'Organic' Beef Scam. So read the headline. It was on the open page of a tabloid in the hands of the man seated next to me on the subway. The secondary headline continued: Health Chain Relabels Regular Meat as 'Natural.'

The word organic caught my attention because I have been thinking about it lately. Organic food market has been steadily growing since 1970s. Supermarkets these days are brimming with organic foods, giving ever more spece to organic vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy products, all so specially labeled and set apart; and they cost more. They are purportedly better for our health, but are they really? But what does 'organic' mean? The FDA raised the same question recently and is said to set some standards.

All produce at one time could only be organic and never otherwise. It is a curious phenomenon that the produce that is notmarked organic actually designate products that have been specially treated and therefore should be specially labeled in opposition to untreated products which are called organic. They should be labeled "chemically enhanced," "mildly toxic but safe," "grown tenderly on contaminated soil," or "genetically altered for bigger and better," perhaps with a tag line like "for fresher appearance," "for more lasting freshness," "for more attractive prices," or, more generally, "for your economy and convenience."

Organic has something to do with bodily organs. It has to do with living beings. Chemistry may be organic or inorganic. It was only in 1920s that the term was first applied to a fertilizer or manure being organic when it was produced from natural substances without addition of chemicals. Subsequently, soil could be described as being organic, that is to say, "composed mainly of organic material," as goes the 1928 citation in the OED; and by 1940s there was a talk of organic methods of farming or gardening, which claimed to "increase the ferility of the soil, produce much better tasting crops, reduce weeds, do away with necessity of using poisonous sprays, improve and mechanical structure of the soil," again quoting from a citation in the OED. One can therefore call food organic only when it is a product of organic farming. Meat, then, can be organic only when the animal it comes from was fed organically grown grain or grazed on organic pastures, that is to say, the grass growing on uncontaminated soil. How about the air the animal has been breathing before it took its breath away?

In Japan of my childhood, human waste was the main fertilizer in farming. Vegetables were organic, surely, but they carried tiny parasitic roundworms. Their eggs or larvae enter the body with raw vegetables and settle in the intestines and other organs, where they mature and multiply. The larvae leave the human body in the feces and go into the soil, attach themselves to the vegetables and repeat the cycle. Children were mostly their victims; they hamper proper digestion and nourishment. They are usually about 4 inches long; but they can grow to 10 inches. They are themselves carriers of pathogenic bacteria. If they inhabit the eyes, they can cause blindness. These are not happy thoughts. Roundworms are still around; but organic fertilizers today are no doubt processed to eliminate roundworm larvae. One wonders, still, which kind of lettuce is safer for human consumption, organic or non-organic.

The word organ gave rise to "organize" and "organization." The idea was that the living organism was characterized by a systematic coordination of parts which evolved a harmonious integration of parts and the whole. An organization, in other words, if properly organized, work organically. In this sense, organic is almost synonymous with architectonic.

In my profession of architectural history, the word organic immediately brings to mind Frank Lloyd Wright and his celebrated, if never clearly defined, organic architecture. The architect nevertheless picked up the two senses of the word, organic as natural and organic as organizing, and ingeniously combined them. His book, An Organic Architecture, did not get published until 1939, after the completion of the Falling Water in Pennsylvania; but he started developing the notion as early as 1908. For one, his insistence on the use of natural materials in his buildings, especially, unpainted wood, was most obviously organic, as was his idea that the house should belong to and rise from the land on which it stands, "like a tree," as he often liked to say. But, concomitantly, his reliance on architectonic geometry such that assured a harmonic integration of parts also underlay his idea of organic architecture. But, most importantly, Wright's theory of organic architecture concerned more the process of design than product it brought about. He claimed that he evolved his design, without relying on any a prioiri Form, letting the design program -- Function, that is -- generate it like the process of natural growth.

It requires no more than a moment of reflection to make us realize that the organic method of design describes any design process. In fact, it describes every human effort that leads to a successful fruition. We start with a task on hand, examine it, nurture and shape it, and eventually come up with the final work. Organic, so it turns out, is a rather vague word when applied to architecture. But by 1939 Wright was a national celebrity and was able to give the expression, organic architecture, that special aura of American romanticism: cloeness to the land, celebration of the natural, warmth and comfort as of the burning fire in the hearth, and the rejection of the artifice associated with European rationalism. Since then, I contend, organic was no longer a neutral term; it became a term with a special glow, replete with a promise of health and happiness.

I have no objection to organic produce. I would be happier, however, if chemically enhanced products were sold as discount items and carried a FDA's warning of risk, like the cigarettes.

How organic, by the way, is organic milk? I wonder. And, are cubic eggs sold in Japan organic?


T. Kaori Kitao, 09.22.03


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