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Looking into my dictionary, one meaning of the word organic is:

occurring or developing gradually and naturally, without being forced or contrived

And you see this word being used like Organic Google Search or Organic Food or things like that.

My question is, can't we just use natural instead of organic, as in natural Google search or natural food? What makes organic different from natural?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

OK, this will be a three-part answer.

  1. The meaning of organic has evolved over time, from the generic definition you mention (“growing or grown at its natural pace”) into a specific food-related meaning:

    “produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

  2. Natural (in your context) means “that occurs in nature”, or “obtained from a natural source”. Its antonym is synthetic (and not chemical, as you hear so often these days). If you buy vanilla flavouring, it can be natural (a vanilla extract) or synthetic (a preparation containing the molecule vanillin, but which was synthesized by man).

    Note that any vegetable, by this definition, is natural because it grows in the soil, not in a test tube. Even if you add a lot of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, it's still a natural tomato!

  3. On top of that, the meaning of “natural” and “organic” are regulated in a lot of countries (the FDA does that in the United States). You can find many links around highlighting the huge difference: a product labeled “natural” can be grown with a lot of synthetic chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, vitamins, etc.), while the requirements for “organic” are much more restricting.


Please: everytime you use “chemical” as antonym to natural, I die a little. Strychnine is natural, so are curare and hemlock, yet they’re all deadly.

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An answer without peer! –  Jimi Oke Sep 13 '11 at 4:04

This is kind of two questions in one.

1) What is the difference between natural and organic?

Natural: Existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
Organic: Of, relating to, or derived from living matter: "organic soils".

From these, we can see they are quite different. A hurricane, for example, is natural as it is not caused by man. The same is true of rocks, suns, and the molten core of the earth. None of these things are organic as they are not living matter, made from a carbon base.

Can something be organic, but not natural? Sure. Imagine a cloned sheep—this is organic, but not natural. Or at least, one could argue that.

And the second question...

2) Why organic food and not natural food?

You are absolutely right that the phrase natural food would work pretty well for what we call organic foods today. That is, they are natural because they are not exposed to non-natural/artificial/synthetic chemicals. Organic doesn't fit very well because vegetables are organic whether or not they have pesticides applied to them.

As for the etymology of the term, the Organic Food Blog proposes:

"Where did we get the term “organic” food? Apparently in the early 20th century Walter James the 4th Baron Northbourne wrote a book called Look to the Land and coined the term organic farming as a holistic, ecologically based approach to farming in contrast to what he called chemical farming. Walter was a multi talented man being an agriculturalist, author and ever competed in the 1920 Summer Olympics where he won the silver medal."

In my view, this is a classic case of a phrase just being made up, even if it doesn't make sense, to avoid confusion with casual speech. That is to say, one might casually mention natural food, but organic is a rare enough word that it is unlikely that one would ever say organic food unless they were specifically referring to the phrase. Often, new phrases are introduced just so they don't sound like pre-existing phrases, if that makes any sense. I also have little doubt that some marketing effort went into determining that this was a favorable phrase.

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Unless you are a chemist - in which case 'organic' means it has covalent carbon bonds.
So all plastics are organic molecules to a chemist.

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Actually Organic has been bastardized. It has become cool or liberally correct to use the word.

Organic means carbon based.

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The OED’s first use of organic in the sense of something related to the chemistry of the hydrocarbons and their derivatives is 1827 by Faraday. The word itself first appeared more than three centuries prior to that, where it had senses related to organs and organizations of various and diverse sorts. Its first use in the sense that it was natural in preparation without the addition of further inorganic chemicals or minerals occurred in 1869, only 42 years after Faraday’s use and some 144 years ago. The gardening sense dates from 1942 by Rodale, still long ago. There’s no “bastardization”. –  tchrist Dec 8 '13 at 1:10
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"It has become cool or liberally correct to use the word." Actually cool has been bastardized. Cool means having low temperature. –  Rahul Narain Dec 8 '13 at 1:27

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