Organic can mean a lot of things depending where you live and the context in which the term is being used. In the sciences, the term refers to living things or material that have a carbon base. Plants, trees, people, animals, insects, and single-celled organisms are organic.
Another way of defining organic is when food or various products are labeled as such. This can get a little bit confusing because some things labeled organic are not free of pesticides, genetically modified ingredients, hormones, or the like. They may simply derive from natural ingredients that may or may not have been treated with a variety of things we wouldn’t consider as pesticide-free in food or other product sources. One shampoo company in the US raved about its organic ingredients in commercials, but the materials used simply meant “derived from living things,” rather than pesticide, hormone or genetic modification free.
Another issue that confuses people is the difference between things certified as organically grown or processed. The definitions for what constitutes organic can differ from state to state, country to country and may be different depending upon the labeling agency. In the early 2000s in the US, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed specific rules for what foods and products could be considered organically grown. There are states that may differ from these rules, and you have to check the standards of the certifying agency to be certain that a thing labeled as organic really is. Most often, state labeling within the US must meet or exceed USDA standards in order to earn the label.
Some of the basic standards of the USDA include banning use of synthetic or chemical pesticides. Organic growers can use things like other animals, bacteria or non-toxic plant compounds as natural pesticides. The term also means that food cannot be genetically modified, and animals may not receive antibiotics, though they must receive them if they are sick and can no longer be sold as organically processed. Other things prohibited include using radiation on food, chemical fertilizers or soil, and water with inorganic ingredients in it.
Another consideration is time. It often takes several years for a farmer to go from less natural to more natural means for controlling pests and caring for foods. In the interim, particularly small farmers may let people know that they have “no spray” rules and are converting their farms. If your main concern is that you don’t want foods sprayed with chemical pesticides, buying no spray foods from local farms or farmer’s markets may be a good compromise.
The definition remains elusive though, and as food crops change, some foods may never be considered organically grown. There is growing concern that genetically modified corn has contaminated all corn, and thus no corn can be truly labeled as organically grown. Use of pesticides, hormones and the like can also contaminate the water and food supplies of organically grown fruits and vegetables and food animals. It’s difficult to try to meet the standards, which may change as the years pass, unless you have cooperation from other animal growers and food growers around you.