He must become greater; I must become less.
Imagine an apple. It grows on a tree in an orchard in Eastern Washington, near Yakima. This apple receives special treatment: No pesticides, no chemicals, no sewage sludge fertilizers. It’s an organic apple, and you pay extra for that delicious, chemical-free flavor.
Now imagine another apple. It is genetically identical to the organic apple from Yakima, but this one is created from scratch, atom by atom, in a laboratory. No pesticides, chemicals, or nasty fertilizers have ever touched its pristine skin. The question is whether this chemically synthesized apple, which is identical in every way to a naturally-grown apple, qualifies to be sold as organic.
As it turns out, the true issue in question with this example is not about the apple specifically; what we have to actually establish is What is organic? and the synthesized apple question will fall in to line naturally.
Fortunately, the FDA has already laid out a series of extremely involved organic food regulations that, with enough delving, answer the question. The regulations (7 CFR Part 205, for all you inquiring minds) state:
1. The term, “organic,” may only be used on labels and in labeling of raw or processed agricultural products, including ingredients, that have been produced and handled in accordance with the regulations in this part. The term, “organic,” may not be used in a product name to modify a nonorganic ingredient in the product. (citation)
This definition seems to exclude our chemically-synthesized apple from the elite ranks of organic foods, since it (a) is not a raw or processed agricultural products; and (b) it comes from nonorganic ingredients to start with, assuming we build atom-by-atom. One could argue that nothing is organic if you look closely enough — at individual atoms — so let us continue trolling through the regs.
2. “100% organic” must comprise entirely organic ingredients; just “organic,” however, must have “not less than 95 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products.” (citation)
OK, this is really just more interesting than enlightening. However, if our synthetic apple comprises the usual apple building-blocks — amino acids, sugars, etc. — then does making synthesizing them from scratch categorize the apple a “processed agricultural product”? So far I have to lean towards still excluding the synthesized apple, but one more dip into the regs may clarify things, so:
3. To be sold or labeled as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)),” the product must be produced and handled without the use of:
(a) Synthetic substances and ingredients, except as provided in §205.601 or §205.603;
(b) Nonsynthetic substances prohibited in §205.602 or §205.604;
(c) Nonagricultural substances used in or on processed products, except as otherwise provided in §205.605;
(d) Nonorganic agricultural substances used in or on processed products, except as otherwise provided in §205.606;
(e) Excluded methods, except for vaccines: Provided, That, the vaccines are approved in accordance with §205.600(a);
(f) Ionizing radiation, as described in Food and Drug Administration regulation, 21 CFR 179.26; and
(g) Sewage sludge(citation)
I have complete confidence that this list totally resolves the question of whether an apple synthesized from scratch falls into the organic category or not. But because it’s exactly like all federal regulations, instead of actually providing information directly, it refers to other sources (which, when you go to them, will simply refer to other documents, ad infinitum). So I welcome you to try digging into this Definitive Answer to our question, but I myself am going to stop hypothesizing about an apple and start enjoying one.