Organic Farming Definition and History

Orginally published in The Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy (GALE, 1999) by Taylor Reid The term organic farming was first used in 1940 by Lord Walter Northbourne in Look to the Land (p. 81) to describe an alternative to chemical farming.  Organic farming is a method of agricultural production which eschews chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  But organic farming is not simply a way of growing food; it is also a social movement.  From its inception, strong ideological notions relating to soil, health, nature, politics, science, and spirituality, have offered both a critique of, and alternative to modern farming practices.  At times the subject of passionate and polarizing debates, organic farming has often been considered marginal, antiquated, or even subversive.  In recent years, it has become increasingly important economically and culturally, but new questions have begun to emerge regarding the effect of this success on its ideological and philosophical underpinnings. Organic farming is based on traditional agricultural practices, but its emergence as both a method and a movement was mainly a reaction to the increasing industrialization of agriculture in the early 20th century.  Philip Conford describes the history of the early movement, centered in England, in The Origins of the Organic Movement (2001).  At this time, organic farming was mainly promoted by members of the social and intellectual elite.  Their political motives ranged widely, but organic thought was consistent in a number of aspects.  Belief in the importance of soil and the necessity of humus (organic matter) for sustainable production of healthy crops has always been central.  More than merely a scientific argument, this idea is based on a holistic worldview which emphasizes interconnectedness and an agriculture which mimics natural systems.  Early organic advocates believed that healthy soil was connected to healthy crops, healthy crops to healthy people, and healthy people to healthy societies.  This holistic worldview is fundamentally at odds with the scientific reductionism of modern agriculture, and the organic movement has long been based on opposition to this emerging orthodoxy. Other concerns included preserving rural populations, culture, and livelihoods.  Organic proponents opposed agricultural mechanization and argued that agriculture rather than industry should form the basis for a healthy nation.  In this way, the early organic movement embodied philosophical and political beliefs identical to the agrarianism of Thomas Jefferson and others.  Early organic thought also parallels agrarian philosophy in its promotion of small, independent, diversified farms, and its rejection of agriculture singularly focused on economic efficiency. Perhaps the most prominent and influential of the early organic proponents was Sir Albert Howard.  Howard developed and promoted a systemic vision of agricultural production and land stewardship based on returning composted organic waste to farm fields, and rejected the economic materialism of industrial agriculture.  Howard emphasized the role of organic farming in promoting individual and social health, and maintaining soil fertility for future generations.  A prolific lecturer, Howard also presented his ideas in a number of published works including An Agricultural Testament (1940), and The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture (1947). Though a trained scientist himself, Howard states in An Agricultural Testament, that “Instead of breaking up the subject into fragments and studying agriculture in piecemeal fashion by the analytical methods of science, appropriate only to the discovery of new facts, we must adopt a synthetic approach, and look at the wheel of life as one great subject and not as if it were a patchwork of unrelated things” (p.22).  Like many in the early movement, his holistic vision of farming was connected to a Christian spirituality which included a concept of nature as divine.  Like many others, he was also highly influenced by Eastern thought.

Another important figure in the development of organic farming was the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner.  Like Howard, he rejected the materialism and reductionism of modern agricultural practices and emphasized the living soil as the basis for health, vitality, and spiritual connection.  Steiner’s philosophy was influenced by Franz Brentano, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hinduism, and Theosophy, but was based was based most heavily on the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Christian spirituality.  Steiner published several works on Goethe’s epistemology, spirituality, and concepts of nature and science.  Though his writings span a variety of subjects, among his most important and lasting influences was his development of Biodynamic Agriculture, an intensive, integrated production system which conceives the farm as a self-contained system balanced by the interconnected life-forces of both the earth and cosmos.

Both Steiner and Howard were important influences for Jerome Rodale, a magazine publisher and health crusader who would become the foremost advocate for organic farming in the United States.  Unlike most of his European counterparts, Rodale promoted organic in a way that was primarily pragmatic, secular, and apolitical.  Among his most important contributions were his promotion of organic gardening, which introduced its methods to non-farmers, and his establishment of long-term research trials comparing organic and conventional production methods.

Rodale’s publications were highly influential for the American counterculture, who embraced organic farming and gardening passionately during the late 1960’s and early 70’s.  During this time, young people participated in a vast rural migration to conduct utopian experiments in homesteading and communal living.  Warren Belasco details this phenomenon in Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (1989).  This back to the land movement was based on a neo-agrarian worldview which rejected consumerism in favor of self sufficiency, simplicity, and a closer connection to the natural world.  Like the early movement it emphasized small farms, soil conservation, and crop diversity, as well as environmentalism and energy conservation.  In contrast, its social goals were promoted more through lifestyle decisions than political advocacy.

This movement formed the basis for a community of like-minded individuals who worked to develop, define, and promote organic farming and production standards.  By the late 1980’s organic food was gaining popularity and beginning to command premium prices.  At the same time, standards had become more complex, and certification schemes increasingly sophisticated and numerous.  Recognition of its increasing popularity and a perception that its commercial development was limited by the lack of consistency in standards led to the legislative institutionalization of organic farming through the development of national certification programs.

In the US, a National Organic Program (NOP) administered through the Department of Agriculture was authorized through the 1990 farm bill to establish rules defining appropriate practices and a process for certifying organic farms and production facilities.  Initially organic growers and advocates were encouraged by this legitimization, but the implementation and repercussions of the NOP have caused considerable frustration and disillusionment.  Appropriate materials and practices have always been controversial, and remain contested today.

Enacted in 2002, The National Organic Program Final Rule describes organic farming as “A production system that is managed in accordance with the [Organic Foods Production] Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity” (Subpart A, Section 205.2).  As such, the NOP ignores social movement issues related to health, labor standards, farm size, energy conservation, and rural development.  Critics have claimed that the NOP has robbed organic farming of its philosophical basis, and facilitated its commercialization and industrialization.  Since its implementation there have been substantial increases in the size of organic farms, the number of farms growing both organic and conventional produce, the prevalence of organic products originating outside of the US, and the concentration of ownership in the organic food processing and retail sectors.

In response, many traditional organic producers have sought to differentiate themselves and their products based on their adherence to traditional elements of the organic philosophy.  Recent years have seen the emergence of the terms beyond organic and moreganic, the local food movement, and the reframing of organic principles using terms such as civic agriculture, coined by Thomas Lyson who describes it in his 2004 book Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food, and Community.  The rapid development of civic agriculture and the local food movement are evident in the proliferation of farmers markets and community supported agriculture, which invites consumers to participate directly in the labors, risks, and rewards of food production.  The growth of such direct marketing practices is consistent with organic movement support for small, diverse, independent farm enterprises, and is being led by farmers committed to traditional organic production methods.

For almost a century, organic farming has been an evolving, negotiated, values-based activity related to ideological notions regarding the relationship between nature, society, and food production.  Small, diverse, ecologically conscious growers continue to maintain farm operations based on the kind of holistic, post-materialist, agrarian values which were once the hallmark of organic philosophy.  Organic farming practice is thriving today, but the organic farming movement is very much in crisis.  Caught between two equally uncertain and divergent scenarios, its adherents are struggling simultaneously to maintain as many of its principles as possible within the current rules, and to redefine a movement which has lost its name, but is unable to divest itself from the system which has usurped it.

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