'Organic' Is a Dirty Word

5 years ago

A few months back, I was talking with Kirk about -- what else? -- organic farming. “They need a new word for it,” he said.

“A new word? What? Why?”

“'Organic’ is just...I don’t know...not good. They need a new word.”

I was incredulous. Good lord, what could possibly be wrong with organic? I can’t think of anything more harmless or healthy. But once I put my self-righteous indignation aside, I gained valuable insight.

Y’see, there aren’t many situations where having a conservative Republican beau comes in handy but this was certainly one of them. Drilling a bit deeper, I listened hard as Kirk tried to explain that the word "organic" has some serious image problems and may even be working against itself in the fight for food awareness. "Organic" was a trigger word, and a loaded one at that.

In an effort to clarify, I made him play the word association game for "organic" -- and here’s what came up in his brain:

  • Hippies
  • Crunchy
  • Birkenstocks
  • Tie-dye
  • Liberals
  • Expensive
  • Snobby

As an aspiring organic farmer, I was interested in this perception, no matter how outdated and ridiculous I thought it was. (Fer chrissakes, tie-dye???) Fact is, facts don’t matter here. All my well-positioned arguments -- “It’s a legal term! Ask the USDA!” or "It’s 2012, not 1972!” -- were useless in the face of a deeper emotional reaction to a word. And, having made my living as a wordsmith in one way or another, this is a topic I know all too well.

For nearly a decade, I was a media strategist at a global public relations firm. I repeatedly explained to my clients the serious weight of word values. This became most evident when putting together press releases, which can take weeks to create for a Fortune 500 company. “Your headline and sub-head should be a carefully selected handful of 50-pound words, not a careless string of one-pound words,” I would advise.

I was reminded of this practice years later when trying desperately to talk Colorado’s tourism board out of their beloved slogan, “Everything but the ocean!” In vain, I applied mathematical reasoning: “You’ve got only four words, and three are negative, so...”

It was a ghastly example of wasteful word spending. They ignored my advice until a Colorado state senator made the same argument and demanded they change it. (These days, it's "Come to Life." Still tame, but a vast improvement.)

Thus, I fully understand that a single word can wield tremendous power and often comes with its own baggage. In this case, I think Kirk is correct, though it pains me to agree because it’s ludicrous and I cannot believe after all this time, it comes down to semantics. Such is the real world of communication and soybeans.

And when I really thought about it, I’ve been in conversations and debates with folks who visibly bristle and react to my application of “organic” with a standard eye roll, or some sort of facial snort that says, “Oh, here we go...” And boom, the wall goes up and nobody learns anything.

Doesn’t help the cause at all, does it?

“They need a new word.” Hmmmmmm.....okay.

So, who is "they?" I wondered, and how would I gather "them" all for a rebranding brainstorm? I don’t think they’d all fit in my camper, The Mae Flower, seat of my SCRANCH empire.

No, I’d have to figure it out and apply my own mouthy skills to massage the lexicon. "Natural" was certainly out, having been diluted and prostituted by on processed food packaging. "GMO-free" is a hot potato phrase that would surely bring a murder of Monsanto lawyers down upon our hempy heads, so that wouldn’t work. "Traditional" is appropriate, but would only make sense to those of us who grew up on produce and food pre-1995, when GMOs and pesticides really took off. No, there has to be another word out there...

And then one fine day, I'm driving down a dirt road to fetch my mail (yay!), mindlessly enjoying French-language hip-hop out of Canada while admiring endless green fields, when I stumble upon this sign:

Image: Clizbiz via Flickr


Conventional? I like it.

Later, I asked Brent what the sign really meant. He sighed, heaved his big shoulders in a gesture that said, "Here we go.." and explained: “It means they don’t spray and....”


“....that they probably use non-GMO seeds. They need to put up signs like that so that the spray guys, usually their own workers, know not to spray it with RoundUp.”

In this case, the farmer is giving non-GMO soybeans a good go, though it comes with risk. The conventional soybeans don’t grow like the super steroid beans, so while the demand is there for non-GMO soybeans per bushel, the bushel count will likely be lower. (These beans are probably not grown for what is called a food grade run, Brent says, but likely to feed "organically raised" cattle.)

So, while I doubt that all the farmers, product designers, advisory boards, organizations -- both official and non -- that promote all things organic will be swapping out The Big O any time soon, it’s good to know what the official stand-in word is: conventional.

My name is Heather Clisby and I am a Conventional Farmer.


BlogHer Section Editor, LIFE & GREEN; Proprietor, ClizBiz and Second Chance Ranch


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