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 by defining what is meant by the term organic as it relates to food. For our purposes, we will 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 the 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 have 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 topsoil 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 the 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.
  • The 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 the 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 future posts, we will examine the National Organic Program, rules and regulations, and what the USDA Organic label means.

Related Posts

References

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

Resources

The American Lawn – Environmental Impact of Turf Grass

Tract Home Neighborhood with Turf Grass Lawns and White Picket FencesA green, well-manicured turfgrass lawn shows we are good neighbors and symbolizes our affluence. The environmental impact of keeping our lawns green, weedless, and pest free is significant.

A previous post explored how Americans became obsessed with turf grass lawns. In this post, we’ll look at the impact of turfgrass lawns on the environment, people, and other denizens of Earth.

Water Usage

The news is filled with stories of droughts, low water tables, and record high temperatures. Many water utilities, especially in the southeast and southwest, are concerned about being able to provide enough water to meet customer demand.

There are a few areas in the U.S. where turfgrass lawns grow adequately with only rainfall, but most lawns require supplemental watering, especially during the summer.

All the water supplied to our homes is potable (safe for drinking). It takes a lot of energy, resources, and money to provide potable water. Our lawns do not require drinking quality water but they use a lot of it.

Sprinklers Watering a Lawn, Stairs, and the AirThe average American household uses 320 gallons of water a day, of which about 30% is used for watering lawns and gardens (35,040 gallons annually). Of that 30%, as much as 50% is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff (17,520 gallons annually) 1. Picture lawn sprinklers watering the street or running in 100° weather. In a dry climate, water usage increases and outdoor irrigation can reach 50-70% of total household water use 2.

During the summer, water usage can go up over 100% which strains water supplies. This is called peak demand and is similar to the pressure put on power plants when everyone cranks up their air conditioners at the same time.

Like most plants, turfgrass has both growing and dormant periods. We do not like to see dry brown grass on our lawns, even though they might be dormant and still healthy, so we apply extra water in an effort to keep our grass green year round.

Pollution

Human interaction with turfgrass lawns contributes to air, water, soil, and noise pollution.

The fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides we apply to our lawns contribute to pollution even before they arrive at our homes. This is not unique to lawn care products but worth mentioning. Manufacturing products and packaging uses resources and energy and generates air pollution and toxic effluents. The fossil fuel-powered trucks and cars we use to transport products from the factory to the store to our homes add to air pollution.

Fertilizers

Two-Wheeled Lawn Fertilizer Dispenser with Fertilizer on Brown LawnFertilizers contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which are intended to improve the health and greenness of our lawns. There is such a thing as too much of good thing. During watering or rain, fertilizer residue is washed off lawns into street gutters, down storm drains, and ends up in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Too much nitrogen or phosphorus in water causes excess algae growth and decreases oxygen which can create a dead zone where fish and other aquatic life can’t breathe 3.

Pesticides

Each year, Americans put over 70 million pounds of pesticides (insecticides and herbicides) on our lawns to kill bugs and weeds 4. As with fertilizer, residue runs off lawns and contaminates water sources. We contribute extra pollution by rinsing out containers in our driveways and pouring excess or unused pesticides down the drain or street.

I am leery of any product designed to kill something. Chances are it will have unintended consequences. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, many are probable or possible carcinogens and are linked to a myriad of health problems such as birth defects, neurotoxicity, liver and kidney damage, and endocrine system disruption 5.

Lawn Mowers, Edgers, and Blowers

Man Mowing the LawnThe EPA estimates gas-powered lawn and garden equipment is responsible for a whopping 5% of our air pollution. One hour of mowing the lawn with a gas-powered lawn mower emits 11 times more pollution than driving a car for the same hour. 4

That is to say nothing of the noise pollution caused by tens of millions of Americans revving up their lawn mowers, edgers, and blowers every weekend. Who wants to be woken up on Saturday morning by their neighbor’s roaring lawnmower?

Waste

Leaving grass clippings on the lawn is good for lawn health, minimizes the need for fertilizer, and acts as a carbon sink, but clippings look messy and spoil the manicured lawn look Americans seem to value. So, we collect our grass clippings in plastic bags and put them in the trash. In 2011, we sent 14.4 million tons (42.7%) of our yard trimmings to landfills around the country 6. Besides wasting valuable nutrients, transporting grass clippings to landfills generates air pollution, and huge amounts of grass decomposing anaerobically generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Empty lawn care product boxes, bags, and bottles and obsolete, broken, or unwanted equipment thrown in the trash add to the lawn waste stream.

Now we have learned about some of the consequences of our obsession with turfgrass lawns. It is not pretty.

In the next post, we will expand our horizons beyond turfgrass and look at the possibilities for a new American lawn appropriate for the 21st century.

Related Posts

References

  1. EPA WaterSense – Outdoor Water Use in the United States
  2. EPA WaterSense – Research Report on Turfgrass Allowance
  3. EPA – Nutrient Pollution – The Problem
  4. EPA – Beneficial Landscaping
  5. Beyond Pesticides – Lawn Pesticide Facts and Figures
  6. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2011

Resources