chemical farming

Why chemical farming should be called “non-organic” instead of “inorganic”

by Roberto Verzola

In farming, the use of agrochemicals which are harmful to human health, soil life, and the environment is often carelessly called inorganic farming.

Inorganic farming is a confusing term that the agrochemical industry uses to obfuscate issues against chemical farming. The more accurate term to describe chemical farming is non-organic farming.

In chemistry, organic simply means “contains carbon”. The study of chemistry is generally divided into two fields: organic chemistry, which studies substances that contain carbon, and inorganic chemistry, which studies substances that do not contain carbon.

The agrochemical industry clings to this distinction between organic and inorganic chemistry. Thus, they can say with a straight face that their agrochemicals, regardless of toxicity, are also “organic” as long as these contain carbon, and concede the term “inorganic” only to those agrochemicals without carbon.

The term “organic” in farming has a very different meaning from “organic” in chemistry. As defined by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), it is:

“a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects.”

As the generally-accepted definition of organic farming in most parts of the world, this IFOAM definition is backed up by a long list of specific methods and practices which organic farmers and producers must observe, and which are subject to third-party inspection to ensure the quality of organic products.

Thus, when organic farming advocates debate with the agrochemical industry and their representatives in the academe and the government about “organic”, they are talking of completely different concepts, and it is easy for the media and the public to get confused.

The simplest way to clarify the real issue is to use two different terms when describing the opposite of organic. In chemistry, the opposite term is inorganic, for compounds that do not contain carbon. In farming, the opposite term is non-organic, for production systems that do not sustain the health of soils, ecosystems and people and are instead harmful to them.

It is to the interest of the agrochemical industry to confuse the issue and prevent the spread of organic farming. Thus, its representatives in the academe and the government can be expected to keep using the term inorganic only for chemical compounds that do not contain carbon, and to describe their carbon-containing agrochemicals as “organic”, which may be true in the chemistry sense but is completely untrue in the farming sense.

So the next time you encounter agrochemical defenders in a debate, make sure you use the term “non-organic” to describe chemical-based farming systems, and to leave the term “inorganic” for chemistry and the agrochemical industry. (March 26, 2011)

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Chemical farming: inorganic or non-organic?” is republished from Ecology, Technology, and Social Change: Notes on Green Theory and practice.”