The rise of organic agriculture | PCC Natural Markets

Insights by Goldie
The rise of organic agriculture

Sound Consumer | September 2003

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

The post-war setting The nation had suffered through two world wars and a devastating economic depression, all in about 30 years. As the 1940s drew to a close, the exhausted but victorious troops came home. Rosie the Riveter left the factory and went back to being a homemaker.

Limited wartime agricultural production and food rationing came to an end. War-weary farmers eagerly returned the land to full production. Abundant harvests of grain, produce and livestock would be proof of a secure and peaceful home front.

The enormous surplus of nitrates and other weapons-grade chemicals at war's end were readily converted into powerful farm fertilizers. Chemical industries applied their chemical warfare research to conquering nature. Lethal warfare chemicals and formulas from laboratories in captured German facilities also found their way into the mix. Petroleum-based compounds were patented and chemical warfare was declared down on the farm.

Production soon soared from the kick-start, leaving the impression that a chemical fix would always bring the quickest, surest results. Most farmers were seduced to rely on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Agricultural colleges received generous research funding from chemical companies, and funding was increasingly dependent on training future farmers in chemical-based farming.

But chemical farming never was financially sustainable on a small-scale. Farm bankruptcies escalated and corporate farms became the norm. Former owners became hired labor — tenant serfs in a new feudal farm system.

Within a few years, overproduction became a problem. To prop up prices, farmers were paid to keep acreage out of production, a practice that also led some farmers, mostly corporate farms, to buy up larger tracts of land to increase benefits from the "Land Banking" practice. Still, America boasted of its Garden of Eden and so it seemed. But as Rachel Carson would later write, chemical agriculture long had been sowing seeds of agricultural and environmental disaster, and the newfound paradise showed wear from the war against nature.

Penicillin and other miraculous antibiotics and wonder drugs from the 1950s altered our approach to public health. They also were the Pandora's Box of livestock management, making possible the giant factory farming of beef, dairy animals, chickens and hogs that dominates in the U.S. today.

The Center for Disease Control and other public health agencies repeatedly have warned of a growing crisis. Pathogens mutated into stronger, more resistant forms in response to over-exposure to farm antibiotics. Formerly powerful antibiotics today are becoming useless, even as we face a growing onslaught of globally transmitted pathogens. Chemical agriculture seems in denial, unwilling to kick its addiction to heavy drugs, even in the face of mounting concern and calls for congressional intervention.

Hormones continue to be used routinely in 95 percent of U.S. beef production today, a practice not permitted in Canada, Europe or any other industrialized nation. The EU countries have refused to accept our hormone-laden beef for years, and continue to be economically punished with high tariffs on their foods exported into the U.S. Knowledgeable consumers are shifting their purchases to certified organic or at least to other sustainable or naturally grown meat and dairy products that are drug-free.

This year's scandalous effort by a large Georgia chicken grower to avoid the 100 percent organic feed requirements sent tremors through the organic community, but great support for the new organic standards came from newspapers, the business and investment community, and consumers. Also as a result, a bi-partisan Congressional Organic Caucus formed and meets regularly — an important barrier, hopefully, to future attacks on organic integrity. Washington's own Congressman, Jay Inslee, is part of that caucus.

Profit motives
The so-called "green revolution" of the 1970s was corporate agriculture's early effort to increase market share by promoting designer seeds with specific traits, supposedly resistant to more diseases and pests. They were marketed as super-achievers that would prevent famine amidst the population explosion, but in fact most traits favored further intensive mono cropping and standardization of crops, increased chemical inputs, narrowed seed diversity, and further destabilized family farms.

Biotech's drive to convince farmers of the world to convert to genetically altered seeds is "deja vu again" as Monsanto, DuPont and other industry giants are trying to foist yet another agricultural boondoggle on farmers with similar marketing ploys and promises. But this time consumer and environmental groups are better informed and are organizing with progressive scientists, farmers groups, hunger organizations and religious groups to stop the genetic invasion.

Today's mega chemical-industrial-agricultural-multinational corporations are the progeny of the Bad Seed which germinated half a century ago and has grown bloated and out of control. Their unholy union with mega multinational food manufacturers wields extraordinary geopolitical control over virtually all aspects of national and international agricultural research, investment, legislation and regulation.

The stakes never have been higher, with their collaboration intent on genetically altering and controlling grain, vegetable and fruit crops, animals, and other living resources from trees to microbes. Add to that the privatization of public water supplies and the future of our food supply is in jeopardy. But, when we make decisions to buy and eat locally grown and organic foods, and grow some of what we eat, we begin to take back control of our fork.

Organic opportunity
Throughout the last half-century, some farmers always rejected the fast-fix of chemical agriculture and followed a gentler, more natural path. Some used only low-inputs of synthetic fertilizers and made limited use of least-toxic pesticides, sometimes called integrated pest management or non-organic sustainable farming.

Others were doggedly committed to using no synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers or pesticides whatsoever. They learned from the land how healthy soil should smell, feel and look. They followed moon cycles, the turning of the seasons and the life cycles and habits of insects, birds and other wildlife, used aged manure, composted plant materials, worm castings, experimented with natural predator controls, interplanted crops, and tested heirloom and other reliable seeds and systems, and they always saved and shared seeds.

They were true scientists but were often dismissed as unproductive and backward and were refused bank loans because of their "unscientific" practices. State and federally funded agricultural research institutions ignored their needs. Still, in communities across the country, other farmers took note, dropped their sprayers and began leaving the chemicals behind.

The '70s saw another group of exhausted soldiers come home, but unlike the cheering that greeted vets 30 years earlier, these were part of a divisive and unpopular war in Southeast Asia and returned to a mostly unwelcoming country, still torn and anguished. Many vets and others, disillusioned by the war abroad and in the streets, sought out rural areas and a simpler life, turning to the land, learning to grow food. Most were new to farming and many connected with the small but expanding numbers of natural farmers. Some got agricultural degrees but rejected the chemical dogma, carving openings for organic and sustainable systems within agricultural academia. So began to take root, some 30 years ago, the seeds of organic farming of today.

Yesterday's organic pariahs are recognized as organic pioneers today, neo folk heroes. Around the planet there are unmistakable signs that we're experiencing the early stages of a major paradigm shift. It has to do with how we view the environment, our place with each other and other creatures, and in how we relate to food, where it comes from, how it is grown and sustainability for future generations. The shift is small, yes, but perceptible and viable — building hope for a sustainable future.

Such a shift in our paradigms is an extraordinary opening, comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ascendancy of Nelson Mandela to the presidency in South Africa after a quarter century in prison, or the peaceful regime change in the then-Soviet Union. All were "impossible." All happened within the last 15 years.

Governments in many parts of the world are taking note and — not wanting to put all their eggs in one chemical basket — have begun shifting policy, officially encouraging organic agriculture. In China, vast acreage is dedicated to organics — but China also is becoming a major producer of genetically altered crops and apparently intends to continue in both. The German government has an official goal, backed by incentives, of having 20 percent of its production organic by 2010. The most surprising and serious, judging by its investment in research and success in product development, is little Cuba.

Scientifically based organic agriculture, as well as some forms of low-input, sustainable farming practices provide the surest means of extricating us from the dangerous reliance on lethal chemicals on our soil and in raising farm animals. We can stop eating pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics and other toxic substances and keep them from entering our food and water. The story is unfolding; the ending may be a new Eden.