Wednesday, July 04, 2012

'Organic' is a Dirty Word

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 is 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 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:


As an aspiring organic farmer, I was interested in this perception, no matter how outdated and ridiculous I thought it was. 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 and 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 in 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!” 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.

Truth is, 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.”

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 on my own and just use my own mouthy skills to massage the lexicon. 

‘Natural’ was certainly out, having been diluted and prostituted by the likes of Kraft, General Mills and Proctor & Gamble 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 that 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...

So, there I am, driving down a dirt road to fetch my mail (yay!) and enjoying French-language hip-hop out of Canada while admiring endless green fields, when I stumble upon this sign:

Conventional? I like it.

Later, I ask 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 (not likely for food, Brent says, but to feed ‘organically raised’ cattle) per bushel, the bushel count would likely be lower.

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.


Anonymous said...

Good topic! I would like to suggest " Heritage" food or "Heritage" Farming. Also,Soy beans are an estrogenic food( that is why all the men are losing their hard ons) so no one should grow that much of it.


Anonymous said...

Oh but I do like Conentional. Forgot to write that.

quirkychick said...

Hmmmmm. Here in the land of LA where organic is "good" conventional is a label on food that is grown "conventionally" - e.g.with pesticides and gmo seed on corporate farms.

It is the opposite of organic.

I guess it comes down to your target market and in those Republican states that bristle at the word organic may I suggest you use the following phrase "Pure Grown Miracle" and then maybe add on some bible verse.

In my experience, food grown with love and care and no pesticides or genetic modification is just exactly that.

Cannot wait to see more pictures of your pure grown miracle plants!!

Heather Clisby said...

McSchmoinkles: I like the 'heritage' idea. Hard to argue with the imagery there. And yes, I've heard about the soy-estrogen problem. Check how many foods contain soy lecithin.

Q-Chick: Love the 'Miracle' idea! I want to climb up on the food bin today for some plot photos but that metal is HOT! Also, my leg is wounded so it may have to wait until the weekend.

Anonymous said...

I love being right! Kirk

Mullet Over said...

I think they use conventional here in Denver to describe the pesticide and GMO products, then Organic for the ones that arent. I like Heritage. Its goes along with the resurgence of Victory Gardens. I am currently canning apricots from the tree in my front yard! I feel pretty unconventional actually, which is a pity. Used to be standard, normal, everyday stuff......So, you are getting pretty loud up there in soybean land. Did any large chemical making companies send their PI's to the MaeFlower yet? xoxo Camille

Heather Clisby said...

Yes, I'm glad I'm investigating this topic because different words mean different things, depending on the region. Heck, at this point, I'd settle for an Old School branding.

Not loud enough! I don't think anyone has taken notice of me up here. After all, I'm just here to learn, and that is certainly happening, every single filthy dirty day.

Can't wait to taste some of your apricots in August!

Heidi's heart said...

This reminds me of when I worked with practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who spoke about doctors as practicing conventional medicine. Just the opposite of what you're saying about the use of the word "conventional" in farming. In farming the word means the old ways, whereas in medicine it means the standard way of doing things, which is the conventional way. Very confusing.

Heidi's heart said...

This reminds me of when I worked with practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who spoke about doctors as practicing conventional medicine. Just the opposite of what you're saying about the use of the word "conventional" in farming. In farming the word means the old ways, whereas in medicine it means the standard way of doing things, which is the conventional way. Very confusing.

Rachel said...

In the central valley of CA (where a huge percentage of the nation's crops are grown), "conventional" means the opposite of organic. For example, at our Whole Foods market, they use tags marked "Organic" or "Conventional" to distinguish how they were grown.

"Heritage" sounds better, although I'm seeing it used quite a bit lately and it's certainly not immune to the eye-rolling treatment.

Heather Clisby said...

Yes, since I wrote this post, I've learned that the word also applies to industrial farming, the opposite of organic.

Now I'm curious why the sign is even up in my area, which is ALL industrial farms? Why even bother? I will dig into this.