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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

What Does "Organic" Mean?

Indore compost pile
An Indore compost pile built according to Howard's specifications

Most historians credit the British plant scientist Sir Albert Howard with first developing the system that we now call organic farming. But did you know that Howard didn’t use the term “organic farming” in his initial writings? Instead, he talked about “humus farming.”

I have posted two articles about Sir Albert Howard’s humus farming on this website. The first, “The Indore Method,” explains how Howard developed his Indore Method of composting. The second, “The Law of Return,” explores the influence of Justus von Liebig on both the chemical fertilizer industry and Howard’s Law of Return. Together, these articles document how organic farming began. But they don’t explain how it came to be known as “organic.”

Howard called his system “humus farming” because his main emphasis was on returning humus to the soil. Humus is a subset of the larger category of soil organic matter, which also includes living organisms like bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, arthropods, earthworms, and plant roots. Humus is the broken-down remains of these organisms, and it serves many functions in the soil ecosystem. It helps hold water, aggregates soil, and serves as a source of slow-release fertilizer for growing plants. Howard recommended composting organic wastes—turning them into humus—before returning them to the soil. That way, the nutrients were immediately available to plants.

Howard’s system of humus farming caught on immediately after he published his book An Agricultural Testament in 1940. But his name didn’t stick. That same year, biodynamic farmer Lord Northbourne used the term “organic farming” in his book Look to the Land. Northbourne used the word “organic” in a holistic sense—referring to the farm as an “organic whole.” Plants, soil, animals, and the farmer were all parts of that organic whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. This holistic approach was an integral part of biodynamic farming and was part of the organic movement from the beginning.

So “organic farming” has a double meaning. Organic refers both to organic matter—especially humus—and to a holistic approach to the farm as an agroecosystem. Both meanings have always been an integral part of organic farming.

Of course, conventional agronomists never understood either meaning of the word “organic.” In their reductionist mindset, they could only define “organic” as a carbon-containing molecule. Using that narrow chemical definition, they insisted that of course all agriculture was organic because all plants and animals are carbon-based life forms. Even synthetic pesticides like DDT contained carbon and were products of organic chemistry. On the other hand, natural rock powders and lime didn’t contain carbon, so the skeptical agronomists accused organic farmers of hypocrisy when they applied those “inorganic” fertilizers. Insisting that their chemical definition of “organic” was the only right one was so important to these scientists that they usually devoted a large percentage of their attacks on organic farming to elaborating on these irrelevant facts.

Organic farmers just shook their heads. They knew that organic meant a whole lot more than whether or not a molecule contained carbon. They knew that it was about humus, holism, and health. And fortunately, it was their definition of organic farming that stuck, not the reductionist misrepresentation.

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