the historical development of organic farming

Organic agriculture, which can be understood as a method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides and a holistic, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity, has a long and interesting history. This history has four phases and can be understood as follows.

Phase I began in 1840 when J. V. Liebig published Agricultural Chemistry which provided evidence that crop yields are affected by mineral plant nutrients. This led to the development of Phosphorus (P) fertilizer. Then in 1910, the Haber-Bosch procedure was developed and subsequently allowed for the industrialized production of Nitrogen (N). With the use of these discoveries, synthetic fertilizers were being used on a large-scale basis by 1918.

The Haber-Bosch Process, Image Credit:

Also during this time began the mechanization of agricultural production and the introduction of plant protection chemicals. It was also during this period that increased efforts in plant breeding began. These developments resulted in widespread specialization which has paved the way for monoculture. The social constructs of society also began shifting during this time period as the process of urbanization began. As people migrated to urban spaces, their interest in farming dwindled and the consolidation of farming ensued.

Extreme Erosion during the Dust Bowl, Image Credit:

With industrialization and the overwhelming use of synthetic inputs, the quality of land rapidly decreased with many environmental problems resulting, e.g the Dust Bowl (1931-1939) that was caused by drought, overgrazing, and intensive tillage. These problems and a rejection of the industrialization of agriculture spurred Phase II of the organic agricultural movement. This phase, which began in the 20th century, is characterized by counter-movements. Some of the most influential figures from this phase include:

  • Rudolf Steiner: non-material processes in agriculture (Austria)
  • Eve Balfour: the interconnectedness of soil, plant, animal, and human health (UK)
  • Albert Howard: soil fertility and composting (UK)
  • Mueller: advocate for the independence of farmers and nutrient cycling (Switzerland)
  • Rusch: microbial determination of soil fertility (Germany)

Phase III began as the concept of organic was internationalized and merged with the environmental movement. The initial defining moment for this was the release of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962 that highlighted the negative environmental impacts of widespread chemical use in agriculture. Then in 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (iFOAM) was founded in order to promote the organic movement. In the same year, the Club of Rome published Limited of Growth that highlighted the flaws and dangers of neoclassical approaches to economic growth, i.e. always needed to grow in order to demonstrate success. Shortly after the oil crisis arose. Then in 1981, the first university program in organic agriculture was implemented.

Image Credit:

We are currently in Phase IV, which includes the professionalization, market expansion, and legal regulation of organics. In Europe, the first legislation was introduced in 1991 and in 1990 in the United States. In 2005, an international agreement on the principles of organic agriculture as instated. Progress during this phase has been challenging as organic production methods continue to be looked down upon by mainstream agriculture and it is often criticized as being incapable of producing enough food for the growing world. However, studies continue to emerge disproving this criticism and demonstrating the sustainability of organic production.

Moving beyond Phase IV will be difficult, but is arguably necessary based on the current environmental challenges caused by monoculture and chemical-based production. Success in this respect will involve both bottom-up and top-down approaches as well as a decrease in the stringency of regulation in order to be inclusive of a variety of farming approaches. These are the goals of Organic 3.0 in order to provide the greatest number of the earth’s citizens – both human and non-human – with the best benefits possible.