Chapter 1

Overview of Organic Agriculture

History of Organic Agriculture

The Emergence of Organic Farming

Organic farming has its roots with the ideas of scientists such as Rudolph Steiner, J.I. Rodale, Lady Eve Balfour, Sir Albert Howard, and other scientists beginning from the 1930s. Contemporary American organic farming has its roots in the organic farming movements that spread across Great Britain and continental Europe from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Post-World War II Organic Era Farming

Technological advances during World War II accelerated post-war innovation in all aspects of agriculture, resulting in big advances in mechanization (including large-scale irrigation), fertilization, and pesticides. In particular, two chemicals that had been produced in quantity for warfare were repurposed to peace-time agricultural uses. Ammonium nitrate became an abundantly cheap source of nitrogen, and a range of new pesticides appearedóDDT launching the era of widespread pesticide use.

Environmental Movement

A truly significant event in the history of organic agriculture took place in 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Silent Spring highlighted the dangers—real and perceived—of pesticides, making organic agriculture especially attractive, as it eschewed the use of most synthetic pesticides. Silent Spring is widely considered as being a key factor in the banning of DDT in many countries. The book and its author are often credited with launching the worldwide environmental movement. While Silent Spring and the environmental movement were not about organic farming per se, it clearly played a major role in stimulating back-to-the-land movement, with a new generation setting out to farm organically.

The System of State Regulation

California and Oregon were among the first states to pass the first state laws regulating organic food, and in doing so, provided the impetus for other states to subsequently enact legislation relating to organic food products. However, the new organic industry suffered growing pains. From then through the 1980s, the organic industry waged an internal struggle to define organically grown food, to standardize permissible production methods, and to establish record-keeping requirements, labeling procedures, and enforcement methods.

Movement towards Federal Regulation

Differences in state certification standards invited marketing inconsistencies, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations concerning organic products. Consumers were left wondering exactly what they were buying. It was clear that a single national organic standard was desirable, but not clear whether that could be brought about by industry or by federal regulation. That issue was settled in the late 1980s when a popular agricultural chemical called Alar or daminozide, a ripening agent commonly used in apples, was labeled a potential carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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