While many think of organic farming as something new that has gained in popularity since the 1980s, it is actually very old and indeed the traditional or original form of agriculture – how farming was always done. As such we can tap its roots deep into the annals of so-called ‘primitive’ civilizations, by tracking back some 12,000 years and beyond into prehistory. What is new historically is the use of synthetic fertilizers introduced in abundance during the early part of the 20th century and chemical pesticides used in the second half.
British botanist Sir Albert Howard is generally considered to be the father of organic farming. As an agricultural advisor in India from 1905 to 1924, his observations and study of Indian farming practices convinced him of their superiority over his conventional science. In his 1943 book, An Agricultural Testament, Sir Howard described the concept he called “the Law of Return” which has come to define organic farming.
Howard explained that in a forest, the remains of all dead animals and plants are returned to the soil, enriching it with organic matter, or humus. The minerals are recycled in this natural process to be utilized by the new growth of plant life that exists with many species together in all forests and grasslands. He emphasized the importance in agriculture of returning available organic waste materials, including sewage sludge, back to farmland. He insisted that this “living bridge” supported the health of crops and animals.
Howard was an extremist in his opposition to the use of chemical fertilizers. This put him in opposition to a number of his supporters who felt the addition of specific nutrients required by the soil could occasionally be justified. His position has also contributed to the mistaken idea that organic farming is simply defined as a farming method that does not use artificial fertilizers.
Lady Eve Balfour, influenced by Howard, initiated the Haughley Experiment in 1939. On two adjoining farms in Suffolk, England, organic farming and conventional chemical farming were compared, the first study of its kind. Lady Balfour published the initial findings in her book, The Living Soil, in 1943 leading to the formation of the Soil Association, an organic advocacy group.
Simultaneously in Japan, microbiologist Massanobu Fukuoka also began to doubt modern agricultural practices. He resigned his job as a research scientist in the early 1940s to devote his life to the development of an organic method of growing grain. This natural farming method that does not require pesticides, fertilizers, weeding or tilling is known now as Fukuoka farming.
From about 1940 to 1978, there was little communication between the organic farming community and conventional farmers. Jerome Rodale, an American businessman and publisher, experimented with organic farming techniques and composting. In 1942 he began publishing Organic Farming and Gardening magazine introducing organic farming to a wide audience. This began a war of words with the agricultural establishment.
Technologies developed during World War II lead to major increases in the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. The ammonium nitrate used for munitions became abundant and inexpensive ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Nerve gas was developed into pesticides, including DDT. These developments resulted in great economic benefits along with negative environmental impact.
The international campaign begun in 1945, later to be called the Green Revolution, increased the focus of agricultural practices on the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides manufactured from fossil fuels. Though credited with helping millions of people avoid famine, it was criticized by many to be unsustainable and environmentally destructive.
Prominent naturalist Rachel Carson published her book, Silent Spring, in 1962. This best seller is often credited with introducing the international environmental movement as well as leading to the 1972 banning of the pesticide, DDT, responsible for the near-extinction of a number of bird species.
With the new concerns about pollution and the environment, the differences between organic and conventional chemical farming came into focus, increasing awareness and exchange of organic principles and practice. By the 1980s, consumer groups began to pressure government to regulate organic production leading to certification standards being introduced and enacted.
Consumers aren't just concerned about the environmental pollution resulting from chemical agricultural practices. There is also increased concern with the quality and safety of food and clothing that contain measurable amounts of pesticides and other toxic chemicals that come from it.
Since the 1990s, the organic retail market has increased about 20% annually. In addition to organically grown foods, there is an increased demand for non-toxic products such as household cleaners and non-toxic pesticides. “Going Green” has become the phrase du jour.
Most supermarkets have answered with the offerings of organic fruits and vegetables. Markets such as Whole Foods are dedicated to organic foods and other natural products. Organic beauty products are becoming more available that are natural and non-animal tested due to consumer pressure.
Organic cotton is increasingly in demand. Non-organic conventional cotton is heavily sprayed with some of the most dangerous pesticides in use. Chemicals and dyes used in the manufacture of cloth include cancer-linked toxins such as formaldehyde and chlorine as well as toxic heavy metals. It's little wonder why there is a demand for organic clothing fabric and organic cotton for bedding.
With increased awareness of the effects of conventional agricultural practices comes the demand for safer, more sustainable organic farming methods. Organic farming nourishes the soil for more nourishing crops, the “living bridge” between the earth and all creatures sustained by it.
Julian Pollock is the publisher of OrganicFamilyCircle.com, where he gives practical options for green starters covering concerns over baby cribs to more global issues where every family can make their impact on our changing ecosystem.