Organic Food – History

What do the Dust Bowl, World War II, and the 1970s energy crisis have to do with organic food? Perhaps more than you might think.

Definition of Organic as it Relates to Food

A discussion of organic food should begin with defining what is meant by the term organic as it relates to food. For our purposes we’ll use the description of the USDA National Organic Program 1.

“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

20th Century Influences on Organic Farming and Food

Agriculture has been a 10,000-year-long experiment in growing plants and raising animals by trial and error. On the one hand, the use of synthetic chemicals and mechanization has enabled us to improve crop yields. On the other hand, these framing practices have resulted in nutrient depleted soil, erosion, water pollution, “super” pests, and loss of biodiversity.

Organic farming is not a return to the old pre-industrial farming methods. It is a way forward that builds on what we’ve learned over several millennia. This post will explore how 20th century historical events have influenced organic farming and food.

1930s – The Dust Bowl

In a dramatic and devastating manner, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s demonstrated the importance of conserving soil and maintaining biodiversity.

1930s Dust Bowl - Baca County, CO - Photo: D.L. Kernodle, Library of CongressDuring the 1800s and early 1900s, settlers trying to farm on the Great Plains dug up moisture-retaining prairie grasses and plants and replaced them with monoculture crops, they disrupted the soil with mechanized deep plowing, and burned stubble leaving land dry and bare. These farming practices combined with severe drought and high winds literally blew away the top soil of over 100,000,000 acres of farmland in the Great Plains region and displaced thousands of farmers.

The federal government responded to this calamity by creating the Soil Conservation Service under the USDA to oversee soil research and conservation projects across the country. Labor was supplied by the Civilian Conservation Corps formed to provide jobs during the Great Depression.

1940s – World War II

War often results in innovations and new products that find their way into civilian life. Sometimes these new products have unintended consequences and result in more harm than good. Like the proliferation of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use after World War II.

"DDT is good for me-e-e" from 1947 USDA BulletinDuring World War II, U.S. factories were built to pump out munitions and synthetic chemicals like DDT for the war effort. After the war was over, some of these factories were converted to make pesticides and fertilizers. The government urged farmers to use these new synthetic chemicals to improve crop yields and assured the public they were safe. Crop yields did increase but so did water pollution, soil erosion, and death of beneficial insects, birds, and other animals.

Concurrent with World War II, several important works about organic farming were published.

  • Look to the Land by Walter James, 4th Baron Northbourne describes a holistic approach to farming and his view of the farm as an organism. Northbourne is said to have coined the term organic farming.
  • Cupped Hands Holding Humus - Photo: Maui Farmers Union UnitedIn his book An Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert Howard shares what he learned during decades of living in India, observing and working with traditional Indian farming methods. He believed humus was essential to soil health and could be manufactured from vegetable and animal wastes. Howard is often referred to as the father of composting.
  • Lady Eve Balfour published The Living Soil based on her research and results from the Haughley Experiment, the first long-term, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical-based conventional farming.
  • American J. I. Rodale established an experimental organic farm in Pennsylvania, founded Rodale Press, and published Organic Farming and Gardening magazine.

1960s – Silent Spring

The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 brought the dangers of widespread insecticide and herbicide use into the purview of the general public. It demonstrated how bugs and weeds quickly adapted to pesticides and came back even stronger, but the damage to plants, animals, and humans was long-lasting and sometimes fatal.

Carson’s chronicling of the effects of DDT eventually led to its use being banned in the U.S. in 1972.

1970s – The Energy Crisis and Environmental Legislation

1970s Energy Crisis - Gas Station SignThe 1970s energy crisis resulted from U.S. oil production peaking and political events around the world. People worried if they’d have enough gas to get to work and companies worried about having sufficient fuel to run their operations. Farmers had two concerns; having access to synthetic chemicals and adequate fuel to operate the mechanized equipment they now relied on.

At the same time, Americans were demanding something be done about air, water, and land pollution. This led to numerous pieces of environmental legislation being passed such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Endangered Species Act.

Environmental issues and anxiety about food safety contributed to growing interest in organic food which was promoted through programs like “Know Your Farmer”.

1980s – USDA Organic Farming Study

Due to increasing requests for information on organic farming, and in light of energy shortages and public concern about food and the environment, the USDA embarked upon a study of organic farming in 1979. The results and recommendations were documented in a 94-page typewritten report published in July 1980.

During the study, the team found common concerns as noted in the excerpt below:

  • Increasing costs and uncertain availability of energy and chemical fertilizer.
  • Decline in soil productivity and excessive soil erosion.
  • Degradation of the environment from erosion, sedimentation, and water pollution from agricultural chemicals.
  • Hazards to humans and animals, and food safety from heavy pesticide use.
  • Demise of the family farm.

“Consequently, many feel that a shift to some degree from conventional (that is,
chemical-intensive) toward organic farming would alleviate some of these adverse
effects, and in the long term would ensure a more stable, sustainable, and profitable agricultural system.”

The team recommended conducting a study of conventional vs. organic farming, creating organic farming education programs, and establishing an interagency committee on organic agriculture.

1990s – Organic Foods Production Act

Enthusiasm for organic food continued to grow and by 1990 almost half the states had organic food standards in place, but there was little coordination between states and a fair amount of confusion on the part of consumers.

Organic StrawberriesIn 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to establish a national standard for organically produced agricultural products and facilitate interstate commerce of organic food. It took over a decade to establish the final national organic standards which were implemented on April 21, 2001.

In the next post we’ll examine the Organic Foods Production Act and what the USDA Organic label means.

Related Posts:

References:

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Organic Program – What is Organic?

Resources:

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