Are “Sustainable” and “Organic” Synonymous?

I was recently at a meeting where the terms “sustainable” and “organic” were used interchangeably.  I found this interesting.  Are they really synonymous?  First we should define these terms.  According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, sustainable means:

1. capable of being sustained
2 a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged 
b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods

As for organic, we need to target the definition to deal with food only (as there are other definitions not pertinent to our discussion here):

1. Of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides

So, could an organic food system be sustainable?  Yes.  Could it not be sustainable?  Yes.  Organic food systems are oriented toward non-depletion of resources and keeping the environment healthy.  However, poor management could diminish resources.  But, those are not the only resources in play.  There is economic sustainability as well.  If an Organic farm is not profitable then it is not sustainable.

Can a non-organic food system be sustainable?  Yes.  Could it not be sustainable?  Again, yes.  Conventional farming systems can also use methods that conserve resources.  Thus using the terms “sustainable” and “organic” interchangeably is technically incorrect.

This is not a debate on whether or not organic is better than conventional.  My thought today was to take a look at these two terms and make a distinction between them.  Any type of farming system can be sustainable or unsustainable.

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3 responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Garden Maiden and commented:
    Great post. One might attempt to grow something organically, but it might not be sustainable for where they live or the inputs used (fertilizer, pest treatment, water quantity) might not be sustainable. Would it be sustainable to grow a high-water-requiring crop such as watermelon organically in the desert? Probably not. Organic or non-organic, probably not sustainable. Would it be sustainable to organically grow giant pumpkins using organic fertilizers that are shipped in from across the U.S. or another country? No, of course not. If you can grow organically using local resources (seed, fertilizer, pest control, hardscape materials (fence, wire, blocks, irrigation supplies), re-purposing used materials, minimizing your footprint on the land, recycling, using water wisely, reducing erosion, reducing water, fertilizer, pesticide runoff, etc and giving back to the soil and nature, then you are attempting to be more sustainable and you can do it organically. If your harvest is sold locally rather than trucked six hours a way for resale, that is more sustainable. If you grow organically and your produce is shipped from Mississippi to Minnesota, not very sustainable . Of course if you use electric cars to ship your product that is more sustainable than fossil fuels. Make sense?

    • Yes, makes perfect sense. My point is that just because a crop is being grown organically doesn’t make it sustainable — and you pointed out several examples of why that could be the case. Thanks!

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