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“What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been!”
I couldn’t resist this title for the concluding chapter in our history of organic agriculture. This lyric from the rambunctious odyssey of the Grateful Dead also conveys the myriad twists and turns that have carried organic agriculture from the countercultural fringe to the White House garden and shelves of Walmart. Informed institutions including the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and agricultural universities around the world now give organic agriculture serious consideration as a potential solution to crises including global warming, food insecurity and the obesity epidemic and the disappearance of the family farm. Yet, as we have discussed throughout this organic series, the concept of organic agriculture remains remarkably vague and elastic, with the USDA’s decade old certification program doing as much to cloud as clarify its meaning.
What is the innate meaning of organic agriculture, what makes it different from other production systems and what promise, if any, does it offer a planet reeling from human-induced environmental cataclysm? Let’s start by revisiting where, when and how the practices and principles of organic agriculture first emerged. We must thank countless generations of Asian and Indian farmers for developing organic agriculture as they improvised agricultural systems in which every available nutrient resource and most especially animal (including human) manure was returned to the soil.
This exacting commitment replicates the natural order of an ecological system in which matter is neither wasted nor lost but instead efficiently recycles through communities and generations of interdependent organisms. Organic agriculture nurtures microbiological life in soils, life which passes through plants, livestock and people after which their physical remains are returned to the soil. One can recognize the alignment between these practices and the cycle of birth, life, death and re-birth which infuses Eastern spirituality.
For all its intellectual and technological achievements, Western civilization has never approached the enduring productivity achieved through the simple organic practices of the farmers in Asia and India. Making manure the primary source of agricultural fertility certainly became common practice in the West, but it was never as scrupulously managed as in the East, and it was sooner abandoned. Quite to the contrary, Western farmers have characteristically burned through their physical capital at an alarming rate instead of living off the interest as their Eastern counterparts were proving possible.
This tendency has been most pronounced in the United States where new land on the frontier and subsequently new fertilizers derived from fossil fuels have long favored the exploitation of agricultural productivity over its conservation. The Dead Zone choking out life in the Mississippi Gulf today is really nothing more than an underwater Dust Bowl.
“Once in a While You Can Get Shown the Light
In the Strangest of Places If You Look at it Right”
Another Grateful Dead insight is ideal for paying tribute to the academic pioneers who recognized the potential for Eastern agriculture to redress the deficiencies inherent in Western practices. The first was F.H. King, a noted American agronomist who sojourned to China, Japan and Korea in1909 and produced a book whose title perfectly conveys organic agriculture’s unique capacity: Farmers of Forty Centuries.
King was soon followed by Great Britain’s Sir Albert and Gabrielle Howard who dedicated twenty-five years of their joint careers in India to optimizing agricultural fertility through the proper combination, curing and application of crop and livestock materials – what we call compost. Accomplished elites in their homelands, these three visionaries nevertheless recognized the inherent shortcomings of Western agriculture and saw that what their peers dismissed as the primitive toil of Chinese and Indian peasants were actually the necessary corrective measures. Sir Albert succinctly characterized this alternative in his work An Agricultural Testament from 1940:
The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease. I retain special fondness for Sir Albert, who in dedicating An Agricultural Testament to his deceased Gabrielle found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet an evocative expression of organic agriculture’s essence:
The Earth, That’s Nature’s Mother, is Her Tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb
How does Howard’s definition of organic agriculture from An Agricultural Testament mesh with the most visible contemporary iteration of that concept, namely the USDA organic certification program? It’s fair to say that the two share a family tree, but as distant cousins, and sometimes very distant, indeed. In a construct first articulated by Sir Albert, organic agriculture means producing food in accordance with the fundamental paradigm of healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy livestock and healthy humans. As described in earlier chapters of this series (beginning here http://cookingupastory.com/u-s-adopts-national-organic-standards-victory-for-all-but), organic certification is a federally operated process verification program based on production standards that can only loosely approximate the conditions and practices embodied in organic agriculture.
Organic certification standards cover the essential elements of an integrated production system for both plants (soil, seed stock, fertility, crop rotation and pest management) and animals (origin of livestock, feed, health care and living conditions). They also categorize whether material inputs are allowed or prohibited by applying criteria that reflect the enduring contribution of the brilliant Rachel Carson to the organic movement which was just hatching at the time of her passing.
While organic certification can be an insightful guide pointing towards organic agriculture’s full promise, we should also recognize its limitations. Organic standards, especially managed through the USDA’s centralized regulatory model, are too static and limiting to capture the site-specific and time-sensitive realities of raising and handling food. Especially with regard to processed foods, the certification process overlooks the basic boundaries of time, energy and space that define organic agriculture. Organic certification can affirm certain attributes in food, including natural soil fertility and safer pest management practices, and small scale, locally produced certified foods are highly compatible with organic principles. Beyond those benefits, caution should be applied before substituting certification for the more engaged and informed approach to procuring food in which we must invest – literally and figuratively – to achieve an organic food system.
One emerging benefit of the harmonization of organic certification under the USDA has been that, with an officially sanctioned standard, land grant universities and other agricultural institutions are increasingly researching organic practices and systems. The land grants and their county-based service providers, the cooperative extension service, were among the earliest and harshest critics of the organic movement, yet almost all these universities now conduct some dedicated organic research. Leaders in organic agricultural research are just beginning to apply sophisticated analytical techniques to its fundamental elements such as the synergistic benefits of dynamic soil microbiology, the interactions between soils, plants and livestock living communally and using traditional plant breeding practices – not genetic engineering – to develop new plant varieties and livestock breeds adapted to local production conditions.
No history of organic agriculture would be complete without addressing the most frequently asked question about the subject: Are organic foods healthier for people? I’ll return to the conclusions of Sir Albert Howard who consistently cited the improvement of public health as his primary objective in studying organic agriculture. He perceived good health as the birthright of all living creatures and concluded that disease was in¬evitably connected to disruptions of the natural order, most frequently in the form of improper nutrition. Howard stated clearly and repeatedly that con¬suming an organic diet would impart human health and fitness in the same manner that crops raised on properly fertilized soils repel pests of all kinds.
Concern that an industrialized food supply would be nutritionally inadequate to promote human health drove the organic move¬ment from its inception. For example, Howard’s colleague Lady Eve Balfour wrote after her coast-to-coast trip across the United States in 1953, “The overall health picture of America is bad. . . . Food is even more over-processed and sterilized than in England; much of the soil on which it is grown is more depleted; and there is an even wider use of poison sprays.” Imagine her reaction to the factory farms and rest stop food courts along a similar expedition today!
Howard attributed the nutritional superiority of organic food to the abundance of mycorrhizal fungi found in biologically active soils sus¬tained by compost, crop rotations and cover crops. These fungi penetrate the fine root hairs of neighboring plants in a mutually beneficial relationship that facilitates nutrient uptake in both. Howard surmised that soluble, protein-rich compounds in the fungi were also absorbed by the plant and then incorporated directly into grow¬ing tissue. He saw these compounds as the building blocks for optimal amino acids and more sophisticated proteins that imbued organically raised plants with exceptional physical character¬istics including resistance to disease. Howard also thought that these char¬acteristics were transmitted through subsequent relationships in the food web, such as livestock grazing on healthy pasture and humans consum¬ing food from organically raised crops and animals. Conversely, Howard postulated that a microbiologically weak soil would yield deficient amino acids and proteins that would invite disease in the plants, livestock and people that subsequently consume them.
So what if organic agriculture has an ancient pedigree, preserves productivity and the environment over thousands of years and produces the most nutritious food – what use are basically subsistence farming practices on a hot and crowded planet? As the realistic yet ever optimistic Will Rodgers noted, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” It is daunting to grasp or convey just how enormous a hole the human race is digging on this beautiful planet we inhabit. Where our food comes from and how it is produced will be the defining issue of the human condition in the twenty-first century.
We desperately need an agricultural future that runs on solar power (beginning with pasture!), decentralizes production, damn near eliminates processing with synthetic substances and rewards farmers for being the true stewards of public health and the environment. Organic agriculture embodies all of these principles and its current achievements and future promise is unfolding brilliantly on thousands of farms all across the world – please seek them out and support them as your means and abilities allow!
To read other posts from this 11-part organic history series
Mark Keating has worked in the organic, sustainable and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy, academia, journalism and conducting organic inspections. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production. He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets. Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that organically raised and locally distributed food offers the surest path to human health and planetary survival, Mark, his wife and their daughter live alongside the Pequest River in New Jersey, the Garden State.