What exactly does the word organic mean? You hear it used a lot in relation to plants, “organically-farmed” food and, in aromatherapy, essential oils, carrier oils, and hydrosols. However, organic may mean something different to what you initially thought. Marketing and legal terms are often used inconsistently with regard to the word organic, so it’s wise to do some research on whether the “organic” oil that you think you are buying is actually “organic.”
For further information, read Chapter Three, Organic vs. Non-Organic Essential Oils, of my book Authentic Aromatherapy.
In simple terms, an organic plant can be be described as a product of gardening, farming, or agriculture which has not been subjected to the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. However, in reality, the definition of “organic” is often more complex.
History of Organic Farming
Synthetic fertilizers were mass-produced during World War I (1914-1918) but their use grew greatly after World War II (1939-1944), along with the production of synthetic pesticides. The rate at which synthetic farming grew, and concern for the ecological impact of synthetic products, motivated the foundation of several groups who lobbied for a return to past farming methods. English botanist Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), American playwright Jerome Irving Rochdale (1898-1971), and British graduate Lady Eve Balfour (1899-1970) were key figures in the move to return farming to organic methods.
Organic Farming and Agriculture
Organic farming and agriculture aims to minimize environmental impact through the “natural” growth and production of plants. The use of genetically modified organisms and synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, additives, and other artificial aids is not allowed in organic farming. Organic farming and agriculture use plants that are local to a particular environment and are resistant to disease. Organic farming uses methods such as wide crop rotation, companion plants, and biological pest control in place of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Soil Quality Management in Organic Farming
Most plants need soil to grow; however, the quality of the soil determines the quality of the plants produced. Soil is made up of a mixture of organic matter such as leaves and dead plants. The chemistry of soil changes through decomposition and with the help of animals which live in the soil.
Fertile soil is the right mix of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus, in addition to other minor nutrients. Organic farming does not allow the use of synthetic fertilizers to improve the quality of the soil at the right time for plant growth. Therefore, organic farmers employ crop rotation and cover crop methods in an attempt to generate enough nitrogen in the soil, at the right time, in order for plants to grow.
Pesticides Used in Organic Farming and Gardening
Some types of pesticides are allowed in organic farming and gardening. However, chemical pesticides for organic gardening must be derived from mineral-bearing and botanical sources. Although these chemicals are toxic, they break down much faster than normal chemical pesticides. Mineral-based pesticides include the use of sulfur, bordeaux, and lime sulfur; botanical pesticides include the use of sabadilla, neem, nicotine sulfate, rotenone and pyrethrum.
Definition of Organic Plants in the United States
Organic plants are defined by the legislation of various countries; in the United States, organic plants are guaranteed by a USDA-approved independent agency. Farmers and producers have to comply with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). If you want to use the USDA certified organic label, you must meet all the conditions of the regulations. Some examples of these conditions include:
prohibited use of genetically modified organisms.
Prohibited products, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, can not be used three years prior to USDA certification and throughout the period of the organic license.
Use of methods such as crop rotation, soil building, and conservation.
Avoidance of contamination of organic products.
Organic Plants for Essential Oils, Carrier Oils, and Hydrosols
When you purchase an essential oil, hydrosol, or carrier oil that bears the label “organic,” it is usually an indicator or a “higher-quality” and more “pure” product. However, many non-organic essential oils, carrier oils, and hydrosols may just be as “pure” and of a “high-quality,” and quite often grown under similar conditions as their organic cousins – they might just not bear the organic label. To become certified as organic by the USDA requires money, paperwork, and assessment. Some small growers may not be able to meet these requirements due to a lack of resources.
In addition, organic oils cost more than oils farmed in the conventional way because of the higher costs associated with organic farming methods and the use of more traditionally labor intensive methods. However, plants farmed or grown in a garden organically use methods that have traditionally been used throughout history.
Many people prefer to buy certified-organic because of the “guarantee” offered by organic certification. They can be assured that no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were used in the production of the oil. Essential oils, carrier oils, and hydrosols – such as orange(Citrus sinensis), jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), and cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) respectively – are available as both organic and non-organic products; botanically, there is no difference between the species, the difference is in how the plant is grown and processed to produce the end product.
Colorado State University web site, Gardening and Horticulture: Some Pesticides Permitted in Organic Gardening, accessed February 29, 2016
Soil Science Education by NASA PDF, How Does Your Garden Grow?, downloaded February 29, 2016
Organic Consumers Association web site, Organics 101: A Brief Introduction to Organics, accessed February 29, 2016
Oregon State University, Master Gardener Online Short Course Series: Professional and Continuing Education, studied by author October 201 5 – February 2016
Author is a UK-certified aromatherapist with over a decade of experience and practice, published author in aromatherapy, an approved education provider for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), an aromatherapy business owner, and Chief Editor for the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal.