Origins of Organic Farming

Agricultural practices all over the world naturally started out pristine and unsullied. But by the middle of the 19th century with the creation of fertilizers to safeguard and increase production, they gradually became popular in usage. Likewise with the advent of chemical pesticides by the 1940s the pesticide era began in all earnest in the agriculture sector.

These modern techniques were adopted all over the world evidently for the benefits clearly visible. What was not recognized was the serious long term damage that was to occur to the soil, soil fertility, and human health. Today there is no denying that toxic chemicals have entered our food supplies. This is why agricultural scientists had to look for ways to remedy the situation.

While it was imperative to maintain production levels for a burgeoning population, biodynamic agriculture soon became essential for cultivation of organic food. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian visionary made the first known presentation in a series of lectures for what later came to be known as organic agriculture. His study was in response to farmers who were troubled by degrading soil conditions and deterioration in health and quality of crops by use of chemical fertilizers.

Next, Albert Howard and his wife Gabrielle Howard, both skillful botanists, founded an Institute of Plant Industry to improve traditional farming methods in pre-independent India. Working with upgraded implements and scientific methods they incorporated aspects of local traditional methods. These included evolved practices of crop rotation, erosion prevention techniques, and use of composts and manures. Upon return to Britain they carried back these experiences in traditional farming to propagate natural agriculture.

Subsequently, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, a German soil scientist, author of Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening came to UK at behest of Walter James, 4th Baron Northbourne to make his presentation at the Conference on Biodynamic Farming. The conference brought together several proponents of organic agriculture that broadened the scope and movement. Albert Howard also attended this conference and later Northbourne published his manifesto of organic farming entitled “Look to the Land” in which he first coined the term “organic farming.”

Subsequently Howard too published a book called “An Agricultural Testament” in which he adopted the terminology “organic farming.” Howard’s work spread far and wide and he become famous as “father of organic farming” for his scientific knowledge and principles of various traditional and natural methods. Meanwhile in the United States J.I. Rodale, who was captivated by Howard’s ideas and biodynamics founded a working organic farm – The Rodale Institute along with a Rodale Press that taught and advocated organic methods to a wider public.

In our times increased environmental awareness has brought organic farming to the fore. However it took decades to bring organic farming to its present juncture. Despite offers of grants and subsidies, it was lack of break-even profit line in organic farming that kept farmers tilling the land with fertilizers and pesticides. Later the world realized the ill-effects of soil loss and human health issues and responded with traditional methods that were comparable to organic farming, more or less.

However, even now it is difficult to obtain certified organic produce as some lacunae still exists, largely for economic reasons.  The good thing about organic farming is that it encourages crop diversity. The science of agroecology emphasizes benefits of poly-culture that occurs in organic farming. Planting a variety of vegetable crops supports a wider range of beneficial insects, soil microorganisms, and other factors that add up to overall soil health.

Crop diversity helps environments to flourish and protects species. Soil management is therefore key to organic farming. It relies greatly on the natural breakdown of organic matter, using techniques like manure and composting, necessary to replace nutrients taken from the soil by previous crops. It is a biological process that facilitates microorganisms to be added naturally with nutrients to the soil, what is better known as – feeding the soil to feed the plant!

Today, organic farming is practiced almost all over the world. Nearly hundred odd countries are involved in replenishing soils to counter the ill-effects of earlier used chemicals. The changed mindset of consumers all over the world is evident of a demand driven sector. Most countries promote organic farming in a bid to restore soil health and cleaning up the environment. Global organic tracts measure to nearly 26 million hectares and world over there are 61 standards and 364 certification bodies.

The world organic market in the US alone is worth 26 billion US$. Organic area in India measures to about 2.5 million hectare and includes certified forest areas. Interestingly non-certified organic areas are greater than certified organic area. The National Centre of Organic Farming under Ministry of Agriculture promotes organic farming across the country to provide assistance to organic farmers.