In late December 2000 the US
Department of Agriculture announced final
adoption of the first standards the Federal government has ever
for the labeling and processing of organic foods. The new standards
the use of irradiation, biotechnology and sewage-sludge fertilizer
any food product labeled "organic." When the department
proposed regulation in 1997, all three of these methods were
After nearly 300,000 people wrote letters of protest opposing
inclusion, the department withdrew that proposal and started
Also banned is the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
as well as the use of antibiotics in all meat labeled organic.
Bush administration could try to overturn the rule, (which does
become fully effective until 2002) there is little such expectation,
considering the high level of public support and vitality of
The organic farming movement and organic foods industry has
at a remarkable rate in recent years. Sales of organic commodities
natural foods stores approached $3.3 billion in 1998, compared
billion in 1995, according to industry sources. Sales of organic
in conventional supermarkets are also rising. Industry experts
current average annual growth rate of 20-24 percent for organic
food sales to
continue over the next decade. Such growth is profoundly transforming
organic foods industry, and the implementation of the USDA's
national organic program is furthering this momentum.
Indeed, the new federal standards are impacting the form,
scale of organic farming in America. In the U.S., organic farming
represents the fastest growing sector of the agriculture economy.
1999, the country's second-largest conventional lettuce grower
and Antle) and the U.S.'s largest organic vegetable shipper (Natural
Selection Foods, marketer of the Earthbound Farm brand) became
in supplying organic lettuce to large, mass-market supermarkets.
the finest emblems of the 1960's hippie subculture has come of
Organics have become big business.
The Early Pioneers
A few individuals served as pivotal catalysts in the transition
more sustaining, permanent, chemical-poison-free agriculture,
both the, applied, academic, and experiential basis for what
is now a
global movement and way of life for organic farmers. These innovators
provided the technical and philosophical backdrop for the mainstreaming
of organic foods that occurred when the flower children's 'back
nature' movement converged with the broader, anti-pesticide,
anti-agribusiness sentiment born out of the late 1960s and 1970s.
In the early 1900s, Sir Albert Howard, a British colonial
the lengthy title of Chemical Botanist to the Government of the
Pusa in India, carried out a variety of noted agricultural experiments.
The area of India where he worked was so poor that local farmers
not afford to buy fertilizers imported from other areas. Observing
reaction of properly grown varieties of plants subjected to insects
other pests, Howard found the primary factor in soil management
consistent supply of fresh humus prepared with vegetable and
wastes, and that maintaining soil fertility was the fundamental
its health. He felt that crops grown on land treated in this
the pests that were rife in the region, and that this resistance
onto the livestock when they were fed on such crops. He felt
adapting a species through breeding to local conditions was a
method to using chemicals to force a western strain to grow.
Howard essentially reinvented the compost pile and propagated
best use the natural resources of India. He studied the root
plants which had been largely ignored as unimportant by botanists,
discovered the mycorrhizae fungi symbiotic relationship with
roots, and especially eschewed the fragmented approach of current
agriculture research which separates soil, crops, livestock and
By 1916 Howard was lecturing that chemical
fertilizers were a waste of money, maintaining that organic matter
combined with good aeration was enough to allow microbes to provide
sufficient amounts of nutrients to feed the world.
In his landmark 1940 book, "An Agriculture Testament,"
he argued that
relying on artificial fertilizers was unwise, as it could not
and perpetuate farmland indefinitely. Though he had many adherents,
of his research was flawed and he was at the time widely ignored
mainstream. An extraordinary scientist, Howard's many advances
cause of organic agriculture caused him to be considered the
the modern organic movement.
Another organic pioneer, Rudolf Steiner, introduced the
Anthroposophy, which combined science with philosophy and spirituality.
Steiner gave a series of lectures on the subject of agriculture
Anthroposophic perspective. His whole systems approach to farming
spiritual concepts with practical ones, and his lectures, compiled
1924 book "Agriculture," were the basis for forms of
Biodynamics. While some of the applied techniques of biodynamics,
the widely adopted biodynamic composting techniques, have had
impact on the evolution and character of organic farming, much
philosophy demanding dedicated spiritual commitment has not caught
with many organic farmers in the U.S. However, throughout Europe,
particularly in Germany, there are thousands of biodynamic farms
biodynamic products commercially available.
While Henry Wallace is remembered more as the vice-president
Franklin D. Roosevelt during WW II, and Progressive Party candidate
president in 1948, he possessed a deep passion for land and ecology.
Serving as Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, he was
at the helm
of the USDA commitment to the health, conservation and soil restoration.
Wallace began as USDA chief while one of the worst ecological
in the nation's history, the Dust Bowl, was raging. Caused by
drought in the early 1930s, 1934 alone saw more than 300 million
precious topsoil blow away.
The Soil Conservation Service was established under him in
1935, with the
primary aim, according to Wallace, "to conserve fertility,
erosion and promote good land use. He was especially concerned
unlike all other aspects of the nation's economic life such as
capital, the "voiceless land" could not speak for itself.
shared his views at the time, Wallace favored natural resource
on a national scale, with decisions based on conservation and
social values rather than on market prices. Fortunately, many
Wallace's conservation concerns were integrated into federal
policy for lasting value to the soil.
As Head of Soils for the University of Missouri, William
(1888-1974) was a leading promoter of the idea that improving
the soil by
fertilization and increasing the organic matter improved the
value of forage. His extensive experiments with growing plants
animals substantiated his observations that a declining soil
(due to a lack of organic material, major elements, and trace
was responsible for poor crops and in turn for pathological conditions
animals fed deficient foods from such soils, and that mankind
In the 1930's, a 'back to the land' movement, known then as
Life Movement,' began in which city dwellers chose to move to
in favor of a simpler life. Perhaps the best remembered and most
influential leaders of that movement is author Louis Bromfield,
hailed the "new agriculture developing slowly in America
for the past 30
years," wherein "observant and intelligent farmers,
bureau or academic men, men and women in back gardens or an acre
have been watching their soil, living with it, feeling it under
feet, learning from it."
One of the most successful American authors of his time, Bromfield
received a Pulitzer Prize in 1927, at the age of 31, for his
novel "Early Autumn." In the 1930s, he became a wealthy
in France, writing such novels as his fictional family biography,
Farm." Tired of life in Europe and sensing the upcoming
Bromfield returned to his native Ohio in 1939 and used his wealth
interest in agriculture to create Malabar Farm, named for the
India, which became the most widely known and publicized experimental
farm in America.
Over the next 20 years, Bromfield wrote a series of five books
documenting his work at Malabar Farm which poetically captured
and rapture that can come from farming in harmony with nature.
Demonstrating to neighboring farmers - sometimes thousands at
a time -
how traditional agriculture practices, crop rotations, livestock
and old fashioned care for the land could restore worn out soil
healthy productive farms, Bromfield was an eloquent advocate
spokesperson for the organic farming movement.
Also from this era, self-labeled experimental farmer, utopian
critic and best-selling author Edward Faulkner is remembered
for his 1943
book Plowman's Folly and his ideas about permanent agriculture.
forth a timely critique of current farming practices and the
applications of science and technology while presenting solutions
on ecologically-based husbandry that stressed societal permanence
as a goal.
Faulkner attacked the tradition in America of abusing soil
continual use of the moldboard plow as a tool for soil preparation.
devised a plan to heal the earth from past abuses through a concept
called trash farming or trash mulch culture. Faulkner's proposition
to incorporate large amounts of organic material (weeds, crop
green manures) into the soil to rebuild it much as ancient peasant
agricultural societies had done for centuries.
Faulkner's theories about trash farming and social change
bold shift in U.S. agricultural practices towards greater stewardship
accountability and were broadly circulated and discussed by prominent
national figures and ordinary citizens. The moldboard plow that
decried has completely vanished from American farming.
I believe the most influential individual who impacted the
toward organic farming systems in the 20th century was J.I.
came to the field without any agricultural experience or training.
Heavily influenced by Sir Albert Howard's book "An Agricultural
Testament," Rodale rebelled against chemical agriculture
by writing about
and discussing organics. In 1940, he purchased a 60-acre experimental
organic farm near Emmaus, PA, to demonstrate his ideas. Also
Austrian biochemist Ehrenfried Pfeiffer fled the Nazi
settling in Kimberton, PA, established the Kimberton Farm School,
biodynamic model farm. Pfieffer became a protégé
of Rudolf Steiner in
1921, and Kimberton Farm is where many early organic farmers
Rodale first used the word "organic" to describe
the natural method of
gardening and farming, mainly because compost, humus and the
fraction of the soil were emphasized so strongly. In 1942, he
magazine Organic Gardening and Farming, declaring that this method
more than just a way to husband the soil and grow plants and
proclaimed that to be "organic" was more than just
a way to know and
understand the lessons of nature in all ways, and to use that
to evaluate all of the "blessings" of science and technology.
What good was it, he asked, to grow food without using chemical
fertilizers or pesticides, and then to process that food so that
content of vitamins and minerals would be seriously depleted?
if he was labeled an extremist or crackpot, Rodale created what
called a "strict constructionist" interpretation of
natural life under
the banner of organiculture. If it is synthetic, avoid it, he
said. If it
goes through a factory, examine it with special care. Follow
of the cycle of life when growing things, he advised, and you
blessed with foods of surpassing taste and quality that are less
by insects or disease. Rodale Press went on to become - and still
remains - the leading publisher on the subjects of popular health,
nutrition and organic gardening.
Lady Eve Balfour distinguished herself by her ability
to communicate and
demystify science and bring it back to earth and into the hands
ordinary people. Equally notable was her moral leadership and
her work at a period when her ideas ran against the grain of
mainstream thought. Balfour studied agriculture at the University
Reading and started farming in Suffolk in 1915. In 1939 she started
unique and pioneering experiment which was the first ecologically
designed agricultural research project on a full farm scale.
According to Balfour, "It was set up to fill the gap
in the evidence on which
the claims for the benefits of organic husbandry were based.
It was decided
that the only way to achieve this was to observe and study nutrition
cycles, functioning as a whole, under contrasting methods of
but on the same soil and under the same management, the purpose
assess what effect, if any, the different soil treatments had
biological quality of the produce grown thereon, including its
value as revealed through its animal consumers. " This work
been done before. Balfour's research was published by her in
1943, in her
landmark book "The Living Soil."
Through her multidisciplinary, holistic approach she illuminated
for many people and created a new approach to food, agriculture,
Out of the meeting convened to discuss her work in 1946 was formed
Soil Association in Britain, and Lady Balfour continued her pivotal
studies between organic and conventional farming on her own farm.
Today the Soil Association continues to be one of the leading
Britain active in organic food and farming, certifying the organic
produce in that
nation. See: www.soilassociation.org
Aldo Leopold was one of the ecological movement's seminal
helped invent and define the notion of the land ethic. His "Sand
Alamanac," published posthumously in 1949, began as a series
of essays on
the changes of seasons and their effect on ecological balance.
called for nothing less than a revolution in human consciousness
proposed an ecological conscious as the basis for collectiveresponsibility.
He wanted a land ethic to be part of the hearts and minds of
so they would act freely in ecologically responsibleways. As
philosopher and teacher, Leopold turned the science ofecology
into a didactic
statement aimed for the moral instruction of his fellow citizens.
Helen and Scott Nearing (1883-1983) inspired a generation
desiring to get back to the land through their lives, books,
and work as
homesteaders. Scott Nearing was in the 1920's a Progressive
reformer/Socialist critic/University Professor/noted author who
job due to his radical politics. After he and his partner Helen
practicing homesteaders in the 1930's, they went on to write
in 1954 a
best-seller, "Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and
Simply in a
Troubled World," a practical handbook about sustainable
living as an
antidote to consumerism and environmental destruction. The Nearings
their own homes, grew their own food, and achieved virtual cult
the following years, providing an inspiration to a legion of
who in the 1960's and '70's were seeking a simpler life based
principles of a sustainability, ecological agriculture, and self-reliance.
Writer Rachel Carson had a profound impact with "Silent
published in 1962, and it became her best-selling book. It revealed
how widespread the use of pesticides and herbicides had become,
what the poisons were doing to plant and animal ecology, and
were traveling in the food chain from ponds and topsoil into
diet. She successfully bundled the diverse aspects of information
pesticide abuse and ubiquitous exposure, biological magnification,
environmental impact into one book that flowed and was understandable
the general public, not steeped in science.
Carson had reluctantly begun a war against the better-living-through-chemistry
crowd in agriculture and government. Her previous books,
("The Sea Around Us," "Under the Sea Wind,"
and "The Edge of the Sea"),
written with her biologists eye and poet's soul, dealt with the
connecting oceans and shore life.
After it was released, Silent Spring became an instant bestseller.
By the end of 1962, more than 40 bills in different state legislatures
had been introduced governing the regulation of pesticide use.
is still in print. Silent Spring was the impetus for the founding
of the Environmental Defense Fund, which later led the battle
to ban DDT.
Silent Spring has been called one of the most influential books
20th century, and Carson was selected by Life magazine as one
of the 100
most important Americans of the 20th century.
Alan Chadwick (1909-1980) is largely credited as the
founder of the
biodynamic/French intensive school of horticulture. This innovative
method synthesized traditional horticulture practices and observations
from the Greek, Chinese and roman cultures on through 19th century
market gardens-folk techniques with modern scientific validity.
As an applied, aesthetic horticulturalist, he had an incalculable
impact on the
development and growth of the organic farming movement. Chadwick
countless students who observed and engaged in his technique,
notably practiced at University of California at Santa Cruz and
Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch retreat in Marin County.
Chadwick's emphasis on working with nature, rather than overpowering
it, struck a
chord among the young people he worked with. The Garden and Farm
Santa Cruz served as a magnet for students interested in small-scale,
organic agriculture practices and continues to inspire and teach
people from around the world the methods that Chadwick introduced.
early activities of the UCSC Farm and the Garden very much presaged
would become the mass movement toward organic farming and sustainable
agriculture, and evolved into the Agroecology Program which was
University of California project to focus on what would come
to be known
as "sustainable " agricultural systems, and to pursue
research on organic