The History of How Organic Farming was Reclaimed

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In The History of How Organic Farming was Lost, I discussed some of the forces and (questionable) advances in agriculture made during the last couple of centuries that led mainstream farmers and farm advisors to see manmade chemicals as the best tools for making farming more efficient and productive.

Manmade Pesticides & Fertilizers: Not Quite Miracles

In the short-term, manmade (synthetic) pesticides and fertilizers certainly seemed like miracles: marketable yields went up, tedious manual labor went down, farmers’ profits soared, and consumers got more for their food dollars. Unfortunately, as with so many things, initial appearances were deceiving. Manmade fertilizers did create huge yields in the first few years of use, but they became less effective as the years passed, necessitating higher and higher rates of application to get the same yields. Fields where manmade fertilizers had been heavily used became addicted to them (and could produce almost nothing without them) and the soil became hard or dry and dusty, absorbed and held less water, and became prone to washing and blowing away (the U.S. Dust Bowl of the mid-1930’s is a prime example of how bad things got). Pest problems also seemed to become more frequent and serious, necessitating additional pesticide use. Clearly all was not well in Ag land.

Organic Visionaries Arise (1930s & 40s)

As early as the 1930’s, a few observant people began considering these issues and suggested that the loss of humus (organic matter) in the soil was the underlying flaw in the new system. Things looked great as long as some humus remained in the soil, but as farmers were no longer replenishing it by the “old fashioned” practices of applying manure, growing cover crops, and rotating crops, it got used up and the soil became less and less capable of functioning. In 1931, Sir Albert Howard, a U.K. researcher working in India published The Waste Products of Agriculture -- Their Utilization as Humus, which highlighted the importance of humus and introduced the Indore composting system. He followed this in 1943 with An Agricultural Testament, which charts a new path for sustainable agriculture based on the maintenance of the fertility of the soil. That same year the book Look to the Land, by another U.K. native, Lord Northbourne, hit the presses and discussed treating a farm as a “living organism” rather than a factory to be managed with chemicals, and used the term “organic” – perhaps for the first time in this concept. Not to be outdone by her peers, Lady Eve Balfour published The Living Soil in 1943 and went on to find the precursor of The Soil Association, Britain's leading organic food and farming organization, in 1946. In North America, U.S. native J.I. Rodale became so fascinated by the link between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people that he moved from New York City to rural Pennsylvania in the late 1930's so he could start experimenting with the “new” techniques of composting and organic farming. In 1942 he published the first issue of Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine (later to become just Organic Gardening) and in 1947 he founded the Soil and Health Foundation (which continues today as the Rodale Institute). One might think that with visionaries on both sides of the Atlantic talking and publishing about the problems associated with discarding time-tested traditional agricultural methods in favor of manmade chemicals, organic agriculture might have taken off and tempered the rush toward dependence on manmade chemicals, but it was not to be.

Perspectives on Traditional vs. New Methods of Farming

Why didn't organic agriculture take off? Manmade chemicals were cheap to buy, easy to use, and produced fast results. They were also scientific and modern (the ultimate “sexy” characteristics in the early- to mid-20th century). Traditional methods, in contract, were slow, messy, unscientific, and “backward.” And perhaps most importantly, manmade chemicals could be sold for staggering profits, creating a self-perpetuating and expanding industry based on manmade fertilizers and pesticides, the machinery to apply them (and the financing to buy it), and the seeds that depended on them. Sadly -- for the environment and human health -- the new agribusiness machine roiled and grew, virtually unopposed, through the following decades. A fraction of its staggering profits funded most agricultural research, findings (or fabrications) that favored manmade chemical use were taught in ag schools and sold to farmers as gospel by extension agents. Anyone daring to voice dissent was branded as unrealistic at best and downright subversive at worst.

The Modern Organic Movement Ignites

However, the handful of brave subversives persisted and new voices joined them. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that carefully laid out scientific evidence of the unintended and deleterious health and environmental consequences of the use of vast quantities of manmade pesticides, fertilizers, and weedkillers. Carson connected the dots that were already there, explaining how manmade chemicals can persist in the environment for many years, build up and become concentrated in the food chain, and eventually sicken wildlife and humans. She also discussed how certain manmade chemicals seem to interact with each other in the environment to create toxic soups that are far more dangerous to living things than they are individually – a topic that is only starting to be seriously considered by the mainstream scientific community today. Sadly, less than a year after the book was published Carson was dead, a victim of cancer (and possibly the very substances she wrote about). It went on to sell over 2 million copies and its premise -- that the widespread use of manmade poisons will come back to poison mankind -- is widely credited as the match that ignited the modern environmental movement. Though the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the Soil Association and the Rodale Institute, and a growing handful of other non-traditional groups and organic farmers, continued to study and teach organic methods to anyone who would listen. Interest and awareness of organic farming methods picked up, especially as they were embraced as part of the countercultural revolution of this period. This association only deepened the mainstream scientific community’s contempt of all things organic (I got a graduate degree in horticulture from a major university in the mid 80’s and my professors discounted -- or sneered at -- my questions about organic alternatives).

The Organic Movement into the 21st Century

Consumer demand – as expressed as consumer spending -- is a powerful force. More and more people wanted organic food and other organic products and bought them when they could find them. Farmers and manufacturers responded by producing more. The movement grew slowly through the 1990’s, but as mainstream consumers (and people wanting to make some money off it) jumped on board, growth accelerated as the 21st century dawned and organic agricultural methods finally started getting some (grudging) respect. Now, thankfully, a decade and a half into the 21st century, an increasing segment of the mainstream scientific community is finally taking the dangers of manmade chemicals seriously and taking a closer look at the benefits of “alternative” agricultural practices. Research money – not a lot, but an increasing trickle – has started flowing into organic research and organic agriculture is (finally) respectable. Ongoing research continues to support the importance of moving back to organic agriculture in the two original key areas:
  • The key role of matter to healthy soil. Research has even teased out some of the reasons why it is, including the fascinating and critical roles of the soil microorganisms and mycorrhizae (symbiotic associations between soil fungi and plant roots) that feed on the organic matter and pass the nutrients onto plants, and its role in soil structure and moisture retention.
  • The idea that any system of agriculture must function as a living organism (or ecosystem, in more modern terminology) rather than a factory to be truly sustainable.
Organic agriculture: an old idea whose time has finally come again.

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Name: Jean Nick

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