certified Bio, but I’m not convinced that regulation and control are thorough enough to ensure compliance with all of the rules.

    So I’m glad you advocate talking with your grocer, cafe owner, and other providers. It’s the only way to inform ourselves and others.

  2. MrsB January 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    The next time you are in Bethlehem, PA, check out Horns on 4th St. Definitely a departure from what you might be used to, but well worth the visit. They really make the “green,” local, sustainable, and organic effort in unsuspecting ambience. Great food, and an eclectic feel. I thought of your family and their mission on a recent trip there!

  3. Maya January 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    MrsB, I LOVE Horns! It’s a great place!

  4. Cathy January 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Another trend I have been seeing – and find disturbing – is products changing from “organic” to “made with organic ingredients” to “natural”. Over time, I have seen a disturbing number of the “certified organic” products I used to purchase downgraded to “made with organic ingredients” or “natural”. I am disturbed by the fact that companies are developing a faithful following of customers, only to swap out the product for something of lesser quality. How many people continue to purchase the product before they notice the change and/or are not fully aware of the meaning of the change, and therefore continue to believe it is essentially the same?…

  5. Donnie Jackson January 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’
    We will label our homegrown food as no chemicals, only compost and free range/pastured meat/eggs. It costs so much to get certified and then the government wants to inspect you and make you get ‘re-certified’ every ‘x’ number of years. We eat the food we grow and we want our friends to eat the same food. As much as possible, local is best. I will get off my soapbox now.

  6. google March 18, 2013 at 12:58 am #

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