A Brief History of Organics in the US:

excerpted from a longer history, reprinted from Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Rutgers University, September 2006

Sir Albert Howard

Sir Albert Howard, one of founders of organic farming, and one of the drawings
from his book describing the Indore (a region of India) method of composting

Many people active in organic agriculture today are unaware of the important role played by Sir Albert Howard and others of his generation, including F.H. King, Walter Northbourne, Lady Balfour, J.I. Rodale, and Louis Bromfield, in the development and diffusion of organic farming concepts. The recent rapid growth of the organic movement has resulted in a loss of connection with the historical figures and roots of organic agriculture. Scientists conducting organic farming research, farmers considering organic transition and the general public may benefit from knowing more of this history.

Telling a history of organic farming – as with other great movements, such as alternative medicine – requires exploring the interplay between science, social values, economics, and the recalcitrance of established organizations to adopt new approaches. In tracing the historical trajectory from the genesis of Howard’s major organic concepts and practices (a living connection between soil fertility and plant and animal health, the Law of Return and composting) to the wide-spread adoption of these beliefs and practices, one encounters a series of battles between intellectual and economic stakeholders. Although support for the organic movement has grown with public awareness, opposition to it has never gone away. These issues are reflected in the history of Howard’s contributions to organic farming. The story of this development of organic concepts in the 1930s to their fate as expressed in the current USDA National Organic Program occurred in a series of stages – the development of organic concepts and methods, polarization around them, then their recognition, accommodation, and finally their further extension.

Organic Farming Concept Development

Although some concepts of organic farming predated his work, today Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) is regarded by most as the founder and pioneer of the organic movement. Born into an agricultural life, he never strayed far from it. Raised on a farm in England and educated at Cambridge, he served for a time (1899-1902) as mycologist in the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies, before returning to England to teach agricultural science from 1903 to 1905 at South-Eastern Agricultural College at Wye. He then moved to India where, for 26 years he directed several agricultural research centers before permanently returning to England in 1931. It was after his return that he became well known for his concepts and philosophy of organic farming. By drawing on his many years of agricultural research experience, he wrote several widely read books espousing his concepts and theories of composting, soil fertility, and health and disease.

In 1943, Howard published the book An Agricultural Testament, in which he described a concept that was to become central to organic farming – the importance of utilizing available waste materials to build and maintain soil fertility and humus content. According to what he called ‘The Law of Return’, he strongly advocated the recycling of all organic waste materials, including sewage sludge, back to farmland. Recalling his experiences in India, he described his original ‘Indore’ (after a region in India) method of composting. Here, he prescribed a certain pile size, heat, moisture, aeration, and mix of plant, animal, urine-soaked earth, and ash materials as a proper composting recipe. Especially important to a good mix of composting materials, Howard stressed, were residues from both plants and animals. He was not alone in his thinking and found support for his ideas on soil fertility and the need for effective recycling of waste materials to farm-land in F.H. King’s book, Farmers of Forty Centuries, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan, which appeared in 1911 but then lay in relative obscurity. Such a sustainable soil fertility management was vividly described by Victor Hugo: ‘Not a Chinese peasant goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young…’

In Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease (later published as Soil and Health), Howard introduced the idea that disease, whether in plants, animals, or humans, was caused by unhealthy soil and that organic farming techniques would make the soil, and those living on it, healthy. As evidence he cited his observation that animals fed with crops grown in humus-rich soil were able to rub noses with diseased animals without becoming infected. More generally, he argued that crop and animal health was a birthright and that the correct method for dealing with a pathogen was not to destroy the pathogen but rather to try to learn from it or to ‘make use of it for tuning up agricultural practice’.

Howard’s concept of soil fertility was centered on building soil humus with an emphasis on a ‘living bridge’ between soil life, such as mycorrhizae and bacteria, and how this chain of life from the soil supported the health of crops, livestock, and mankind. While Howard acknowledged that soluble salts from humus were important to plant nutrition, he also wrote that plants ‘do compensate themselves by absorbing organic nitrogen’. Here, Howard disagreed with both Albrect Daniel Thaer (1752-I 828) who advocated the Humus Theory of Plant Nutrition and with Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) who advocated that plants ‘find new nutritive material only in inorganic substances’.

Although Howard knew that certain nutrients could be severely limiting in some soils, he opposed using chemical fertilizers even though they could more easily correct specific nutrient limitations than could the use of compost. Thus, Howard’s extreme position against any use of chemical fertilizers created a challenging situation for organic farmers attempting to balance nutrient supply. Howard’s hard-line position against the use of chemical fertilizers, however, was not shared by some of his contemporary supporters who felt that the use of artificial fertilizers could sometimes be justified. Howard was, however, open to the use of some naturally occurring mineral sources such as pulverized rocks.

In Howard’s long and distinguished career as a scientist, he made discoveries and contributions relating to a wide range of areas beyond composting and soil fertility. These areas included plant breeding, irrigation, mycorrhizae, root systems, soil aeration, fruit tree cultivation, post-harvest produce transport, weed management, and diseases of plants and humans. For these sound contributions to agriculture, he was knighted in England. While having earned the respect of his scientific peers, in his later years Howard became extremely critical of the agricultural establishment. His ideas on humus, soil fertility, and disease became viewed as exaggerations of otherwise fundamentally sound ideas and he was becoming known as an extremist. In 1946, he acted out his new role of agricultural activist most explosively in The War in the Soil. He opened this book with the powerful assessment that: ‘The war in the soil is the result of a conflict between the birthright of humanity – fresh food from fertile soil – and the profits of a section of Big Business in the shape of the manufacturers of artificial fertilizers and their satellite companies who produce poison sprays to protect crops from pests and who prepare the various remedies for the diseases of livestock and mankind.’ Howard loudly criticized field plot and statistical methodology used in classical research at the Rothamsted agricultural experiment station that was established to compare the long-term effects of artificial fertilizers (inorganic chemical fertilizers) and manure. He thought that these studies were flawed because they did not exclude invasion from burrowing earthworms into the chemically fertilized plots, relied on continuous cultivation without crop rotation, and used new seeds from an outside source.

A true comparison of organic farming to non-organic farming, Howard argued, would not be an easy task. For example, he suggested that such a comparison should begin with ‘two large areas of similar worn-out land side by side’, a period of at least ten years, and that a minimum of five years was required for the con-version to an organic system. He further suggested that such a study should compare responses of soils, earthworms, crops, and livestock. Clearly, Howard favored the study of whole systems over reductionism. Such a study comparing organic and non-organic farms was attempted from 1939 to 1969 in England by Lady Eve Balfour. Her observations from this comparison of whole farms were described in her widely read book The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment first published in 1943 and republished in 1974.

Although Howard was a passionate advocate of organic farming, he did not coin the term ‘organic’ in reference to this system of agriculture. But in 1940, in An Agricultural Testament, Howard describes the main characteristics of what he called ‘Nature’s farming’. ‘Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves from disease’.

Walter Northbourne was apparently the first to apply the word ‘organic’ in application to farming. In 1940, Northbourne published an influential book, Look to the Land, in which he elaborated on the idea of the farm as an ‘organic whole’ – in the philosophical sense, ‘organic’ refers to ‘having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things’. This concept of organic is similar in many respects to the holistic ideas more recently expressed by James Lovelock in the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ and Lynn Margulis in her book Symbiotic Planet, but on the smaller scale of a whole farm as a symbiotic unit. In this respect, the organic farmer functions in concert with the symbiotic unit by being in daily contact with and having a feeling for the whole farm organism. It is also important to distinguish this meaning of ‘organic’ as it applies to a system of farming from the common misunderstanding that ‘organic’ specifically refers to the carbon-based chemistry of the fertilizers that are often used in organic farming.

Polarization into Organic versus Non-organic

While Howard played a pivotal role in developing the concepts of organic farming and popularizing them around the world, he was also a polarizing figure. The period from about 1940 to 1978 may be called the era of polarization of agriculture into organic and non-organic camps. During this period, there was little effective dialogue between the organic community and conventional agriculture. American businessman and publisher Jerome Rodale was an early convert to organic farming as a result of reading the works of Howard. So moved was Rodale by Howard’s organic vision – which he described as being hit by a ‘ton of bricks’ – that he purchased a farm near Allentown, PA, and began experimenting with composting and organic farming techniques. In 1942, Rodale began publishing Organic Farming and Gardening magazine with Howard serving as the associate editor. Through this magazine and other publications, Rodale diffused and popularized organic concepts in the US. Rodale’s 1945 book Pay Dirt, with an introduction by Howard, summarized organic farming concepts for a wide audience. His missionary zeal for promoting organic farming in the USA is suggested by the title of his 1948 book, The Organic Front, which followed on the heels of Howard’s book, The War in the Soil. Both Howard and Rodale saw the conflict of organic versus non-organic agriculture as a struggle between two different visions of what agriculture should become as they engaged in a war of words with the agricultural establishment.

Although Howard was not a fan of biodynamic farming, Rodale was interested in the work of Ehrenfried Pfeifer, a protégé of Rudolf Steiner. Rodale often visited Pfeifer›s farm in Pennsylvania to share ideas and he published articles by Pfeifer in Organic Farming and Gardening magazine.

Initially, agriculturalists from the non-organic establishment largely ignored the organic farming movement. Agricultural colleges and experiment stations, however, were increasingly besieged with letters of inquiry from the public and it became impossible to ignore the organic movement.

Notable American advocates of building soil fertility by using organic farming methods included Louis Bromfield and Edward Faulkner, both of whom were popular agricultural writers but not organic purists. In addition to novels that were made into movies by Hollywood, Louis Bromfield published the widely read books Pleasant Valley (1945), Malabar Farm (1948), and Out of the Earth (1950). Edward Faulkner, author of the best selling book Plowmans Folly (1943), was a controversial figure in his time but is now regarded as a pioneer of no-till and conservation tillage farming.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 classic “Silent Spring”
which documented pesticide use and its environmental impact.

In agriculture, the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 began a change of focus and attention as it ignited the environmental  movement while raising concerns about the excessive use of pesticides in agriculture.

Over the next two decades, public interest in the organic method continued to grow. For example, the circulation of Organic Gardening magazine increased from 260,000 in 1960 to 1,300,000 in 1980. Many factors, such as the migration of some people from the cities to the country, the growing environmental movement, and the antiestablishment social revolution, were responsible for the increasing popularity of Rodale Press publications.

Recognition for Organic Agriculture

The period from 1979 to 1990 may be described as the era of recognition for organic farming at a national level in the USA. With a growing public interest in organic food and farming, interest in establishing standards for organically produced foods also increased. As a sign of the new times, in 1979, California passed a law establishing a legal standard for organic production.

Under the direction of President Carter’s Secretary of Agriculture, Robert Bergland, the USDA began surveying the organic farming sector. In 1980, the USDA published the Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming for the expressed purpose of ‘increasing communication between organic farmers and the USDA’. In 1981, the American Society of Agronomy held a Symposium on Organic Farming to examine the question ‘Can organic farming contribute to a more sustainable agriculture…?’ They concluded: ‘The most probable answer is that it most definitely can… ‘ and also that ‘…the soils for the two farming systems may be quite different, each with its own unique chemical and biological properties and crop production capabilities’. Although the USDA publication did not cite Howard’s work on organic farming, the American Society of Agronomy symposium publication, Organic Farming: Current Technology and its Role in a Sustainable Agriculture, did.

This new attention and recognition led to a backlash in 1981 from the incoming Reagan administration, which tried to bury the USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. The new administration also abolished the recently established position of Organic Resources Coordinator, held by Garth Youngberg who had been a member of the USDA Study Team for Organic Farming. During this time, a former Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, released his infamous statement that millions would starve if all farmers adopted organic methods. Clearly the USDA and the US political structure were not ready to promote wide-spread adoption of organic farming.

In spite of the changing political situation at the national level, the already published USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming continued to be read, and served to stimulate a growing interest in organic farming. A few land-grant colleges began to offer courses in organic farming to serve the interests of applied agricultural students.

It was also around this same time that some advocates for organic farming began supporting the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ in hopes that it would invite respect for organic farming. One of those advocates, Garth Youngberg, later established an effective professional organization to support sustainable agriculture, now known as the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. Under the broader umbrella of sustainable agriculture, this institute has been an important supporter of organic farming. While organic farming and sustainable agriculture are both part of the alternative agriculture movement, these terms are not synonymous.

Accommodation for Organic Agriculture

The passage of the Federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 marks an era of accommodation for organic farming in the USA. This Act set out to:
1. establish national standards governing the marketing of organically produced products,
2. assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard, and
3. facilitate interstate commerce in both fresh and processed organic foods.

The writing of the official USDA rules for what defined organic farming and organic food required more than a decade. Initially, the proposed standards did not prohibit the use of sewage sludge, food irradiation, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But these initial allowances resulted in an enormous public outcry, which eventually led to their elimination from the final rules, which were officially unveiled with labeling as USDA Certified Organic on October 21, 2002.

Although it is impossible to know today what Howard would think of the USDA rules, it is interesting to note that he encouraged the use of sewage sludge because the recycling of human manure was consistent with the Law of Return. Nevertheless, given Howard’s concern over poison sprays, it seems unlikely that he would approve of the contaminating substances that are now known to be present in some sewage sludges. Although GMOs were not an issue in Howard’s time, his stated position against artificial insemination would seem to suggest opposition to other such ‘artificial’ technologies. The USDA rules, which allow for the use of some synthetic micronutrient fertilizers, when a need is demonstrated, would seem to collide with Howard’s opposition to the use of any chemical fertilizer.

As far back as 1942, J. l. Rodale presciently predicted: ‘One of these fine days the public is going to wake up and will pay for eggs, meat, vegetables, etc., according to how they were produced’. In the early years of the organic movement and before there was a significant market for organic products, organic farming was done out of a passion for the philosophy. Today, with the growing demand for organic products, price premiums are, in some cases, attracting new converts to organic farming for financial survival. While organic farming and organic food continue to be the target of criticism by skeptics in agriculture and food science, USDA Certified Organic appears to be here to stay.

Beyond USDA Certified Organic

The establishment of USDA standards for organic production was an important milestone in the organic movement. It also served to formally define organic as ‘A production system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and regulations to respond to site specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity’. This definition, however, has not satisfied all within the organic movement. Some would like to see a greater emphasis placed on issues such as locally produced foods, biological diversity, raising livestock humanely and on pastures, certified raw dairy foods, renewable energy, environmental stewardship, subtle energies, and social justice.

While much of Howard’s passion and vision for an organic agriculture has not come to fruition in the National Organic Program nor in the current status of organic farming in the USA, Howard and other organic advocates did inspire generations of farmers, gardeners, and consumers to change their philosophical views on waste materials, soil management, soil quality, health and disease, pesticides, synthetic materials, and the environment. Tension and debate continues between the different philosophical, political and scientific ideas and ideals of organic and non-organic farming and even within the organic farming community itself. As these differences play out, they can be a positive and creative force to stimulate new lines of agricultural research leading to more environmentally sound and sustainable agriculture, provided there is open communication and the prevailing agricultural paradigms are allowed to be questioned.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.