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Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time

What comes to mind when you see food labeled "organic" at the grocery store or farmers market? I asked one audience that question years ago, and a gentleman replied emphatically, "Nuts!" Being in North Carolina at the time, I asked if he meant pecans and walnuts, but he assured me that it was the people involved in organic agriculture who were nuts, not the food. I have to wonder, if the subject still crosses his mind, whether he sees organic agriculture's surging popularity as a sign that the illness is contagious.

After all the conversations about organic agriculture that I've had since then, I've found that the gentleman is far from alone in his misunderstanding of the subject. Interestingly, the depth of misunderstanding about organic agriculture seems unrelated to whether the individual is a true believer or a doubting Thomas. This isn't so surprising, since our dependence on mass communication exposes us to a typhoon of mis- and dis-information intended more to persuade than educate us. When we pass along what we think we've learned, we inevitably distort its meaning - our minds are analog, not digital. As a result, our understanding of organic agriculture is more likely the sum of hundreds of anecdotal impressions than a focused study.

How do we untangle the multiple personalities - healthier, more expensive, safer, less safe, corrupted by corporations, better for the planet - that organic brings to mind? Let's start by treating organic farming and organic certification separately, the latter I will specifically address in a future post, as part of this ongoing series. As we shall see, organic farming involves an ancient protocol of crop and livestock production practices embedded in principles of interdependence and harmony. Organic certification began as a grass roots effort about forty years ago and is now managed by the Department of Agriculture, where interdependence and harmony are discretionary. Understanding how organic farming and certification function separately and together is essential for making wise choices about the source and quality of our food.