Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time

[Editor's note: this is part 1 of a 7 part series examining the history of the organics movement in the US from the unique perspective of an individual that was instrumental in the drafting of the original language for the USDA's National Organic Program.] Originally published on Cooking Up a Story.


By Mark Keating

Part 1: What comes to mind when you see food labeled "organic" at the grocery store or farmers market? I asked one audience that question years ago, and a gentleman replied emphatically, "Nuts!" Being in North Carolina at the time, I asked if he meant pecans and walnuts, but he assured me that it was the people involved in organic agriculture who were nuts, not the food. I have to wonder, if the subject still crosses his mind, whether he sees organic agriculture's surging popularity as a sign that the illness is contagious.

After all the conversations about organic agriculture that I've had since then, I've found that the gentleman is far from alone in his misunderstanding of the subject. Interestingly, the depth of misunderstanding about organic agriculture seems unrelated to whether the individual is a true believer or a doubting Thomas. This isn't so surprising, since our dependence on mass communication exposes us to a typhoon of mis- and dis-information intended more to persuade than educate us. When we pass along what we think we've learned, we inevitably distort its meaning - our minds are analog, not digital. As a result, our understanding of organic agriculture is more likely the sum of hundreds of anecdotal impressions than a focused study.

How do we untangle the multiple personalities - healthier, more expensive, safer, less safe, corrupted by corporations, better for the planet - that organic brings to mind? Let's start by treating organic farming and organic certification separately, the latter I will specifically address in a future post, as part of this ongoing series. As we shall see, organic farming involves an ancient protocol of crop and livestock production practices embedded in principles of interdependence and harmony. Organic certification began as a grass roots effort about forty years ago and is now managed by the Department of Agriculture, where interdependence and harmony are discretionary. Understanding how organic farming and certification function separately and together is essential for making wise choices about the source and quality of our food.

If I were asked to sum up the results of the work of the pioneers of the last twelve years or so on the relation of agriculture to public health, I should reply that a fertile soil means healthy crops, healthy livestock, and last, but not least, healthy human beings. --Sir Albert Howard, 1945

Sir Albert Howard is probably the individual most frequently associated with the establishment of organic farming. Howard was active in research for more than half a century and in An Agricultural Testament (1940) he carefully detailed the essential organic practices, especially the addition of composted animal and plant materials to the soil. As renown as Howard remains for this work, his legacy suffers from our fifteen-minutes-of-fame mindset that categorizes him as "the compost guy." Compost was indeed central to his vision, yet a fuller examination of his career sheds invaluable light on the context in which he worked and the essential principles he discerned that are inseparable from organic farming's meaning and promise.

Growing up on a farm before his academic proficiency launched his research career, Howard was instinctively skeptical about the modernization of English agriculture. He sensed that the replacement of draught animals with machinery and manure with synthetic fertilizers was degrading soil quality by diminishing its microbiological vitality. Howard was a brilliant scientist in the field and laboratory - his success in breeding wheat varieties adapted to India was historic - but he explicitly rejected the mechanistic and reductionist model of his Western contemporaries. To Howard, industrialized agriculture's increased yields and greater labor efficiency would inevitably lead to diminishing returns, particularly in the nutritional attributes of the crops and livestock it produced.

In lieu of the industrial paradigm, Howard embraced Nature as the exemplar of agricultural productivity and efficiency. Consistent with his youthful experiences on the farm, this perception crystallized brilliantly during the twenty-five years that Howard conducted research in India. This work convinced Howard that the carefully balanced and cured combination of plant and livestock materials we call compost was the foundation of vitality in individual organisms and long-term resilience in biological communities. Sir Albert Howard's summary of Nature's approach to gardening-- he wrote in 1940-- articulates the fundamental principles of organic farming:

The main characteristic of Nature's farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

Howard's tenet that "both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against diseases" is noteworthy, especially in the context of his earlier quotation about the linkage between healthy soils, crops, livestock and humans. Howard saw disease in an organism as an indication of imbalance with the natural order, most likely due to imperfect nutrition. Nature visited disease upon poorly nourished organisms to facilitate their passage through the cycle of life, inviting death to both complete the cycle, and begin it anew. Properly nourished organisms, meaning those partaking of food produced from vibrant, biologically active soils, would be fit and inherently resistant to diseases. There was no question in Howard's mind that organically produced food was healthier; indeed, it's the only food he would identify as healthy.

Two more point needs to be made: Sir Albert Howard should not be characterized as the father of organic agriculture, though perhaps its midwife would be appropriate. He gratefully acknowledged the generations of Eastern peasant farmers, primarily in China but throughout South East Asia who handed down organic principles to become, as Howard's peer F.H. King noted, "Farmers of Forty Centuries". These origins and the influence of belief systems that shaped them - specifically Buddhism and Hinduism - help explain why organic agriculture so often seems counter-intuitive to Western agriculturalists. Fortunately, Westerners such as Howard and King (an American) were not put off by the primitive appearance of Asian agriculture and gleaned its magnificent substance.

Secondly, no study of Howard's accomplishments should overlook the essential roles that Gabrielle Matthaei Howard and Louise Matthaei Howard played in their achievement.  Sisters from a Swiss family of merchants re-settled in London, Gabrielle and Louise successively provided the intellectual and emotional companionship that shaped Sir Albert's explorations and discoveries.  Gabrielle married Sir Albert prior to moving to India where they collaborated as research partners for three decades.  She co-wrote more than 120 journal articles with him and was co-equal in planning and running their extensive plant breeding and compost production research activities.  On the eve of their retirement and return to England, Gabrielle passed away and two years later her younger sister, Louise married Sir Albert.  Trained as a classics scholar at Cambridge University, Louise's subsequent teaching career there ended when she adopted a pacifist position on England's entry into the First World War.  She went on to become a writer and editor for the International Labor Organization and produced what was at the time the definitive study on agricultural labor around the world.  Her communication skills transformed her husband's technical writing style into the masterpieces An Agricultural Testament and The Soil and Health (1947) published under his name.

Gabrielle Matthaei Howard
In dedicating an Agricultural Testament to Gabrielle, Howard honored her passage and evoked the cyclical nature of all life by quoting Romeo and Juliet:

The Earth, That's Nature's Mother, is Her Tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb

Part 2 will examine Rachel Carson, and how her work so dramatically influenced organic agriculture.

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While at the USDA between 1999 and 2004, Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production and spent two years working to develop and promote farmers markets. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.