Where Did that Label Come From?
Tracing a (brief) history of "organic"
By the time this newsletter hits your mailbox, I hope you are preparing for a day of gratitude and, perhaps, remembrance. I also hope you have finished your Thanksgiving grocery shopping, so you don’t have to press your shoulders against last-minute crowds fighting for cranberries and wondering if there’s enough time to thaw a 28-pound turkey.
My guess is some of you will purchase food with the US Department of Agriculture’s “Certified Organic” label. Recently, I started wondering about that label, so this week I take The Classroom to a short history of what it represents. Read on!
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People my age did not grow up with the organic label. However, people my parents age and older might have found advocates for something called “organic” starting in the 1940s. Often, we associate the organic movement with the hippies of the 1960s, but other reform-minded folks preached the gospel of healthy soil a generation before.
Typically in the United States, the story begins with J. I. Rodale who left New York City and started a farm outside Emmaus, Pennsylvania, using organic methods inspired by Sir Albert Howard. While Rodale worked to rebuild his farm’s fertility, he decided to share his results. He started what became the Rodale Institute, wrote books, and published a magazine, Organic Gardening and Farming (later just Organic Gardening). Rodale’s commitment was to soil and human health. The combination produced more than an agricultural experiment; it generated a movement.
To be sure, the movement was small. A boost came with the back-to-the-land ethos of the 1960’s counterculture. Sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, the organic movement incorporated broad critiques that organic agriculture was meant to solve, or contribute toward solving, all manner of social and environmental ills. It critiqued industrial agriculture. It critiqued labor practices. It critiqued pollution. It critiqued general unwholesomeness. According to many, what allowed most of the harmful practices inherent in those things was an uninterested or corrupt government. Seen this way, this could be a radical movement.
Movements like this necessarily are decentralized, attracting many individuals and small groups who are interested in changing things for myriad reasons.
By the 1980s, organic agriculture and gardening was practiced on small homesteads and growing farms and little garden patches. The definition of organic became much like Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: people knew “organic” when they saw it. But interest in organic food grew, whether for human or environmental health reasons or anti-corporate farming reasons or for better farmworker conditions or a basic counterculture reasons. As the general public grew more interested, some desired clarity around definitions, so that organic standards might be uniform and easily understood.
The turning point usually pointed to in this history was the 1989 Alar scare. Apple growers applied Alar, or daminozide, to the fruit. A report on its carcinogenic effects on mice was featured on 60 Minutes and a mini-panic ensued. The panic crystallized around food safety and fear of synthetic chemicals. The public demanded safe food.
Organic seemed to be the answer. But what was organic?
What’s in a Label?
States had been developing organic standards, but the time was ripe for federal action.
In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. The philosophy behind the organic movement disappeared, or at least was subordinated, when the USDA got involved, because measuring the morality of farming proved harder to quantify and monitor than did identifying a set of practices allowed and disallowed under an “organic” label. Consumers and farmers wanted clear standards, but those standards did not emerge organically (sorry for the pun) from the process. That is to say, the process was political.
For example, the USDA asked for public feedback on its first proposed national standards in 1998. Those draft standards permitted irradiation, genetically engineered seeds, and sewage sludge to be used and still receive organic classification. The public uproar produced more than a quarter-million negative comments to the department, its largest negative response ever. The National Organic Program established its standards in 2002.
In establishing the standards, authorities had to decide whether to consider all growing practices or focus on inputs (they focused on inputs), whether to focus on practices or outcomes (they focused on practices, unable to guarantee, for instance, zero pesticide residues), and questions about how long a process it should be (now three years of organic practices before certification). The details are complicated.
Rather than retreading each debate and its result in detail, or track its development over time, I mean to point out something simpler: “organic” is defined by people through a process of compromise. Which is to say: it’s a political, rather than a “natural” category. You probably know this. But I bet you don’t think of it often.
Maybe on a holiday that centers on eating, it’s worth thinking about. Because, as Michael Pollan put it:
“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too.1
Depending on who sits around your table, it might be better to talk about football.
Happy Thanksgiving! I’m grateful you keep reading Taking Bearings.
I briefly tackled organic agriculture in my first book , but I am in the middle of reporting a story where I’ll be digging into the topic deeper. Be on the look out for that.
I continue reporting local stories, two of which appeared today. The first is about a complicated intersection of landowners, migrating birds, and various others who care about this place. The other one is about a quintessential Skagit Valley event. I hope you’ll read these.
As always, you can find my books, and books where some of my work is included, at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit).
Taking Bearings Next Week
The Field Trip comes around next week, and given the holiday, several possibilities are available. Stay tuned!
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006. I also relied heavily on Robin O’Sullivan, American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping, and Eating (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015); Julie Guthman, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).