Growth of Organic Farming Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Organic farming became commercially feasible in the United States during the 1970’s as increasing numbers of Americans became concerned about the health hazards of pesticides and the damage to the environment caused by traditional farming methods.

Summary of Event

Early organic farmers were often ridiculed and accused of being radically opposed to technology and progress. In fact, they sought to implement as fully as possible the understanding of biological systems that science provided and to fight the misuse of technology. Those who favored organic agriculture believed that people in a democratic society should be free to farm as they desire yet should not be free to harm future generations, use up nonrenewable resources, or damage the environment. Organic farming Agriculture;organic farming [kw]Growth of Organic Farming (1970’s) [kw]Organic Farming, Growth of (1970’s) [kw]Farming, Growth of Organic (1970’s) Organic farming Agriculture;organic farming [g]North America;1970’s: Growth of Organic Farming[00020] [g]United States;1970’s: Growth of Organic Farming[00020] [c]Agriculture;1970’s: Growth of Organic Farming[00020] [c]Environmental issues;1970’s: Growth of Organic Farming[00020] Rodale, Jerome Irving Rodale, Robert Albrecht, William A.

In England and France in 1972, more than ninety thousand acres were farmed organically. In the United States, Jerome Irving Rodale’s book Organic Gardening was distributed to 750,000 readers. Under the leadership of Jerome’s son Robert Rodale, the publishing company that Jerome founded, Rodale Press, continued to publish materials on gardening, the environment, and human health and nutrition. Groups that focused on helping connect organic growers with markets for their crops—such as Natural Food Associates, Natural Food Associates founded in Texas in 1953—grew in importance in the 1970’s. So-called ecological agriculture was also supported by soil scientists such as William A. Albrecht, who in 1971 began to publish a monthly newspaper for farmers titled Acres, U.S.A. Acres, U.S.A. (newspaper)

Scientific advances, as well as the pressure to feed an increasing world population, produced a modern agriculture dependent on external inputs for increased production. Before the twentieth century, researchers had discovered that row cropping, thorough tillage, weeding, and application of chemical fertilizers increased crop production and could perhaps assist in efforts to feed the world. Statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Department of Agriculture, U.S. (USDA) illustrate the dramatic increases in crop yields between the late 1930’s and the early 1970’s: Corn yields increased 240 percent; wheat yields, 139 percent; cotton yields, 96 percent; potato yields, 214 percent; and strawberry yields, 342 percent.

These increases in production were accomplished because modern agriculture tended to substitute capital—in the form of machinery and chemicals—for labor and to increase the size of the farm unit. The environmental costs of these production practices included increases in pollution from chemical fertilizers and pesticides in air, water, and foods; decreases in food quality; depletion of soil and energy resources; and concentration on the production of single crops (monoculture) in specific geographic regions. Moreover, farmers suffered from the lower food prices that resulted from their increased productivity. In economic terms, the demand for food was comparatively inelastic—it did not respond to changes in prices.

Society paid the price for the loss of agricultural labor. As people who could no longer find work in rural areas moved to the cities, welfare and health care costs increased. Despite these developments, the USDA warned in 1971 that a change in conventional agriculture would force 50 million Americans into hunger or starvation. Consumers benefited from low food prices, but farmers using conventional techniques found it difficult to sustain profits while at the same time protecting the environment.

In 1964, farms with more than $40,000 in sales were roughly twice as likely to use pesticides as were farms with sales of less than $10,000. The former tended to have better access to capital, to receive volume discounts, and to use different crop mixes. As the regional markets for small producers gradually disappeared, diversification became very costly. Scientists warned of the increased risk of crop failure from the intensive practice of monoculture. The overplanting of genetically related corn resulted in the corn blight of 1970, when the harvest decreased by 10 percent even though the acreage planted was up by 5 percent; some states suffered losses as high as 50 percent. In 1972, two types of peas and nine strains of peanuts made up 95 percent of the production in the United States. An increasingly dangerous situation for producers and consumers was created as the gene pool shrank and pests developed resistance to pesticides.

Farmers who had chosen alternative methods of agriculture argued for the maintenance of genetic diversity in both plant and animal stocks and for the protection of the environment. Federal agriculture policy, however, was biased toward conventional agriculture. A 1975 study by the National Academy of Sciences determined that the USDA had neglected basic scientific research, focusing instead on large-scale farming and productivity, although only 16 percent of U.S. farms had 1974 sales in excess of $40,000, while 52 percent had sales of less than $10,000. Little research had been done that could help farms with low incomes; indeed, many of the studies conducted seemed directed against their survival. From 1950 to 1975, the number of U.S. farms decreased by 50 percent.

Conventional farming practices can create severe environmental problems. In 1935, for example, such practices resulted in the loss of three billion tons of soil from cultivated lands in the United States. During the next three decades, the Soil Conservation Service Soil Conservation Service supervised the expenditure of $11 billion to address the problem, yet four billion tons of soil were lost in 1964. In Great Britain in 1970, soils were declared incapable of maintaining crop production at their current levels as a result of a dangerous depletion of organic matter.

The pesticides used in conventional agriculture have often been successful in initially protecting crops but have generated unexpected effects on ecosystems, including, in some cases, a return of pests in even larger numbers. Pesticide residues in human food have been linked to allergies, cancers, and many other health problems. The manufacture and shipment of pesticides, moreover, have often resulted in disastrous accidents and subsequent contamination of the environment. By contrast, a major premise of organic farming is the ability of healthy plants growing under ideal conditions to protect themselves from pests through natural processes.

A farmer sows seeds on his organic farm in 1972.

(NARA)

In the late 1960’s, public pressure across the United States led to restrictions on the use of organochlorine pesticides in agriculture. The chemicals that replaced them were less persistent in the environment and food chain but potentially more toxic to the farmer. The substitutes of the 1970’s also tended to be more toxic to bees and other beneficial predators and to exert harmful physiological effects on crops. In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) which required hazard-free work environments for all types of workers, including farmworkers.

Public pressure and the potential dangers of pesticides forced farmers to make choices in favor of the environment and worker health. Farmers were faced with public concerns about pollution and consumer health, the increased cost of conventional farming and dependence on industry, overproduction of low-quality food, low prices, and scarcity of affordable labor. Many observers blamed corporate sales forces and university experts for having led farmers into high-cost production, high debt, and low profit. As conventional farming became more expensive while the prices paid per unit rose slowly, increasing numbers of American farmers learned the value of organic techniques.

Organic farming involves minimizing the use of costly presticides and other treatments by using practices long known to agriculture. These include crop rotation, mechanical methods of weed control, and maximized application of scientific knowledge to all aspects of farming. Organic farming promotes the production of highly nutritious food crops by cooperating with nature, understanding biological cycles, maximizing soil fertility, using a minimum of artificial fertilizers and organic matters, maintaining livestock ethically, avoiding environmental pollution, and protecting the genetic diversity of plants and animals. Moreover, many organic farmers believe that farming is part of a broader social, economic, and ecological agenda.

Significance

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the desire for organically produced food increased dramatically in the United States. Many believed that the effects of pesticide residues were cumulative and could not be fully assessed for many years; certainly, there was increasing evidence that wildlife was being dramatically affected by pesticides. As consumers turned to organically produced foods, the prices of such foods decreased, and, in turn, demand increased further.

Many Americans initially perceived organic farming as a hobby for part-time or gentlemen farmers. Organic agricultural practices were not widely adopted at first primarily because of economic factors. During the 1960’s, the incomes of farmers were 20 percent lower than the incomes of other American workers, and although farm income rose in the early 1970’s, many farmers tried to maximize short-term profits by adopting new technologies.

In the 1970’s, higher prices for chemical fertilizers and increasing federal restrictions on some pesticides increased the costs of conventional farming. Nevertheless, those who chose to farm organically did so knowing that they were taking a risk. Many farmers who changed to organic techniques did so to improve the health of their families, often after negative experiences with pesticides. Some farmers changed their practices to improve the health of their livestock. Still others viewed farming as a spiritual relationship with the land; their motivations included a concern for protecting the environment.

Organic farmers were gradually able to make larger profits. A survey of farm prices of organic food found little difference between organic and conventional vegetable and fruit prices in California, but nationally the major field crops cost 10 percent more when raised organically. The largest impacts of large-scale changeovers were felt with crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat; many organic growers of these crops claimed to be able to produce competitive yields after the initial conversion period. Organic farming also became linked with integrated pest management, an approach in which low levels of pest infestations—which would have been uneconomical to treat with pesticides—were allowed to exist, encouraging the buildup of favorable predators and parasites.

For developing countries, rapidly increasing populations, combined with deterioration of soil as a result of erosion and desertification, made the likelihood of success with organic farming more problematic. International organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, however, eventually declared that the use of conventional agriculture presents threats to human health and to the environment and does not lead to sustainable and profitable agricultural production. Most international agricultural experts thus continued to believe not only that organic farming was the answer for feeding the world but also that it was the only economic solution for sustainable agriculture. Organic farming Agriculture;organic farming

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duram, Leslie A. Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Presents arguments for the benefits of organic farming and discusses the growth of this form of agriculture. Includes a section that focuses on the experiences of five organic farming families.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francis, Charles A. Enough Food: Achieving Food Security Through Regenerative Agriculture. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Institute, 1985. Presents a somewhat biased summary of the need for organic farming and its potential to alleviate starvation in the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koepf, Herbert H. The Biodynamic Farm: Agriculture in the Service of the Earth and Humanity. Hudson, N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press, 2006. Provides a historical summary of the principles of organic agriculture and argues for the need for farming based on the concept that the whole farm is a single organism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lampkin, Nicolas. Organic Farming. Rev. ed. Alexandria Bay, N.Y.: Diamond Farm Enterprises, 1994. Explains the principles and practices of organic farming and discusses the limited scientific data available on the subject. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oelhaf, Robert C. Organic Agriculture: Economic and Ecological Comparisons with Conventional Methods. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978. Presents factual comparisons of conventional and organic agriculture. Highly recommended, particularly for its economic analysis.

U.S. Congress Expands Pesticide Regulations

U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition

Payment-in-Kind Program Compensates U.S. Farmers to Abstain from Planting

U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy

Genetically Engineered Food Reaches Supermarkets

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