History of Organic by Greenlife

The History of Organic 

This year is something of a landmark year in the history of the organic movement – as it celebrates 50 years of organic standards and certification. This means that the national Organic September campaign run by the Organic Soil Association is going to take on a special significance this September. To celebrate, we are planning lots of special offers on organic foods and dozens of in-store tastings throughout the four weeks. This year, the Organic Soil Association’s campaign is aiming to raise awareness of the role farming and our food systems play in the climate and nature crisis, and to prompt reappraisal of organic as a solution. The campaign will be targeted to inspire the public to put pressure on government and to encourage those buying organic to keep up the good work. Buying organic is a form of climate activism – and the Organic Soil Association will be drawing on 50 years of organic certification as the proof point, showcasing and celebrating those who work hard to produce and promote organic products. 

At this important milestone, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at the history of the organic movement in the UK and around the world.

The Dawn of Organic

So how did we get here?

It is obvious to most people that organic farming isn’t new. In fact, if we look back far enough it is clear that all farming was originally ‘organic.’ However, the real history, as is often the case, is a little more complex than that. In fact, the use of synthesised chemicals on the land was originally intended to improve on previous methods of pest control, some of which were far from desirable. 

The development of agriculture dates back 10,000 years in Europe with the emergence of farming and the cultivation of wheat, barley, lentils and other crops in Mesopotamia, in an area that is referred to as the Fertile Crescent (part of present-day Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Jordan), and later (but probably independently) in China, Africa, New Guinea and South America.

From the very beginnings of settled farming, so for literally thousands of years, disease and pest control have been significant challenges to farmers. Even today, agricultural losses due to pests and disease range from 10-90%, with an average of 35-40%. It is therefore not surprising that our ancestors tried to find ways to minimise these losses too. It is known that pyrethrum, which is derived from the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum flowers or “Pyrethrum daisies”, has been used as an insecticide for over 2000 years. The Persians used the powdered flower to protect stored grain and it soon found its way into Europe. Other solutions around the world included smoking crops, often with specific types of fuel. Certain smokes were found to be more effective against various pests, but of course this method was very labour intensive, and relied upon the wind taking the smoke in the right direction, so was far from perfect. Our ancestors used salt on the land too, and various minerals and other plant chemicals were also used to target specific insects. Minerals and seaweeds were frequently used as fertilisers too, and organic farming has now seen a return to many of these traditional fertilising techniques.

After the industrial revolution, and right up until the 1940s, inorganic substances, such as sodium chlorate and sulphuric acid, or organic chemicals derived from natural sources were widely used in pest control, but some newer pesticides were developed from by-products of coal gas production or other industrial processes – including chlorophenols, creosote and petroleum oils for fungal and insect pests, and ammonium sulphate and sodium arsenate as herbicides. The drawback for many of these products was that they required frequent application, and they were not selective enough in their toxicity. It is not hard to see the potential problems of spreading arsenic on the land! 

Throughout the 1930s, farmers began to favour newer synthetic alternatives, but it was only in the 1940s that the growth in synthetic pesticides accelerated, with the discovery of the effects of DDT, BHC, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, parathion and others. These products were cheaper, seemed to be effective, and were also proclaimed to be safe. DDT was soon the most popular, mainly because of its broad-spectrum activity. 

Look to the living soil 

However, even in those early days, there were those that had doubts about these new chemical solutions, and who thought that there was a better way to solve these problems. As early as 1924, revolutionary thinker Rudolf Steiner developed his principles of biodynamic agriculture. He first presented his ideas to over 100 farmers in Kobierzyce in Poland, in what is now considered to be the first organic agriculture course. It was not long before the biodynamic farming movement grew internationally. In Germany, in 1928, Demeter was born. Known today as the Biodynamic Federation Demeter International, Demeter’s biodynamic certification requires biodiversity and ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, prohibition of genetically engineered organisms and viewing the farm as a living holistic organism. 

It was a Biodynamic agricultural student Walter James who first coined the term ‘organic farming’ in his book ‘Look to the Land’ published in 1939. James was an English Baron, who had competed as an Olympic rower in the 1920 Olympics and rose to become a leading figure in the early organic farming movement. His writings profoundly affected organic pioneers such as Rolf Gardiner, H. J. Massingham and Sir Albert Howard.

Sir Albert Howard’s book ‘An Agricultural Testament’ was published in 1940, and was influential in promoting organic techniques, and his 1947 book ‘The Soil and Health, A Study of Organic Agriculture’ was the first book to include ‘organic’ agriculture or farming in its title. Incidentally, James’ thinking also inspired younger contemporaries such as the hugely influential economist Ernst Friedrich Schumaker, who in his book ‘Small Is Beautiful’ published in 1973, called for smaller ‘human scale’ technology, with a philosophy that focussed on small, simple and sustainable development and economics. 

It was in the 1940s that what is now known as the organic movement began, with the formation of various associations promoting organic farming all around the world. In 1946, the Organic Soil Association was formed in the UK. The founders meeting in June 1945, was organised by Lady Eve Balfour, Friend Sykes and George Scott Williamson. It had just 100 attendees, but within the next 10 years it grew to over 10.000 members. 

Lady Balfour was one of the first women to study agriculture at a British University and was undoubtedly influenced by the ideas of organic pioneer Sir Albert Howard. Together with Alice Debenham she ran the now famous ‘Haughley Experiment’, which became the first comparison of organic farming and what was by then conventional farming – using pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. The experiment, which started in 1939 and ran into the 1980s, involved setting up two adjoining farms using the two separate farming techniques in Haughley Green, Suffolk. The idea was to generate scientific data that would support her belief that humanity’s future and human health were dependent on how the soil was treated. She believed that farmers were over-reliant on fertilisers, that livestock, crops and the soil should be treated as a whole system, and that ‘natural’ farming produced food which was in some way more wholesome than food produced with more intensive methods.

Some of the findings of the experiment were that the organic farm had higher yields, and that levels of available minerals were higher in the organic plots. It also found that mineral levels in the soil fluctuate according to the season, with maximum levels coinciding with the time of maximum plant demand. Vegetative mineral levels remained as high or higher in the organic plots even without receiving the mineral inputs that the conventional plots had. Lady Balfour published the first results of her experiment in 1943, in her book ‘The Living Soil’ which became a founding text of the emerging organic food and farming movement and of the new Organic Soil Association. In the 1980s, before the farms were finally closed, it was discovered that the density of earthworms was higher in the organic land, as was the level of carbon.

The 1960s – Hey farmer farmer, put away those DDTs

Although the organic movement in Europe and in the US continued to grow in the 1940s, it’s first major victory must be attributed to scientist Rachel Carson. After meticulously researching the effects of synthetic pesticides in the 1950s, Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ a book in which she published hard data about the toxic effects of DDT and other synthetic pesticides. First published in 1962, it was met with fierce opposition from the chemical companies, but it swayed public opinion and led to a reversal in U.S. pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses. 

In the book, widely regarded as one of the most significant works of scientific literature ever published, she argues that pesticides are more properly termed ‘biocides’ because their effects are rarely limited to solely targeting pests. She scrutinised the data on many synthetic chemicals and suggested the potential risks of bioaccumulation – the gradual accumulation of substances, such as pesticides or other chemicals, in an organism. Bioaccumulation takes place when a substance is absorbed faster than it can be broken down by body processes or excreted. It is interesting to think what impact it would have had on normal agricultural practice had her term ‘biocide’ been adopted instead of ‘pesticide’ for the chemicals sprayed on our food. Nevertheless, her book had a profound impact on society. At the time the book was written, environmental issues were excluded from mainstream political conversation in America, but its publication led to an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection agency, and ultimately that of other similar institutions around the world. 

Know Your Food

‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ – The rise of the global organic movement

The period of the 1970s saw the rise of many of the global environmental organisations that we still see making waves today. Greenpeace was founded in Canada in 1971 by two immigrant activists from the United States, Irving Stowe and Dorothy Stowe. That same year, in London, members of the newly formed Friends of The Earth took their first action, which consisted of depositing thousands of empty bottles at the London HQ of Cadbury Schweppes, to promote reuse and better use of the planet’s resources. Also in 1971, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was formed – the oldest organic farmers association in the US. The world was changing. 

A year later, in 1972, IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) was formed by the president of the French farmer organization Nature et Progrès. Now known as Organics International, it originally had just five members, but now boasts 700 affiliates in more than 100 countries and territories worldwide. IFOAM was dedicated to the dissemination of information on the principles and practices of organic agriculture across national and linguistic boundaries. At last, the organic movement was truly international. 

The 1970’s continued to see developments in the organic ‘scene.’ Also in 1972, John Battendieri founded Santa Cruz Organics, which marketed some of the first packaged organic products. In the US, throughout the1970s (and into the 1980s), the Rodale Press offered information and advice to Americans who wanted to practice organic farming at home. No longer just the ideas of a few agriculturalists, organic living was becoming a lifestyle choice. 

In the 1980s, various farming and consumer groups around the world began seriously lobbying their respective governments for the regulation of organic food production. This led to increased legislation and to certification standards being enacted, and through the 1990s most aspects of organic food production became government-regulated in the US and in the European Union.

Since the 1990s the market share for organic produce has been increasing steadily as people become more concerned about what they’re consuming and about the impact of industrial farming on the environment. In the 2000s, the worldwide market for organic products, which now includes not just food but also beauty, health, bodycare, household products and fabrics has grown exponentially.

An organic future?

Maybe in the 2020s we will see another step change in the growth of the organic movement. I really hope so. Fertiliser and pesticide run-offs are now known to poison the groundwater and kill other vegetation around farms. Overuse of the soil leads to large swathes of land becoming less fertile and often unusable. Insects and birds are also affected by the overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In addition to all of this, another major battle for control of the food we eat of course centres around the creation of genetically modified organisms, from seeds to food crops, something fully rejected by the organic movement. 

Today, standards for what qualifies as organic still vary across the world, for the most part, organic is a label attributed to sustainable practices like crop rotation and companion planting, organic fertilisers like manure, and natural pesticides such as rhubarb and stinging nettles. Organic farming practices aim to reduce overconsumption of resources, make farming sustainable, and reduce wastage.

There is still much debate about where the lines should be drawn in terms of organic practices and certification, and we are still a very long way from the organic future that Lady Balfour dreamt of. But the Organic Soil Association that she helped to found is still going strong, the international organic movement is stronger than ever, and crucially the organic market is still growing, at least in the UK. Perhaps the fact that the organic market is still growing despite the economic difficulties many people are facing should be a cause for hope. It is an indicator that we can build an organic future. In fact, like many people, I believe we must.

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