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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Didn't all agriculture used to be organic?

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Ruins of Timgad
Ruins of Timgad in Algeria - Soil Conservation Service photo from the 1930s

“But didn’t all agriculture used to be organic?”

That’s the number one question that I get when I tell people that I am doing research on the history of organic farming. Many people assume that organic farming is synonymous with traditional American, Indigenous, or African agriculture. But it’s not.

The key lies in how the word “organic” is defined. People who equate traditional and organic agriculture are defining organic agriculture as any system that doesn’t use modern chemical fertilizers or pesticides. By that definition, any pre-1840 farming system was organic by default.

But that’s not how the originators of modern organic farming—like Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, or J. I. Rodale—defined it. They used a positive definition, with an emphasis on soil and health. They developed organic farming as a holistic alternative to the reductionist chemical-industrial agriculture that was beginning to be called “conventional” by the 1930s.

By their positive definition, organic farming is an agricultural system that consciously restores and maintains soil health by building up organic matter, using methods such as composting, green manures, grass farming, and crop rotations. Rock powders and other natural fertilizers can be added to supply missing mineral elements. Plants grown on healthy, humus-rich soil will be healthy and naturally resist pests and diseases, making pesticides unnecessary. Animals and humans eating a balanced, nutritionally complete diet of organically grown plants will also be healthy and resistant to disease.

Howard and other early organic leaders did not automatically assume that all pre-industrial agriculture was organic. Some cultures—most notably the places in China, Japan, and Korea that F. H. King documented in his 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries—practiced composting and good nutrient cycling. Other cultures—like the late Roman empire—mined out the soil fertility of their colonies in much the same way that contemporary European countries were doing in the nineteenth century. Soil conservationists of the 1930s frequently showed pictures of sand-covered North African ruins (like the one above) as evidence that abusing soil could destroy an empire.

It is worth noting that neither Howard nor any other early organic leaders used traditional African or Native American farming practices as a model. Howard seems to have had little access to information about historic farming practices in these regions and barely mentioned them in his books. When he incorporated traditional farming practices into his system of organic farming, they were of Asian (Chinese or Indian) and European (English or German) origin.

So didn’t all farming used to be organic? Actually, no. There was good agriculture and bad agriculture historically in every part of the world. But organic farming—with its conscious emphasis on soil health and its rejection of reductionism—is a uniquely twentieth century Western phenomenon.

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