Part 1: A Brief History of Why Organic Matters
By Tanya Glos
Eating organic food is important, but do you understand why you have been changing your shopping habits, and possibly budget, to purchase organic products? Many people have personal reasons, but few understand the process by which organic farming was revived. Organic farming isn’t a new endeavor, it’s the product of almost 70 years of efforts to revive the land from which our food grows by resurrecting tried-and-true, ecologically sound farming practices.
Organic agriculture dates back to the early 20th Century, primarily in Europe, but also in the United States. According to the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Oklahoma, “The pioneers of the early organic movement were motivated by a desire to reverse the perennial problems of agriculture – erosion, soil depletion, decline of crop varieties, low quality food and livestock feed, and rural poverty.”
The main belief was the holistic notion that a nation’s agricultural health is dependent on the long-term vitality of its soil. The humus, or organic soil, was believed to embody the health of the soil. “Humus farming” became the new strategy for conserving and also regenerating the soil. Humus farming “included managing crop residues, applying animal manures, composting, green manuring, planting perennial forages in rotation with other crops, and adding lime and other natural rock dusts to manage pH and ensure adequate minerals,” according to George Kuepper’s book “A Brief Overview of the History and Philosophy of Organic Agriculture.” Basically, farming practices which fed the soil were rebirthed.
In the 1940s, the term “organic” emerged to replace “humus farming.” The first use of “organic” to describe this form of agriculture was in the book “Look to the Land” by Lord Northbourne in 1940. Northbourne uses the term to characterize farms using humus farming methods, because he perceived them to mimic the flows of nutrients and energy in biological organisms.
In the U.S., J. I. Rodale, the founder of Rodale Research Institute and Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, is commonly regarded as the father of the modern organic farming movement. Rodale acted as the chief expert in “non-chemical” farming and was instrumental in the advancement of organic production methods. He promoted working with nature by returning crop residues, green manures and wastes to the soil by using deep-rooted crops to draw nutrients from the soil.
By the 1970s, the organic industry grew due to the demands of consumers who had increased environmental awareness, but there were growing pains. Certification programs were decentralized, and there were no standards or regulations clearly defining organic agriculture. Each state had its own meaning of “organic.” This fueled a movement to develop national standards, which would fuel interstate marketing of organic crops. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was passed by Congress in 1990 to develop a national standard for organic food. OFPA mandated the following two changes:
- The USDA should write regulations to explain the law to producers, handlers and certifiers, and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) would advise and make recommendations as to substances used in organic production and handling, and would help the USDA write the regulations.
- Standardized rules were presented in 2002, defining organic agriculture as “a production system that is managed to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” according to the USDA.
Stay tuned next month for Part 2 – we’ll get more practical!
Tanya Glos helps people gain the benefits of a lifestyle filled with healthful, whole, organic foods. She has a degree in Dietetics and Nutrition Care and has practiced what she’s preached to individuals, families and groups since 1994.