What is Organic?

The idea for "organic" farming is, of course, nothing new. Agriculture did not start with the creation of petroleum-based chemicals, but with the fostering of a preferred type of plant or animal, so that humans could benefit from its consumption. Efforts to maintain good production levels developed regionally, focusing on manual control of weeds and addition of locally available nutrient sources, such as manure.

The needs of plants are simple - carbon dioxide in the air, water, and the nutrients in the soil. Besides obtaining water, soil is often considered the most malleable aspect of agriculture. In the 19th century, Justus von Liebig popularized the "Law of the Minimum", which states that growth is controlled by the scarcest resource in the soil. This was the start of modern conventional agronomy: a narrow, reactive consideration of crop production that looks at plants much as modern medicine resolves symptoms without providing preventative or holistic care.

But Sir Albert Howard of Britain saw the soil more as Charles Darwin did, as a complex biological system. In his position as the Director of Plant Industry in India during the early 20th century, Howard learned about composting and other techniques from traditional Indian farmers. In India, fostering soil health - a balanced mix of nutrients, microorganisms and beneficial organisms like worms, as well as decaying plant material – resulted in healthy, nutritious food. He reported this method back to the West, and thus the underpinnings of organic agriculture were established. Other early-comers to the field included Rudolf Steiner, who gave an influential series of lectures in 1924 mourning "spiritual losses" from the food of his day, corrected by biodynamic farming techniques.

Synthetic inputs such as soil fertilizers and pesticides were not widely used in agricultural systems until the industries that produced chemicals such as ammonium nitrate for bombs and organophosphate nerve gas found themselves lacking in consumers after the end of WWII. These chemical production lines were altered to become ammonium nitrate fertilizer and powerful insecticides. More products were added to the blossoming agri-chemical industry’s menu, and combined with federal investments in breeding programs the "Green Revolution" was born.

It wasn’t until Rachel Carson released Silent Spring in 1962 that people recognized the toxic properties of chemicals that were being applied to crops. In many cases, liberally-applied chemicals such as DDT were detrimental or even fatal to human health. The air, water, land, and its inhabitants were paying the high price of their own health for "cheaper" food production that didn’t account for these externalities. This sparked concern within both the scientific community and concurrent social movements. A discussion of environmental ethics, which American transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau and naturalist Aldo Leopold had begun before conventional agriculture was realized, was resurrected. Questioning of these environmental encroachments on personal sovereignty began to take a new form in the ‘60’s counter-culture.

The original organic movement went beyond discarding chemicals in agriculture – it was an alternative to industrial-style agriculture. It called for a renewed connection to the land and conferred responsibility for our environment’s health on those exploiting the resources. As all humans eat, that means each person has a part to play. This organic movement also called for a reversal in the disappearance of art and culture from food, which was being eaten up by suburbia and fast food along with land and small communities (see Fast Food Nation for more info). It meant taking time, looking at the big picture, and finding a way to make a difference. That’s right, baby, hold those peace signs high.

In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé released Diet for a Small Planet, one of the most influential books in the consideration of agriculture on a global scale. After extensive research on the causes of hunger, Lappé realized that though we produced plenty of food for all to eat substantial diets, this food was so unevenly distributed that many starved while others grew fat on products that used huge amounts of energy. The conversion of grain to meat costs us 90% of the available calories – and thus the environmental and social underpinnings of organic vegetarianism were born, along with an exploration of other cultures for new food products to fit the vegetable-centered diet (yep, here comes tofu).

In the 80’s corporate life and yuppie-ism became the new American way. As the free-loving counterculture lost its voice to the anti-establishment punk, "organic" as a movement faded from the general public’s view. But in the 1990s society began to recognize that it may have made a deal with the devil. As cancer, obesity, and hormonal disruption took on epidemic proportions, and scares about antibiotic resistance and diseases such as mad cow resulting from concentrated animal feeding operations made media headlines, society was forced to realize the ramifications of the current food system. A vast rejuvenation of interest in organic movement occurred, and this time the profits are so promising even the corporations are on the bandwagon.

Of course, food production isn’t limited to the US, where we have more laws to protect us from the worst of the chemicals. In his 1990 book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez, historian and environmental studies professor Angus Wright relates the reality of chemical exposure of farm workers that labor in the export crop fields in countries such like Mexico and Guatemala. The book’s title says at lot – but read the book if you want to know more. In the 1995 the brief but encompassing release Breakfast of Biodiversity, U-M Professors Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer explain the influence of large-scale agriculture on rainforest destruction in Tropical America.

Here in the States, the majority of people are already urban dwellers. The federal government no longer lists “farmer” as an occupation on the census. With subsidies that give the advantage to the highest output of grain crops, we are starving off our smaller farmers, and watching as the diversity of our crops plummet. As mentioned in Michael Pollan’ s recent book An Omnivore’s Dilemma, almost 40% of the average American diet comes from corn and corn by-products. Mmm – high fructose corn syrup….

In the year 2002, we saw organic (re)defined by the government, given a label, and now made a successful marketing tool. The corporate-meddled (I mean modeled) "organic market" is expanding at rates that exceed production. The industrial precision agricultural model with big monocultures and economies-of-scale can be done without synthetic chemicals; but there is also burgeoning sect of highly productive, diverse farms that have direct ties to their communities and neighbors. People are joining slow food movements, paying up front for a portion of a farmer’s seasonal crops, and enjoying the local farmer’s markets that are popping up all over the country. Many communities are starting their own organic gardens – sometimes in unlikely urban places. Consumers choosing fair trade and other eco-friendly labels are remodeling international trade, using their dollar to vote while ineffective legislators are stuck in their short-term quagmires. Researchers have shown that it is possible to feed the world’s projected peak population with organic methods, without using any more land that we already do. As the human race faces perhaps the most critical decisions for survival, individuals are answering the challenge by making what they eat the new organic revolution.



  • Agroecology text of John Vandermeer, and authors mentioned.
  • A brief history of organic agriculture
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