By Quin Aaron Shakra
Writers often place organic agriculture in history using metaphors of “movements” and “waves” in order to draw meaningful parallels between ecological farming methods in past and present times.
For example, in their book Organic Agriculture: A Global Perspective (2006), authors Paul Kristiansen, Acram Taji and John Reganold trace the first explicit usage of the term “organic” in relationship to farming to Lord Northbourne’s 1940 book Look to the Land. Northbourne wrote that “the farm itself must have biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life.” Other well-known precursors to organic farming include Sir Albert Howard’s work in the field of soil science and Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic philosophy in the 1920s, and Lady Eve Balfour and J. I. Rodale’s respective work on soil science during the 1930s and 1940s.
Yet as waves and movements emphasize continuity from the past to present, they can also elide important distinctions between them. While the precedents for ecological agriculture may extend deep into the past—arguably much deeper than Kristiansen et al. have articulated—“organic” agriculture in the explicit sense is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. It is in essence a concept that emerged as a response to large-scale farmers’ increasing use of (and subsequent reliance upon) chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides to produce agricultural crops, post-World War II. The organic response to this trend over the past three decades can be understood as an increasingly organized set of perspectives on the human/nature dynamic as it relates to farming.
The civil rights and counterculture movements during the 1960s and 1970s were important preconditions for the emergence of explicitly organic farming practices. Farmer-intellectuals such as Wendell Berry, Masanobu Fukuoka and books such as Richard Merrill’s edited anthology Radical Agriculture (1976) explicitly critiqued industrial agricultural practices and promoted alternative ways of not only growing food, but also living on the planet.
Additionally, the incipience of ecology as a scientific discipline, including the concept of the ecosystem, thoroughly revealed industrial societies’ impact upon the physical environment. The farmerintellectuals of the 1970s frequently entreated their readers to adopt more ecologically oriented means of living in order to avert what they viewed as an impending ecological catastrophe. The writing was on wall during the 1970s, for anyone who wished to see it. Finally, the foundation of the International Federation of Organic
Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in 1972 marked an early attempt to organize and synthesize organic agriculture into a coherent framework of principles and practices. These developments comprise the significant events of what many understand as the “first wave” of organic agriculture.
While many of the individuals associated with these developments (such as Berry) remain ardent critics of industrial farming today, there are some striking differences between contemporary “second wave” organic perspectives (1990–onward) and first-wave views. Berry’s oft-quoted observation “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used,” which was part of an essay he wrote in 1989 at the cusp of the two waves of farming, is a useful way to broach these differences. Berry offered this phrase as a part of a larger critique of “the ideal of industrialism: a walled city surrounded by valves that let merchandise in but no consciousness out.” As a response to this walled city he promoted a subsistence-based disposition toward life as such. Subsistence economies obliterate the concept of surplus, or the idea that individuals must produce beyond what is necessary to survive. They most closely reach the ideal of sustainability—another concept that has only recently entered the public environmental discourse—primarily because they avoid producing commodities to be on the marketplace. Importantly, subsistence economies can exist within, but also precede, industrial societies.
The meaning of Berry’s work has been adulterated during this second wave of organic agriculture, which emphasizes consumer change as the primary locus of activism in lieu of earlier perspectives, which advocated human beings withdrawing from consumerist and capitalist-based relationships with the land. It is no accident that Berry was also an ardent critic of computers, having written another essay entitled, “Why I am NOT Going to Buy a Computer” (1987). This back-to-basics, anti-technology approach has largely disappeared from the public discourse concerning organic agriculture.
Michael Pollan’s phrase “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” perhaps best encapsulates the modern disposition of food politics: What humans do or do not consume is considered the paramount environmental struggle. The phrase “vote with your dollar,” presumes individuals’ choice to consume or not consume is the linchpin for ecological change. This individualist strategy has historically had a marginal impact upon the food policies of nation-states. Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted phrase “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” could be more accurately applied to the individuals who inhabit the interstices of government and corporate interests—in essence structuring the playing field that the individual consumer inhabits.
In the past few decades our understanding of organic farming within First World nations has become increasingly imbricated in the logic of consumerism, in addition to economic imperatives and government standards. I can think of no better illustration of this tendency than by relaying a personal anecdote:
Our farm was recently visited by an organic certifying agency for the first time since we took over managing it in 2009. What I found most striking about the experience was our inspector’s asymmetrical time management. In the roughly four hours he visited our farm, over three-quarters of that time was spent looking over our paperwork (what’s called an “Organic Systems Plan” or OSP) with the remaining time spent inspecting the farm itself. This confirmed the basic impetus I had for pursuing organic certification on our farm: It was not the integrity of the standard that motivated us to file the paperwork, but the pressures of the marketplace. We have farmed “organically” since day one here on the land, but without our certification, we cannot command a decent price for the seeds we sell through our seed company, nor will we find any certified organic buyers (as organic buyers must buy organic seed when available).
At about the same time I had been reading the 2011 State of Organic Seed report issued by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA). A substantial section of the report focuses on the transgenic (genetically modified organism, or GMO) infection of organic seed populations, and detailed the various ways that organic seed growers have been adversely affected by this. However, the impacts of GMOs are largely measured within the language of the marketplace. The report cited an “inadequate regulatory framework” for controlling the release of GMO seed populations and warned of a “loss of consumers’ confidence in the organic label” should the federal government not adopt more stringent standards.
As I read the takeaway of the report—“As a federal ban on genetically engineered crops is unlikely, policies must be adopted that address issues associated with the unwanted contamination of organic products by genetically engineered material”—I was struck by what seemed to be a profoundly anti-ecological sentiment embedded in an organic seed report. Anyone with a basic understanding of the nature of plant botany would acknowledge the proliferation of genetically modified organisms will not wait for policy change or even a “federal ban” (which seemed to be the OSA’s implicit, although obviously unrealistic, goal) on them. It seems a strategy adopted by Haitian farmers, who in 2010 committed to burning Monsanto seeds, including those that contain GMOs, would seem a far more viable option to put on the table.
These observations are not meant to attack our organic certifier, the OSA or even organic certification standards. They are rather meant to point out that organic agriculture today is inscribed within and dictated by the conditions of the marketplace, and this regularly contradicts the most basic ideals of organic principles such as closed-cycle soil fertility. When government regulation and consumer choice, and even voting itself, are understood as the only viable avenues for activism, this constrains our choices to exist on this planet and makes the existence of a capitalist social and political order seem all the more improbable.
As someone fundamentally informed by the study of history, I suggest that it is time that we look back in order that we can look forward. This is not a polemic advocating revolution over reform, but simply a call to bring radical notions of agriculture back into public discourse in order to challenge many of the assumptions that the second-wave organic agricultural movement takes for granted. These assumptions include deeply interrogating the meaning of sustainability and green consumerism and their affinities with anti-ecological marketplace imperatives, and problematizing technological progress as a salve to ecological wounds.
Anarchist author Murray Bookchin’s essay “Radical Agriculture” (included in the aforementioned anthology) was an early attempt to articulate such a position. He wrote that “We do not become ‘organic farmers’ merely by culling the latest magazines and manuals in this area any more than we become healthy by consuming ‘organic’ foods acquired from the newest suburban supermarket. What basically separates the organic approach from the synthetic is the overall attitude and practices the food cultivator brings to the natural world as a whole.” As holistic views are fundamental to organic agriculture, so are holistic political critiques. It’s time to bring them into integration with one another.
Quin Aaron Shakra has lived in Ojai since 2006 and lives for his dual passions: writing and farming. He co-farms Mano Farm with Justin Huhn. Visit them at www.manofarm.org