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A history of organic farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard's War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2007

J. Heckman*
Plant Biology and Pathology Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 08901, USA,.
*Corresponding author: Email:


The organic farming concept developed in the period prior to 1940 and was pioneered by Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947). Howard, born and educated in England, directed agricultural research centers in India (1905–1931) before permanently returning to England. His years of agricultural research experiences and observations gradually evolved into a philosophy and concept of organic farming that he espoused in several books. Howard's thinking on soil fertility and the need to effectively recycle waste materials, including sewage sludge, onto farmland was reinforced by F.H. King's book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. Howard developed a system of composting that became widely adopted. Howard's concept of soil fertility centered on building soil humus with an emphasis on how soil life was connected to the health of crops, livestock, and mankind. Howard argued that crop and animal health was a birthright and that the correct method of dealing with a pathogen was not to destroy the pathogen but to see what could be learned from it or to ‘make use of it for tuning up agricultural practice’. The system of agriculture advocated by Howard was coined ‘organic’ by Walter Northbourne to refer to a system ‘having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things’. Lady Eve Balfour compared organic and non-organic farming and helped to popularize organic farming with the publication of The Living Soil. Jerome Rodale, a publisher and an early convert to organic farming, was instrumental in the diffusion and popularization of organic concepts in the US. Both Howard and Rodale saw organic and non-organic agriculture as a conflict between two different visions of what agriculture should become as they engaged in a war of words with the agricultural establishment. A productive dialogue failed to occur between the organic community and traditional agricultural scientists for several decades. Organic agriculture gained significant recognition and attention in 1980, marked by the USDA publication Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. The passage of the Federal Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 began the era of accommodation for organic farming in the USA, followed by another milestone with official labeling as USDA Certified Organic in 2002. Organic agriculture will likely continue to evolve in response to ongoing social, environmental, and philosophical concerns of the organic movement.

Review Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006

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