Organic – What is it? What Can it be?

In my first article on the subject I drew attention to the pioneers of the Organic movement and their objective of sustainability. Manure, soil and farming seem far away, remote to the urban consumer. These subjects are managed on their behalf by an army of bureaucrats that protects the all important consumer from the unhealthy, dirty and unclean practices that provide the means of life and human existence. The consumer’s valuable life is safeguarded at all levels and in a wealthy society divorces him or her from raw nature that is unpredictable and insecure. Celebrity antics or the latest fashion have become more important than crop reports or the harvest. Farming news is little relevant to a society besotted with celebrity, sport, money and consumption.

This may seem a harsh judgment but it is only when nature bites back do we acknowledge its existence outside of the television screen that seemingly ‘educates’ us about far off wonders such as the mating habits of grasshoppers or the loss of the white tiger.

Organic status as we have begun to see means more than the latest fad on the cosmetic counter. I wrote about Soil, Humus and Health and the connection between all three. Let us now move forward and discover what the first two mean.

Soil is fundamentally ground up rock with different particle sizes. Large particles are seen as sand or even gravel. Small fine particles provide us with the clays. Colour comes from mineral content such as red from iron or green from copper. Soil is the wealth of minerals. However mineral soil alone does little for us. We are, as mammals, a product of green vegetation consumption. Even if we eat meat we are just consuming a herbivore that has built itself from vegetation.

What then is vegetation? We could describe it as congealed light. What came first the seed or the plant? Plants come in sizes from the smallest bacterium to the giant Redwoods. Essentially a leaf is a sunshine or light converter. The plant creates itself from light converting energy into sugars and starches that give form and structure. With a structure the plant can breathe and take in the gas carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. With all this nonsense about Carbon emissions, the solution of carbon sinks i.e. green vegetation, is hardly mentioned. Yet the geological period known as the ‘carboniferous’ was a period of vegetation gone mad, it is what produced our gas, coal and oil deposits by carbon absorption and conversion.

That pervasive and mysterious structure water plays a part in the process of light conversion enabling complex chemical processes to occur especially the production of weak acids. Not only does a plant grow toward light but also downward into the rock particles, the soil. The roots give out acids which dissolve the minerals present. Trace elements now in solution are taken up by the plant. These elements include iron, cobalt, magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, manganese and boron.  The mineralised plant now makes for human and animal uptake as the minerals are now changed to a biologically available format. The uptake depends upon the nature of the soil and the type of plant. Some plants surface root others are deep rooted. Each seeks out its pre determined required nutrient. Farming is a complex subject learned by our ancestors through millennia of observation experience and breeding.

There is a natural cycle of life and death, renewal and regeneration. Wild nature is ever changing slowly but surely. Landscape changes not only by human intervention but by natural selection and environmental sequence.

Nature builds up and tears down. Plants grow toward light but are taken back to the soil. When a plant dies other organisms start to change it into the organic matter we call humus. Humus is a gel like structure that provides a nutrient source for the plant; it literally makes sterile rock particles fertile. Manure when applied to the soil is converted to humus, manure does nothing except open soil structure but when converted to humus it provides fertility, especially the major elements needed for plant growth Nitrogen,  Phosphate and Potash. Playing a role in this function are fungi, yeasts, moulds decaying matter and sugars which can ferment – this is biotechnology the natural way.

Gardeners would recognise this decay process as composting. The most important breakdown activity in this process comes from the micro organisms we call bacteria and which we often label germs. Bacteria are the foundation of the life renewing cycle.  Bacteria themselves are dependent upon the plant and often live in a symbiotic relationship with certain species. Bacteria need a moist environment to survive and to reproduce in this slightly acidic, sugary substrate we call humus or soil. 

Organic growing then becomes a matter of feeding the soil, essentially the micro organisms.

Into this cycle we should also add worms. There are earth worms that drag soil litter from the surface deep into the soil and at the same time opening and aerating the soil. There are more surface living species, litter worms that rapidly convert debris and litter into humus. The excreta from worms are pure humus in which the microorganisms can finish their work. This rich material feeds the plants upon which we live.

An organically grown plant is therefore rich in vital health giving nutrients. The plant has had to survive as it would in the wild seeking its food and by a variety of techniques. In the process it will form secondary metabolites (meaning chemicals that have no defined function for growth such as essential oils) and establish  companion or symbiotic relationships with other species.

Many of these secondary features are what we call taste, zest, spice and nuances that we can detect as pleasure or delicious or bitter and so on. Although ‘taste’ is subjective and personal, many feel that organically grown material has something indefinably special. Of course orthodox science sometimes reacts to this ‘feeling’ considering feeling untrustworthy compared to instrumentation. However our senses are our interface with the world, our personal instrumentation ,which is more than sensitive enough to make evaluations on taste and odour. We should have more confidence in ourselves!

This is a far cry from what we may call high input farming reliant upon artificial fertilizer. Let’s recap for a moment and look at the context of this article. We are aiming at the reality of Skin care and Toiletry products making claims to be better for us than those from artificial materials. It is easy to see the connection between Organic growing and Food production but not so easy to extend the benefits to exterior applications.

Before considering the value or lack of value in orthodox farming let us divert to examine another reason why we might buy Organic materials. This has nothing to do with activity or intrinsic value but all to do with biodiversity.

Nature changes all the time with or without us. It is quite absurd to talk of climate change being manageable by emission reductions. The motor car or aeroplane is targeted rather than Soya bean production with consequent deforestation. It quite arrogant from data we input to computers to believe the models we produce showing we alone are responsible for major changes.

Our geological record clearly shows huge changes in climate, weather and land masses over millennia. Likewise history tells of huge changes in agriculture and the possibilities of what could be or was grown in certain regions according to global climate changes i.e. the changes in vineyard plantation throughout the centuries. Nature is not stable and is ever changing. Organic farming by crop rotation acknowledges change. Orthodox farming rather allows for chemical replenishment of absorbed nutrients and mechanical intervention.

Wild life is part of this scenario. Wild life exists by bio diversity and the availability of food whether as insect or large predator. Something always eats something else or feeds on sugar nectar.  The countryside around us is our heritage our place on earth. We are made from it. Organic farming favours wild life providing a diversity of food and habitat. Monoculture and high input farming does not provide this encouragement to our wild, natural fellow earth inhabitants whether animal or even vegetable. This is reason enough to consider Organic Cosmetics, Materials and Toiletries.

The argument put forward by orthodox farming for its very existence is that we need high yield to feed the world. This is a polite way of disguising our population growth as one of the major causes of many of the earth’s problems. This is considered a taboo subject when discussing the poverty of Bangladesh, Africa or even South America as it bumps into religious belief. Yield with poor nutritional value is of little good for health. It leads to subtle forms of malnutrition which are evident in the West as obesity and organic dysfunctions.

It is said that organic production cannot feed the world but in many ways it already does. To gainsay this is a political position exemplified by producers in the North American prairies who rely on food aid to offset the cereal surpluses. No famine equals no sale of surplus.  Organic production in small scale farms can demonstrably, given the right price go beyond subsistence farming. Much of the Wests Organic food is now coming from third world countries who’s ability to supply shows their latent ability to support their own agriculture.

Bureaucracy interferes at many levels the worst example being the European Union. This proto Socialist group has tried to mass market, through so called harmonisation programmes, a limited number of food varieties and seeds. Many local and national varieties of fruit and vegetables have been under attack in favour of modern hybrid varieties often patented and unique to specific selling companies. The highly valued Polish potato is doomed. With it goes taste. English peas have gone the same way and even in France the perpetrator of so much law old varieties are outlawed.

Older varieties allowed for diversity, EU agriculture does not. Taste equals nutrition and many new varieties have been grown or modified to meet only the visual needs from supermarkets. I can think of super sized tasteless strawberries or king sized red tomatoes ripened on the vine but tasteless from the fridge. Seed variety is important for organic growing. Growing a poor, bred for mass variety, or bred to live on artificial nitrogen and grown in a manner so dense with its neighbour that a plant needs herbicide support due to the density providing a microclimate conducive to disease, will not magically transform itself by being grown in a compost rich soil. Such mass bred varieties are just poor in taste.

Hence when buying Organic produce, from lettuce to herbs, such considerations should be made. Of course there is no or little difference in taste if the variety has been bred to be tasteless in the first place and if bred for colour and size dependent on high input Nitrogen fertilizer then Organic production of that specific cultivar or variety would be poor.  Look in any supermarket and you will see this ‘con’ all the time. High price for poor organic quality!

So what about Cosmetics? A lot of claims are made for the action of herbs and teas when applied to skin. Above I made a case for environmental reasons to buy organic but what about activity on the skin? Does Organic make any difference in skin care?

The basis of all cosmetics are water and oil and some materials that can join the two to make emulsions.  To a base is added an active which by definition is a group of chemicals extracted in a solvent from the plant material.

Just as with food then, the value of the plant material in the composition of its chemicals becomes important for the activity of the plant. Also important is the form in which these chemical actives are available. As with food sometimes one item locks up another making it biologically unavailable.  We now enter the realm of Cosmetic science.

I and a few friends in the UK and France started the Company Fragrant Earth as a specialist organisation. This was some 25 years ago. The Company was designed to make available essential oils, aromatic materials and vegetable oils derived in old fashioned ways mostly from sustainable managed wild harvests and organically grown resources. We soon learned that modern distillation methods made for better oils and that old did not equal better. We encouraged a wide variety of small growers to supply us and the Company became unique and renowned for its fragrance values. It always had and still does a reputation for vibrant, alive oils full of aroma far more so than the cheaper brands and certainly than the chemical soups often sold as essential oils.

For me this was living proof of aromatic value, where people demonstrated with their pockets and credit cards that they recognised something more than chemistry, a something extra that nature was giving. After all when buying an essential oil what are people buying – an aroma. So vigour of aroma is crucial.

Physiology tells us that most taste is actually retro smelling. Taste is bitter to sweet all other ‘tastes’ are smells.  With this in mind we can see from all the forgoing that if this holds true for essential oils it holds true for other plant substances. There is a case then for purchasing wild (by definition truly organic) or organically cultivated materials especially aromatics. This is a glib statement but one that can be tested by odour evaluation provided that all the parameters are known from variety to soil and distillation to drying method.

At the moment of our entry into the market Anita Roddick had already started the Body Shop and was making the point that soft detergents from coconut and palm oil was a reasonable way to bring natural toiletries to the masses. The Body Shop under the direction of Anita Roddick’s enthusiasm and Mark Constantine’s herbal knowledge brought to the High Street a real interest in Natural Body and Toiletry ranges. The store was tied to a variety of evangelical issues such as animal testing and third world economics. 

The first major brand that really emphasised Organic principles and differences was Origins which I started with Tessa Harris of Natural Assets. Whilst we safeguarded our material line of supply we used a local manufacturer in the UK under Jim Bullen and a small French manufacturer called Alban Muller to produce a range of goods which was even different enough to attract the attention of Estee Lauder. Origins is of course now an Estee Lauder brand.   I then moved on to create Elemis along Organic lines with the help of the famous hairdressing family Steiner but it was too early for the market to appreciate the difference. Still a successful brand in the natural genre Elemis goes from strength to strength and I still consult to them. Undoubtedly the Body Shop, Fragrant Earth, Origins and Elemis have been key brands in the world market for Natural Cosmetics.

Now when we have reached a point where Organics in finished cosmetic and toiletry products becomes a reason for purchase we have to begin to decide important questions. Is it our objective to simply use organic plant material as our raw materials or do we try to adjudicate as to what solvent is good or bad or which emulsifier is better than another. If we choose the latter route then we have moved a long way from the original idea of farming for the benefit of Soil, Humus and health. We are setting ourselves up as Judge and Jury as to what is good and bad chemistry. Making good Cosmetics is like cooking – a science.

We have also to clearly differentiate what we mean by the terms Natural and Organic. The two are not synonymous. These are ethical questions. Natural can have quite ranging meanings allowing for a variety of processes to unleash the potential of plant material. Organic is more closely related to ‘certified’   organically grown. This certification process often undertaken by ill informed and sometimes fanatical people opposed to any ‘science’ has advantages and disadvantages. It certainly restricts the growth of the organic farmer who could benefit from a wider market. Certification limits the market and so insures that most materials used in cosmetics come from standard farming.

As I shall relate in the next concluding article unscrupulous internet scammers have misled the public into a variety of fear related issues that have done damage to the Organic movement and removed it from a serious scientific proposition to a fashion led fad for cosmetics that obscures the real benefits possible. I shall advance a proposition for the redefining of organic cosmetics that relates closely to the soil and organic accepted ideas. I shall review the ground breaking 70’s brand Eco Gen and its failure to gain popularity and the present mish mash of Aromatherapy style oils over claiming activity but claiming Organic status. And what about soaps that do more harm than good in skin care.

It is time to reconsider what organic means in skin care and to give a more reliable definition to encourage the consumer to use materials from good organic farming practice and sustainable wild cropping.

J.Kusmirek © 02.2008

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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