Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson’s Contribution

History of Organic Agriculture series- Part 2

Sep 18, 2009. My introductory post on organic farming (Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time) highlighted Sir Albert Howard’s role in describing its fundamental practices and principles. Seeing Nature as the most efficient and enduring of all farmers, Howard portrayed organic agriculture as a holistic endeavor inseparable from a farm’s environmental conditions. In Howard’s view, an organic farm worked as a self-contained system comprised of resources both native, such as soil, and those externally introduced, such as seed and livestock. Farming organically meant to cycle solar energy and nutrients through the system by replicating natural processes by composting, cover cropping and rotational grazing. Howard stressed that organic farmers must continuously improve their production practices to bring their systems into closer harmony with nature.

However insightful it was, the organic vision that Howard and his peers, notably Lady Eve Balfour in England and J.I. Rodale in America, had outlined by 1950 was incompatible with the changes then transforming commercial agriculture. The components of this transformation were not all that new – chemically derived fertilizers and pesticides were introduced in the nineteenth century and hybrid seeds and mechanized tractors became commercially available during the 1920s. The agricultural intelligentsia at the publicly funded, university based research and extension system was solidly committed to this more industrialized approach to farming before the Great Depression and Second World War impeded the transition. The conditions during the 1920s that precipitated the Dust Bowl – mono-cultural commodity production (wheat) dependent on mechanization (tractors to plant, plow and harvest) for foreign markets (Europe) pointed to agriculture’s future come peace time. After 1945, the United States had the scientific, educational and industrial capacity and the economic incentive to replace traditional solar and animal powered agriculture with an industrial model driven by fossil fuels.

Commercial agriculture was part of a broader cultural transformation after the Second World War as the marriage between the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the scientific discoveries of the twentieth became synonymous with progress. Faith in human mastery of the environment – reflected in the ability to decode DNA or travel to outer space – pushed technology to the realm of religion. The new and improved way of doing things characteristically involved synthetic compounds that interrupted rather than complimented natural processes. For example, the recently synthesized insecticide DDT seemed capable of eradicating pest populations that posed grave risks to human health and agricultural production. Under constant pressure to operate profitably, American farmers embraced the brave new world of industrial agriculture that academic, commercial and governmental authorities enthusiastically endorsed. Excluding the great many that subsequently left farming and the relatively few who have found a viable alternative, American farmers are making that same choice today.

Rachel Carson; Circa 1929, Off the Coast of what is now known as Woods Hole Observatory

Rachel Carson; Circa 1929, off the coast of what is now known as Woods Hole Observatory

If Howard, Balfour and Rodale gathered the kindling needed to ignite what we call organic agriculture, Rachel Carson unquestionably provided the spark. More than that, Carson brought a depth and clarity of vision that overturned the conventional scientific thinking of her day in the same way that Darwin and Einstein had in theirs. Born in 1907 and reared in modest circumstances in the Allegheny Mountains near Pittsburg, Carson’s early flair for creative writing gave way to a passion for biology that led her to a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. Always among the first women in her achievements, Carson started on a PhD but withdrew to become the breadwinner for her extended family after her father passed away in 1935. She became only the second full-time professional woman hired by the federal Bureau of Fisheries and displayed a knack for translating technical material into enjoyable and informative prose for print and radio delivery.

Carson complimented her federal service with an increasingly well received career as a freelance writer on marine ecology capped by the phenomenal response to her 1951 book The Sea Around Us. The work earned the National Book award, remained on the New York Times best seller list for 86 weeks and was eventually translated into thirty languages. Financially stable for the first time, Carson relocated to her beloved Maine coast and dedicated herself to communicating not just her wonder at the natural world but also her concern that humans were increasingly jeopardizing its survival. Along with an extended network of ecologists, conservationists and epidemiologists, Carson grew alarmed that the widespread and largely indiscriminate application of persistent synthetic pesticides threatened to fray and soon sever the interconnected web of life on Earth.

As we all know, Carson’s undertaking produced the crowning achievement of her career – Silent Spring, published in 1962. In contrast to the lyrically descriptive prose with which she had written about sea life, Silent Spring was a data intensive, densely footnoted work constituting the most comprehensive cost/benefit analysis yet conducted on a host of recently introduced synthetic pesticides. Many a budding environmentalist turning to the book for inspiration has put it down soon after completing the evocative introduction – “And No Bird Sang” – that led to the title. Carson advanced the most scientifically rigorous and technically detailed case possible because she correctly anticipated that challenging the new synthetic status quo would elicit a withering rebuke from powerful and deep pocketed interests. That criticism persists to this day and it is possible with contemporary analytical tools to poke holes in some of Carson’s assertions, though her fundamental conclusions are tragically all too accurate. Of greater significance than the fine print behind the science in Silent Spring is the spirit within its vision that launched both the mass organic movement and the sweeping environmental consciousness of the 1960s.

Like the great naturalists John Muir and Aldo Leopold before her, Carson popularized the understanding that human beings are an intrinsic part of the natural world which they could neither dominate nor control. And like those geniuses, Carson warned that extremely adverse consequences would result from ignoring this principle of universal reciprocity. Specifically, she documented that the new generation of synthetic pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin and heptachlor persisted long after their application and accumulated in the fat tissue of organisms exposed to them. The movement of these toxins through the food chain resulted in their concentration in longer-lived species and posed severe if unpredictable health risks. Carson was deeply disturbed that citizens were kept ignorant of these risks with comforting assurances that powerful technologies in the hands of responsible authorities would necessarily contribute to progress. Rather than advocating the prohibition of synthetic pesticides, she argued for a more realistic appraisal of the costs and benefits of specific applications and for an accelerated effort to study and employ alternative, environmentally friendly, systems-based, biological controls for pest problems.

The massive public attention that Silent Spring received became an extraordinary catalyst for Americans to reject the industrial agricultural model and seek out – and grow, if necessary – chemical-free food. Within a few years, J.I. Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine had several million subscribers and spurred the back-to-the-land youth movement from which many pioneering organic farmers emerged. Carson’s powerful message had clear connections to Howard’s organic paradigm: Nature, not mankind is in charge, and everything is connected to everything else, in a closed system. However, Carson’s warning cry regarding toxic synthetic compounds corrupting organic purity was a secondary if parallel concern to Howard whose primary focus was on the fertility and resilience of the system itself. This divergence in focus has led to an enduring confusion as to whether organic farming and the certification procedures that govern it address the process (the production systems) or the product (the food itself). More about this critical subject when we take up organic certification next time!

I’d like to close by acknowledging another of Rachel Carson’s enduring contributions. While Americans like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, our propensity to accept authority and conform to the status quo runs deep. Carson dismantled the presumption that the people in charge, even in a democracy, would always act with the best interests of the community at heart. She demonstrated convincingly that the commercial, academic and regulatory establishment would at best gloss over and at worst sweep under the rug any less than flattering information about their latest and greatest innovation. Such insight awakened millions of Americans to consider that perhaps atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons was not as safe as it was portrayed, that our military intervention in Vietnam was not about supporting an ally yearning for democracy and that the Watergate break was not simply a “third rate burglary” as the President’s press secretary initially suggested. Asking the right questions qualifies as “speaking truth to power”, and Rachel Carson inspired millions to start asking questions.

And, to persevere until the truth is brought to light!

Next time: Preserving the magnificence of organic farming in the pen and paper world of organic certification continues to prove challenging, a subject I will address in my next post.

  1. Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time
  2. Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson’s Contribution
  3. The Organic Certification Process: Early Beginnings
  4. Genesis of the USDA’s National Organic Program
  5. The Organic Community, the USDA, and the Morning After
  6. U.S. Adopts National Organic Standards: Victory for All, but…
  7. The Waste Land: Organic Agriculture during the Bush Years
  8. A loosening of the Organic Standards: Synthetic Substances
  9. Organic Agriculture and Organic Certification: Not So Ying and Yang
  10. Organic Certification Standards for Poultry: An Insider’s Look
  11. The History of Organic Agriculture: Final Installment

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While at the USDA between 1999 and 2004, Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production and spent two years working to develop and promote farmers markets. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.

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