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Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson's Contribution

My introductory post on organic farming (Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time) highlighted Sir Albert Howard’s role in describing its fundamental practices and principles. Seeing Nature as the most efficient and enduring of all farmers, Howard portrayed organic agriculture as a holistic endeavor inseparable from a farm’s environmental conditions. In Howard’s view, an organic farm worked as a self-contained system comprised of resources both native, such as soil, and those externally introduced, such as seed and livestock. Farming organically meant to cycle solar energy and nutrients through the system by replicating natural processes by composting, cover cropping and rotational grazing. Howard stressed that organic farmers must continuously improve their production practices to bring their systems into closer harmony with nature.

However insightful it was, the organic vision that Howard and his peers, notably Lady Eve Balfour in England and J.I. Rodale in America, had outlined by 1950 was incompatible with the changes then transforming commercial agriculture. The components of this transformation were not all that new – chemically derived fertilizers and pesticides were introduced in the nineteenth century and hybrid seeds and mechanized tractors became commercially available during the 1920s. The agricultural intelligentsia at the publicly funded, university based research and extension system was solidly committed to this more industrialized approach to farming before the Great Depression and Second World War impeded the transition. The conditions during the 1920s that precipitated the Dust Bowl – mono-cultural commodity production (wheat) dependent on mechanization (tractors to plant, plow and harvest) for foreign markets (Europe) pointed to agriculture’s future come peace time. After 1945, the United States had the scientific, educational and industrial capacity and the economic incentive to replace traditional solar and animal powered agriculture with an industrial model driven by fossil fuels.

Commercial agriculture was part of a broader cultural transformation after the Second World War as the marriage between the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the scientific discoveries of the twentieth became synonymous with progress. Faith in human mastery of the environment – reflected in the ability to decode DNA or travel to outer space – pushed technology to the realm of religion. The new and improved way of doing things characteristically involved synthetic compounds that interrupted rather than complimented natural processes. For example, the recently synthesized insecticide DDT seemed capable of eradicating pest populations that posed grave risks to human health and agricultural production. Under constant pressure to operate profitably, American farmers embraced the brave new world of industrial agriculture that academic, commercial and governmental authorities enthusiastically endorsed. Excluding the great many that subsequently left farming and the relatively few who have found a viable alternative, American farmers are making that same choice today.