A Brief History and Philosophy of Organic Farming What is Organic Farming? Organic farming is a method of food and fiber production that utilizes natural materials and biological processes to achieve production goals while protecting the wellbeing of the farm ecosystem, its surroundings, the farmer and the consumer. While the organic approach is most widely known for excluding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and using natural, more Earth-friendly inputs, organic farmers strive to do much more:
Design and manage the farm as a whole living system
As public demand for organically produced food grew during the late 20th Century, private and state agencies began to offer organic certification programs to assure customers that the food they are buying has indeed been grown by organic methods, and to assist organic farmers to access markets. Differences among the many programs led to confusion, and demand from growers, buyers and consumers for a uniform nationwide organic standard. That standard became legal and practical reality in October 2002, when the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was fully implemented. Now, any producer with gross sales exceeding $5,000 annually must become certified under the NOP in order to market her / his products as organic.
What is meant by “organic”? The word “organic” has several definitions. Pioneers of ecologically based agriculture first used the term about 75 years ago, meaning:
Based on living organisms and their life processes
Composed of, or derived from the residues of living organisms (as in soil organic matter, or organic fertilizers)
Another definition of “organic,” and one that science majors learn in college, is: “having a chemical structure based on carbon atoms linked together in chains or rings.” Starches, fats, proteins, and humus all fit this definition as well, but so do most synthetic pesticides as well as plastics, so this definition is not as useful to understanding organic agriculture.
The current definition of “organic” in the United States is codified in the NOP Final Rule:
A production system that is managed in accordance with the 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.
NOP Final Rule, part 205.2
How did organic farming start? Some say that Organic was the “only way farming was done” in the days before fossil fuels, plantation monoculture and agrichemicals. However, simply returning to the old ways is not sufficient for achieving a sustainable organic agriculture. Pre-industrial farming methods ranged from utterly unsustainable (for example, the extreme desertification of the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley in what is now Iraq, and the widespread soil erosion that helped bring down the Roman Empire) to highly sustainable (for example, the “Farmers of Forty Centuries” in mountainous parts of China, who have kept terraced fields productive since 2000 BCE).
Agricultural pioneers such as Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, J.I. Rodale, and E.E. Pfeiffer first developed organic farming concepts in the early to mid 20th Century to address problems with declining soil productivity, seed quality, crop vigor, livestock and human health. Howard, a British soil scientist, documented the vital role of soil organisms in decomposing plant and animal residues into humus, recycling nutrients and thereby maintaining soil fertility:
The leaf has to decay and fall, the twig is snapped by the wind, the very stem of the tree must break, lie and gradually be eaten away by minute vegetable or animal agents … The accumulated reserve – humus – is the very beginning of vegetable life and therefore of animal life and of our own being. Such … arrangements … are the basis of all Nature’s farming and can be summed up in a phrase – the Law of Return. Sir Albert Howard, 1947. The Soil and Health, p 31.
Based on this understanding, Howard developed and promoted composting as a means to recycle manure and other agricultural “wastes” into a beneficial soil amendment rich in humus.
Early leaders in the organic movement also viewed the farm as a whole ecosystem, and each farm as a unique individual:
Every agricultural enterprise is a self-contained biological unit … The whole is not merely the sum of all its parts but a harmonic unity of a higher order.” E.E. Pfeiffer, 1943. Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening, introduction.
J. I. Rodale launched the organic farming movement in the United States in the 1940s, and Rodale Institute continues to conduct long term farming systems research comparing productivity, sustainability, soil quality, and carbon sequestration for several organic and non-organic farming systems.
Organic Farming and Conservation. It is instructive to note that today’s USDA Conservation Programs have origins that closely parallel those of organic farming. Soil conservation pioneer Hugh Hammond Bennett founded the USDA Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s to help farmers stop the devastating soil and crop losses of the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains. That agency is now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), whose stated mission and goals are: productive soil, clean and abundant water, healthy plant and animal communities, clean air, and working farms and ranches. These goals are widely shared by organic farmers today as well as throughout the history of organic farming. For an analysis of the strong correlations between NRCS and NOP Practice Standards, see http://attra.ncat.org/eqip/docs/eqip_correlation_chart.pdf.