Organic farmers promoted biological concepts of soil fertility and implemented innovative practices to preserve its life. Their movement linked with others that supported rural life and helped expand environmental activism.
Barton’s initial chapter explores the history of agricultural technology that early advocates opposed, making for an interesting narrative.
Early organic movements were the result of various influences, often as a reaction against industrial agriculture and international trade. Influences included agrarianism, food quality concerns and traditional peasant wisdom; ultimately the concept for organic agriculture took form through various events, with 1940 being particularly pivotal.
Lord Northbourne published Look to the Land during this decade, outlining farms as living organisms and coining the term organic to describe an ecologically sound approach to farming. At that same time, during World War II, the US government launched the Bracero program, recruiting over 4 Million Mexican nationals into agriculture fields as labor supply was scarce. And Jerome Rodale founded both a working organic farm for research purposes as well as Organic Farming and Gardening magazine to spread Howard’s ideas as well as Steiner’s biodynamic approach.
All these movements contributed to the birth of organic agriculture. This philosophy views a farm as an integrated system with soil, plants, animals and people, with livestock as integral members that contribute labor, manure fertility and meat and dairy products for farmers to sell on the open market. Organic advocates continue to embrace this ideology today – one which organic historian Caroline Levine describes as an attempt at “instantiating an ideal agroecology and socioeconomy in miniature.” And its consequences have far-reaching ramifications.
Organic farmers work to preserve healthy soil by forgoing the use of harmful chemicals that leave toxic residues that compromise soil organisms, plants, animals and humans alike. An old saying goes: a sound mind in a sound body applies just as easily to soil health.
Organic farming relies on creating an ideal living environment in the field, using environmentally friendly fertilization and pest control methods, and encouraging crop rotation as its core principles. Such techniques protect soil depletion, erosion and degradation while eliminating nature pollution – in turn encouraging conservation of natural resources while providing fair treatment of producers, suppliers, traders and consumers (Hinrichs & Lyson 315).
Organic farming’s principles also incorporate the belief that all life is intrinsically intertwined. This concept of interconnectivity can be seen in many organic farmers’ practices, such as using compost to replenish nutrients removed from soil when crops were harvested.
Organic agriculture first emerged in the United States during World War II when J. I. Rodale published his magazine dedicated to organic gardening and farming and brought in Mexican nationals through Bracero to fill wartime labor shortages. Later on in England’s Suffolk county, Lady Eve Balfour conducted her Haughley Experiment as an evaluation study comparing organic and conventional farms on nearby farms in terms of productivity, sustainability and profitability.
Organic farming emerged due to environmental concerns related to soil erosion, depletion and lack of crop varieties; further complicated by industrialization’s rapid advancement and the rise of synthetic chemicals as fertilizers.
Sir Albert Howard is usually considered the “father of organic farming.” However, modern sensibilities suggest giving his wife, Lady Eve Balfour, equal co-founding credit as both were accomplished botanists in their own rights. Howard’s An Agricultural Testament highlighted the importance of soil health for both plants and humans alike and advocated an organic cultivating method that “manures itself” using fungi, bacteria and earthworms – much like forests do!
J. I. Rodale made Howard’s ideas popular in America through his interest in his approach to farming as well as Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic methods. In 1940s he established Rodale, Inc. for production and marketing organic products as well as publishing the journal Organic Farming and Gardening.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was an important catalyst in sparking the organic movement, by drawing attention to the harmful impacts of pesticides on wildlife and natural environments. Additionally, its publication spurred on the back-to-the-land movement which encouraged many individuals to start farms that used organic practices. Finally in 1972 IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) was established in Versailles France.
While industrial agriculture developed into a system designed to dominate and conquer nature, organic food production sought to restore harmony between nature and food production systems. The organic movement developed around various “back-to-the-land” schools of thought and practices.
Lord Northbourne published Look to the Land in 1940, depicting farms as living organisms and advocating an ecologically sound approach to farming. This book had an enormous influence on the U.S. organic movement; particularly with respect to Jerome Rodale who established both an experimental farm for trials and Acres USA magazine – both influential names today in organic food production.
1962: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring raised public awareness about both real and perceived dangers posed by pesticides, inspiring a widespread back-to-the-land movement that then resulted in organic agriculture becoming mainstream.
Differing state organic standards led to marketing inconsistencies and confusion surrounding what organic means; it became apparent that a national organic standard was essential.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 directed the USDA to publish organic standards and establish a certification program. CCOF and other organic organizations then worked towards creating a national system of certification with standards covering crop rotation, animal care, use of synthetic fertilizers/plant growth regulators/soil building practices etc. Today the USDA’s National Organic Program oversees organic certification; an advisory committee including farmers, consumer advocates/environmentalists/industry representatives determines organic seal regulations as well as seal regulations.