Since the beginning of time, the growing of all foods that humans consumed was considered to be organic. Plant residues, animal wastes and elements of nature were used to increase the health of the soil to provide nutrients for healthy plants to grow and produce fruits and vegetables. Insects and pests were controlled by natural means. Animals fed on healthy plants resulting in an organic meat supply.
In the 1920s things began to change in the farming industry. Farmers wanted to increase food production so they began to use fertilizers to increase the nutrients in the soil. This allowed them to produce more fruits and vegetables per unit of land.
With the onset of the Second World War, farming techniques changed dramatically. During the war nerve gas was developed as a weapon and research on the chemicals used for it were found to be effective in killing insects. This led to the development of a new series of insecticides, the first being DDT containing chlorinated hydrocarbons. The fertilizers and chemicals used in farming led to the industrialization of agriculture and organic farming methods rapidly began to disappear.
At the same time that industrialized agriculture was developing, the modern movement to organic farming was beginning. It started in Europe in the 1920s when several consumers and farmers started looking for an alternative to the foods created by the industrialization of agriculture. By the 1940s the organic movement had picked up speed in Britain.
Science writer Rachel Carson published a book titled “Silent Spring” in 1992. In the book, she criticizes the thoughtless use of chemical pesticides fertilizers and weed killers. The title of the book represents the final disappearance of songbirds caused by the effects of DDT.
Several factors contributed to the ‘be natural’ approach of the 1960s and 1970s and fueled the growth of the organic market. Consumer’s growing interest in health and nutrition, the green movement and the focus on conservation and environmental issues were all contributing factors to this growth. The demand for healthy foods encouraged farmers to return to organic methods of farming.
The organic movement was the direct result of the customers’ demand. They were upset with the health hazards caused by the chemicals used in food and household products. With the increase in consumer demand and environmental awareness in the 1970s, the organic industry began growing at a more rapid pace.
Although there was agreement on the approach to organic farming there were differences between the states as there were no centralized standards to follow. Each state or certifying agent could develop standards based on the practices and constraints in their respective regions. Requirements for certification in California were much different than those in the Midwest or the New England states.
The differences between each state’s practices resulted in an unclear definition of just what the meaning of organic should be. In an effort to facilitate interstate marketing the need for a national standard emerged. This resulted in Congress passing the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. The OFPA mandated the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) develop regulations that would explain the law to producers, handlers and certifiers. The OFPA called for an advisory National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to recommend the substances that could be used in organic production and the handling of organic products. The NOSB was to assist the FDA in the writing of the regulations and the final rules and regulations were written and implemented in 2002.
Organic products could only be found in health food stores in the 1970s and 1980s. They began showing up in supermarkets by the 1990s. Today you can find many organic products in big chain supermarkets occupying prime shelf space.