Science education

What I Learned About Organic Agriculture

In one of my posts on Google+, I relayed a piece of information about a company that labels its toxic products as “organic” to sell it better. I had no intention of either evaluating or devaluing organic products. In fact, I had a mild sympathy for organic agriculture even though I had read that there was no nutritional advantage in consuming organic food.

What Pyrethrum Is 8529301However, when one of the readers of the post pointed to my ignorance and lack of knowledge of “Sir Albert Howard or the Rodale magazine,” I tried to educate myself about organic agriculture. I learned that, in the English speaking world, there are three names associated with the founding of modern organic agriculture: Sir Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, and Eve Balfour.

Albert Howard worked in India as agricultural adviser and was in charge of a government research farm at Indore. He observed and came to support traditional Indian farming practices over conventional agricultural science. Howard spread his knowledge through the UK-based Soil Association, and the Rodale Institute in the US.

Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and educator whose philosophy of Anthroposophy, which he also called spiritual science, postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience, and aims to attain in its study of spiritual experience the precision and clarity attained by the natural sciences. His contribution to organic agriculture is biodynamic, which employs a holistic understanding of agricultural processes, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives and the use of astrological sowing and planting calendar.

Eve Balfour began farming in 1919, in Haughley Green, Suffolk, England. In 1939, she launched plans for the Haughley Experiment, designed to compare organic and chemical-based farming. Deborah Stinner,1 an entomologist, has written that by modern standards the Haughley experiment was more of a “demonstration” than a true experiment because it lacked methodological rigor, and it is thus not possible to draw any firm conclusions from its outputs.

  1.  Stinner, Deborah in Lockeretz, William, ed. Organic Farming: An International History (CABI,  2007). pp. 50

But the most influential figure in the US was J. I. Rodale, who, inspired by his encounter with the ideas of Albert Howard, became interested in promoting a healthy and active lifestyle that emphasized organically grown foods. He founded Rodale, Inc. in 1930 and established the Rodale Organic Gardening Experimental Farm in 1940. One of Rodale’s most successful projects was Prevention Magazine which promotes preventing disease rather than trying to cure it later. For decades it has been a leading source of information for those in North America interested in alternative health. In its September issue, Prevention has an article which begins with this sentence: “If you enjoy geeking out on scientific studies (like we do) or love getting a behind-the-scenes look at the latest research in integrated medicine (that’s us too), Deepak Chopra is about to make your day.” … and with this sentence we have come full circle:

Howard started the circle of organic farming by incorporating traditional Indian agriculture in his “science,” and now Prevention closes the circle by aligning with Deepak Chopra, the celebrity mind-body doctor who is still looking for a “scientific” explanation of the traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda.

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