“A Brief Overview of the History and Philosophy of Organic Agriculture” by George Kuepper

Reference: Kerr Center


For most of its history, organic agriculture has been given short shrift. If they paid attention at all, conventional agricultural institutions treated it as an antiquated, unscientific way to farm — suitable, perhaps, for gardeners, but not as a serious means of commercial food production. Anyone who advocated for organic farming was derided; it was professional suicide for an agronomist or soil scientist to do so.

While its methods, proponents, and philosophy are still derided in some quarters, things have been turning around for organic agriculture. Organic consumption is increasing and organic acreage is growing. An organic industry is developing that not only commands respect, but now demands a growing share of research and educational services from USDA, land-grant universities, and state agriculture departments.

By the end of 2008, the organic sector had grown to a whopping $24.6 billion industry.[1] While many sectors of the agriculture economy are growing slowly and even stagnating, the organic sector has been growing at roughly 20% a year since 1994.[2] Even during the recession year of 2008, growth was a respectable 17%.[3] At present the organic sector constitutes about 3.5% of total U.S. food sales, but should these growth rates continue, it could reach 10% in less than a decade.

According to ERS statistics from 2005, U.S. organic acreage now exceeds four million, with certified production in all 50 states.[4] Worldwide, the United States has the fifth largest amounts of acreage in organic production, following Australia, Argentina, China, and Italy.[5]

To better understand today’s organic phenomenon, it helps to know the origins of organic agriculture and its evolution to the present.

The Origins of Organic Agriculture[6]

As a concept and ideal, organic agriculture began in the early part of the twentieth century, primarily in Europe, but also in the United States. 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. They embraced a holistic notion that the health of a nation built on agriculture is dependent on the long-term vitality of its soil. The soil’s health and vitality were believed to be embodied in its biology and in the organic soil fraction called humus.

A soil management strategy called humus farming emerged, which employed traditional farming practices that not only conserved but also regenerated the soil. These practices — drawn mainly from stable European and Asian models — 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.[7]

Since the strategy revolved around soil building to nourish crops, “feed the soil” became the humus farming mantra. “Feeding the soil” meant to feed the soil food web. The soil food web is the living fraction of the soil, composed of bacteria, fungi, earthworms, insects, and a host of other organisms that digest organic matter and “meter” nutrition to crop plants (see Figure 1). This contrasts with the (then emerging) strategy of using soluble fertilizers, which bypass the soil food web to fertilize plants directly.

Humus farmers typically avoided, or used very few synthetic fertilizers. Obviously, they were not consistent with the idea of  crop fertilization through the soil food web. Humus farmers felt that soluble fertilizers led to imbalanced plant nutrition and “luxury consumption,” which reduced food and feed quality. Many also believed that many synthetic fertilizers actually harmed the soil biology — either killing organisms or upsetting the natural balance. They also saw this danger in the use of pesticides, and chose to use few, if any, of those.

Still other humus farmers recognized that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides would lead to shortcuts in crop rotation — eliminating many of the soil building and pest control benefits that good rotations confer. The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, especially, would reduce the inclusion of perennial legume forages and green manure crops in cropping sequences. These crops not only supplied nitrogen to subsequent crops in rotation, but sustained soil biology and organic matter levels. Wherever synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were used to cut corners on biodiversity and soil building, they were in direct opposition to the principles of humus farming.

Humus farming, then, was a conscious, well-founded approach to farming and soil management. It embodied a commitment to sustainability through soil regeneration; it sought to avoid wasteful exploitation of natural resources. This was in stark contrast to many of the world’s agricultural systems, which, in so many cases, led to the downfall of nations through mismanagement of resources.[8] It puts a lie to the commonly held notion that organic agriculture is simply farming as it was practiced before the advent of synthetic chemicals.

How Humus Farming Becomes Organic Farming

The term “humus farming” went out of vogue in the 1940s as the term “organic” became more popular. According to one source, the first use of “organic” to describe this form of agriculture was in the book Look to the Land, by Lord Northbourne, published in 1940.[42,43] 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 — “…a balanced, yet dynamic, living whole.”[44] Therefore, the word “organic” was intended and used to describe process and function within a farming system — not the chemical nature of the fertilizer materials used, and not adherence to a discredited notion of plant nutrition.[45]

Two Enduring Ideas about Organic Agriculture

People believe many things about organic farming. Some of them are true and some are not. Some originated with humus farming and persist in contemporary organic thinking. Two of these are the beliefs that organically grown food is healthier or otherwise “better for you,” and that organic crops are naturally resistant to pests. Both hypotheses are very controversial.

Is organic food healthier?

The belief that organic food is healthier than conventional fare is a foundational belief of organic farming that continues to drive the market today. Surveys continue to show that “healthfulness” is the main reason that consumers buy organic food. [9,10,11,12]

Pioneers of the organic movement believed that healthy food produced healthy people and that healthy people were the basis for a healthy society. Since most food originates with the soil, they naturally promoted a method of growing that was based on soil health and vibrancy — the organic/humus farming method. They believed that soils thus managed would yield more nutritious food.

Is the organic community justified in its belief? The answer depends on who gives it. In the recently published article Nutritional Quality of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review[13], the British authors conclude that there is no difference in nutrient quality between organic and conventional foods. This has been challenged by scientists from the Organic Center (TOC) — a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is “to generate credible, peer reviewed scientific information and communicate the verifiable benefits of organic farming and products to society.”[14] The TOC reviews support the British findings on some classes of nutrients, but disagree on others. Specifically, TOC cites considerable research that shows organic foods are higher in total antioxidants.[15] The British review generally ignored this body of research. TOC further cites a failure to recognized the higher non-protein nitrogen levels in conventional foods for the hazard they present through formation of nitrosarmines in the human digestive tract.[16]

Nutritional content is not the only factor that interests organic consumers. Since the 1960s, they have been concerned about pesticide residues. The concern is not about acute poisoning, but the possible effects from bioaccumulation over time.

That there would be less pesticide residue on organic produce seems to be a given. It was reconfirmed by a 2002 study of residue data from several sources over time. Organic produce had one-third the residue levels of conventional fruits and vegetable and half the level found on produce grown using integrated pest management.[17]

The compelling question is whether pesticide residues actually have significant negative effects on human health. This not clearly answered. The scientific community is most concerned about the possible impacts on children.[18] Whatever those impacts, several studies do demonstrate marked reductions in pesticide metabolites in children switched to a diet of organic food. [19,20]

The concern for children is certainly valid. Their body weight is lower and small effects in childhood can grow to major problems over a long lifetime. But the danger may occur well before childhood. A 2009 article in Newsweek suggests that the impact of pesticide (and other environmental chemical) exposure may be equally or more significant to those in the womb. There is growing evidence that hormone-mimicking pollutants from pesticides and plasticizers are a major factor in infant obesity, which has risen 73% since 1980. Of particular note is the observation that these effects were caused at very low dosages.[21] In a similar vein, University of Wisconsin researchers have recently reported a connection between exposure of pregnant women to the popular pesticide chlorpyrifos (trade names include Dursban® and Lorsban®) and long-lasting birth defects in female offspring.[22] Again, the damage appears at extremely low dose levels.

Beginning in the 1990s, genetic engineering became another issue in the organic food quality debate. The National Organic Standard prohibits the use of genetic engineering in organic agriculture as per §205.105(c), where its various permutations are referred to as “excluded methods.” The concern over so-called “frankenfoods” and their possible effects on human health were certainly a major factor in the organic community’s insistence that genetic engineering be banned from organic food production.

Do organic crops resist pests?

The assertion that organic culture induces pest and disease resistance in crops is much less well known than the healthy food claim, though the notion has been around for some time. In The Soil and Health, one of the earliest classics of organic thought, the father of organic agriculture, Albert Howard, writes that health is the “birthright of all living things,” and that health in humans depends on a chain of health that begins in the soil. He goes on to state that “vegetable (and animal) pests and diseases…are evidence of a great failure of health” in the plant and animal links in that chain and those failures begin with the soil and its management.

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