What is the history of organic agriculture?

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Answered by: Merrill, An Expert in the The Environment and Your Health Category
The history of organic agriculture is a recent history and a product of the middle and late 20th Century. Before the mid-20th Century all food was organic. There were no harmful chemicals added to the growing and processing of food. There were no pesticides or herbicides used to contaminate the ground and the food that grew in it. Then agriculture changed.

Up until World War II, all agriculture was “organic.” For millennium the soil was clean. Fertilizers were made up of vegetable wastes that had been composted and manure from grazing animals. The soil was healthy because farmers used crop rotation and controlled burning.

Once the agricultural culture replaced the hunter/gatherers and the people became farmers, they realized that sustenance is grown from the ground, both from the plants and the animals that eat them. Through trial and error the procedures for farming were established. This ancient method was orally passed on from generation to generation and continued through the early 20th Century.


In the late 19th and early 20th Century, F. H. King and Albert Howard documented these traditional methods of farming used in the Far East and India. Howard spelled out the step-by-step process of composting. Jethro Kloss, author of “Back To Eden” used these methods in his farming techniques.

United States Department of Agriculture’s chronology of organic farming development runs between 1940-1978. It states that this period may be called the era of polarization of agriculture into organic and non-organic camps.” (“A History of Organic Farming – Transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to the USDA National Organic Program.”

J.I. Rodale saw the benefits of organic farming and launched his magazine “Organic Farming and Gardening,” in the early 1940’s. The publication reflected the ideas that Howard advocated. Both Howard and Rodale felt that organic and non-organic (conventional) farming were conflicting ideologies.

The term “organic” was introduced by Walter Northbourne in this era. The University Press of Kentucky reintroduced the publication of “The Soil and Health” based on the history of organic agriculture researched by Michael Pollan who advocated the work done by Howard and Rodale, and reinforced the ideas of Northbourne. Their writings, research and implementation brought about the beginning the organic agricultural system that we experience today.

What began this new concept of non-organic or conventional farming was developed through governments and corporations and was financed by these governments and the chemical industries. These funds created the farming concepts to benefit the interests of these entities.

One of the largest agricultural bureaucracies, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that organic methods are conservation friendly and have written several positive reports in their research findings.

In October 2002 USDA National Organic Standards was published and the organic seal was established. While produce and eggs were monitored, husbandry was not in check until that time. This agency established the guidelines that are currently in place.

The polarization of organics verses conventional food sources has become quite controversial. Time has proven that organic agriculture will continue to be a factor. It will be up to the individual to decide whether to consume conventional or organically grown food It is an easy decision to make--just look at the history organic agriculture.

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