What does "Organic" Actually Mean?

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 2, 2007, page 33)

Two different definitions

Consumers of organic products may not be aware that the term "organic" has two seemingly opposite meanings. First, it is defined as "produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. (organic crop; organic farming)."Footnote 1

This raises a question about which fertilizers and pesticides can be used. The second definition is in the field of chemistry, "(Of a compound, etc.) containing carbon (opp. inorganic)."Footnote 2 Some dangerous pesticides are petroleum- and thus carbon-based. Scientists say that even natural pesticides are toxic in certain concentrations.

In the 1990s, various governments saw fit to define "organic" as applied to agriculture. Some of the definitions ascribed to the adjective are "a. Of, marked by, or involving the use of fertilizers or pesticides that are strictly of animal or vegetable origin: organic vegetables, an organic farm. b. Raised or conducted without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals: organic chicken, organic cattle farming. c. Serving organic food: an organic restaurant. d. Simple, healthful and close to nature: an organic lifestyle."Footnote 3

Increasingly, "organic" is used to mean not containing genetically engineered organisms. Given the various interpretations of what "organic" means, it is important to test and certify organic foods (aliments biologiques in French according to TERMIUM®). A "certified organic" label is usually the only way for consumers to know that a food is organic.

The Conseil des appellations agroalimentaires du Québec (CAAQ) is the organization that monitors the use of the term "organic" in labelling for the ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation. At the time of writing, there is no single easily identifiable provincial logo to indicate the testing and certification of organic foods in Quebec. In fact, six different logos are used by the CAAQ’s six certification organizations. In addition, products that are not clearly labelled are showing up on grocery store shelves. The wording found on labelling includes "biological, organic(s), ecological, biodynamic, eco and bio."Footnote 4 The Quebec consumer is advised to find the name of the certifying body on the product’s label and verify that the certifying body mentioned has been approved by the CAAQ.Footnote 5 Of course, the other provinces have their own certification systems and labelling regulations.

Bilingual logo

In December 2006, the Government of Canada announced the final publication of the Organic Products Regulations to protect the public against false claims and govern the use of a new Canada organic logo. The logo, to be phased in over the next two years, will be permitted for use only on foods that meet the revised Canadian standard for organic production and that contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Following the phase-in period, certification will be mandatory for interprovincial and international trade. So, if you see the "biologique Canada organic" bilingual logo on a product at your grocery store, you can be sure that it is actually organic (see the first meaning of the word above).Footnote 6

bilingual logo - biologique Canada organic



Copyright notice for Favourite Articles

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool created and made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

Search by related themes

Want to learn more about a theme discussed on this page? Click on a link below to see all the pages on the Language Portal of Canada that relate to the theme you selected. The search results will be displayed in Language Navigator.