Before the 18th century, scientists and non-scientists alike assumed that the material substance of living organisms was fundamentally different from that of non-living things -- organisms and their products were considered organic by definition, while non-living things were mineral or inorganic. 

With the invention of chemistry in the late 18th century, scientists uncovered the incoherence of the traditional distinction: all material substances are constructed from the same set of chemical elements.  Today we understand that the special properties of living organic matter emerge from the interactions of a large variety of large molecules built mostly with atoms of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.

Chemists now use the word organic to describe all complex, carbon-based molecules—whether or not they are actually products of an organism or products of laboratory synthesis.  But many educated people in Western countries think that only some crops and cows are organic, while all others are not.  How can one simple word -- organic -- have such different meanings?

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, increased scientific understanding, technological innovations, and social mobility changed the face of American agriculture. Large-scale farming became more industrialized and more efficient. In 1800, farmers made up 90% of the American labor force; by 1900, their proportion had decreased to 38%, and in 1990, it was only 2.6%.  However, not everyone was happy with these societal changes, and there were calls in the United States and Europe for a return to the preindustrial farming methods of earlier times.

This movement first acquired the moniker organic in 1942, when J. I. Rodale began publication in America of Organic Farming&Gardening, a magazine still in circulation today.

According to Rodale and his acolytes, products created by—and processes carried out by—living things are fundamentally different from lab-based processes and lab-created products. The resurrection of this prescientific, vitalistic notion of organic essentialism did not make sense to scientists who understood that every biological process is fundamentally a chemical process. In fact, all food, by definition, is composed of organic chemicals.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) refused to recognize organic food as distinguishable in any way from nonorganic food.

The “organic food” movement was not taken seriously by U.S. government agencies until 1990, when lobbyists convinced Congress to mandate the establishment of a certification process for organic foods.  Twelve years later, organic farmers finally obtained rules they wanted to prevent impostors from siphoning off market share.  But as the USDA emphasizes, the "basis of these standards is on process, not product." 

In other words, organic food is defined not by any material substance in the food itself, but instead by the "holistic" methods used on organic farms. Furthermore, the physical attributes of the product and any effects it might have on environment or health are explicitly excluded from U.S., European, and international definitions.

The implicit, unproven assumption is that organic agriculture is -- by its very nature -- better for the environment than so-called conventional farming. The European Commission states as a matter of fact that "organic farmers use a range of techniques that help sustain ecosystems and reduce pollution." Yet, according to self-imposed organic rules, genetic modification in the laboratory is strictly forbidden, even if its purpose is to reduce an animal's negative impact on the environment. (Canadian scientists have already engineered pigs to secrete an enzyme in their saliva that reduces the polluting phosphorous content of their manure by up to 75%.)  On the other hand, spontaneous mutations caused by deep-space cosmic rays are always deemed acceptable -- without any testing -- since they occur "naturally."

In reality, laboratory scientists can make subtle and precise changes to an organism's DNA sequence, while high-energy cosmic rays can break chromosomes into pieces that reattach randomly and sometimes create genes that didn't previously exist.

Even more than a concern for the environment, organic producers and consumers are driven by faith in the presumed health benefits of their holistically produced food.  In The Future of Food, Canadian farmer Marc Loiselle explains, “the underpinning of my conversion to organic food is not so much the economic point, it’s the health point, to protect my health, to protect my family’s health and my neighbors’.”  

Irrespective of whether they buy into the health rhetoric or not, western consumers have been led to believe that organic farmers are never allowed to use toxic chemical pesticides.  In fact, this carefully cultivated beliefs is simply false.  Pyrethrin (with the formula C21H28O3) is one of several common toxic chemicals sprayed onto fruit trees by organic farmers (even on the day of harvesting); another allowed chemical is rotenone (C23H22O6), a potent neurotoxin, long used to kill fish, and recently linked to Parkinson's disease {Betarbet, 2000 #1258}.  

How can organic farmers justify the use of these chemical pesticides? The answer comes from the delusion that substances produced by living organisms are not really chemicals. Since pyrethrin is extracted from chrysanthemums and rotenone comes from a native Indian vine, they are deemed organic instead. 

However, the most potent toxins known to humankind, including ricin and strychnine, are all natural and organic. In fact, all currently used pesticides -- both natural and synthetic -- dissipate quickly and pose a miniscule risk to consumers. As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences explains,
while pesticides may be found in many products, the levels at which they are present fall far below the levels known to not cause any health effects. The fact that they are found at all is only due to the significant advances in analytical chemistry. The tests are now so sensitive that the detection level that can be easily reached is equivalent to detecting one teaspoon of salt in one million gallons of water. Levels even lower than that can sometimes be detected.

Nevertheless, faith in nature’s beneficence can still be fatal to some children. About 5% express severe allergic reactions to certain types of natural food, and every year, unintentional ingestion causes hundreds of thousands of cases of anaphylactic shock with hundreds of deaths. The triggering agents are actually a tiny number of well-defined proteins in certain foods—including peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts, eggs, milk, and shellfish— that are resistant to digestive fluids. These specific proteins linger in the intestines long enough to provoke an allergic immune response in susceptible people.

No society has been willing to ban the use of any allergenic ingredients in processed foods, even though this approach could save lives and reduce much human suffering. GM technology could offer a more palatable alternative: the use of targeted RNA silencing technologies to turn off plant allergen genes.

With this approach, scientists have already created low allergenicity soy, and promising results have been reported for both peanuts and shrimp.

Some day perhaps, conventional soy and peanut farmers will all switch production to low-allergenicity GM crop varieties. If that day arrives, organic food produced with GM-free organic soy or peanuts will be certifiably more dangerous to human health than comparable non-organic products. Unfortunately, conventional farmers have no incentive to plant reduced-allergy seeds when sales of their current crops are unrestricted, especially when the public has been led to believe that all genetic modifications create health risks.

In the current social and economic climate, much of the critical research required to turn promising results into viable products is simply not pursued. As a result, anti-GM, organic food advocates may be indirectly responsible for avoidable deaths of future children.