March 22, 2011

History Lesson: The Birth of Organic Farming

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Dawn Hunter, owner of Aurora Farm, a biodynamic operation south of Fairfield, Iowa. - Photo by Donna Schill.

Dawn Hunter, owner of Aurora Farm, a biodynamic operation south of Fairfield, Iowa. - Photo by Donna Schill.

The mid-1920s marked the beginning of chemical farming and of organic agriculture, as a result.

Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, educator, and agricultural specialist among other titles, believed that the burgeoning industrial food system was dangerous and functioned on misconceptions about nature. He developed his own way of farming called biodynamic, the precursor to organic farming, according to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, a non-profit based in Washington State and Oregon that fosters knowledge of the biodynamic method of agriculture, horticulture, and forestry.

Steiner believed his method created a regionally-distinctive oasis, protecting biodiversity and soil health.

Rudolph Steiner, 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“It is a concept and a principle that believes in the farm as a whole living organism,” said Dawn Hunter, owner of Aurora Farm, a biodynamic operation south of Fairfield, Iowa.  Hunter networks with other biodynamic farmers in the Midwest, describing their efforts to build the soil as a sort of intuitive science.

“It’s like this fascinating alchemy …,” Hunter said, “and we’re always on this discovery of how to make gold.”

Although biodynamic still exists in small pockets throughout the United States, its offshoot, organic, was destined to outgrow it.

In the 1940s, an English baron who practiced biodynamic farming in Kent was the first to use the term organic to explain how the methods mimicked nature. A decade later Americans had adopted the term as their own. Organic and biodynamic still share some practices in common, but organic has diverged more from Steiner’s teachings over the years, although both prohibit the use of chemicals in farming.

Several practices central to biodynamic philosophy are not required under organic regulations, according to Demeter USA of Philomath, Ore., the non-profit certifier of biodynamic farms and products.

For instance, organic has no requirement for biodiversity, allowing farmers to raise thousands of acres of the same crop. Biodynamic farmers produce most of their own fertilizer, pesticides and animal feed, whereas organic farmers may purchase imported supplies.

Organic production began in America in the 1950s, although it remained a small movement for several decades. The first time the federal government recognized the existence of organic food was in 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act was adopted as part of the Farm Bill.

This was a great victory for the members of the organic community who advocated for its passage by the USDA. Before that, a patchwork of certifying agencies oversaw the nation’s organic production, without consistent standards or intercommunication.  Eventually the organic community became aware of fraud among organic growers. The inconsistency of standards created difficulty in domestic trade as well. These issues fueled the desire for federal regulation of organic food.

The act required for the USDA to create uniform standards for organic growers to abide by. It also required that the secretary of agriculture form a 15-person standards board to oversee a national list of allowed and prohibited substances in organic production.  Existing certifying agencies were left to operate as before, as for-profit, nonprofit, or state-run programs. This piece of legislation has been the program’s foundation for regulations ever since.

Yet even with this document as a guide, America’s definition of organic has gone through many transformations since 1990.

The USDA tried to launch the program in 1997, releasing proposed regulations that allowed the use of genetically modified organisms, irradiation and processed sewage sludge in organic production. The public was outraged and the USDA retracted the proposal, yet the incident was indicative of the controversy that would continue to surround the program.

(The primary sources for this article are from the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association at http://www.biodynamics.com/ and Demeter USA at http://www.demeter-usa.org/).

One thought on “History Lesson: The Birth of Organic Farming

  1. Pingback: With little oversight, some organic foods labels may just be labels | Iowa Environmental Focus

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