4, 2004: Attention graduate students in history:
looking for a thesis or dissertation topic? Valuable work
remains to be done on the modern history of organic agriculture.
Philip Conford's Origins of the Organic Movement began as
a doctoral dissertation, and while it offers a fascinating
view into the development of ideas about organic farming in
the first half of the 20th century, Conford himself admits
that his work "is exploratory in intention and makes
no claims to completeness" (214).
Conford's central focus is on events and ideas in Britain
from about 1920 to 1950 (his dissertation title was The Natural
Order: Organic Husbandry, Society, and Religion in Britain,
1924-1953). In part the book is an organizational history
of the Soil Association, founded in 1946 and today the UK's
leading organic certifier as well a major voice in sustainable
agriculture policy and education.
The book's foreword is provided by the Soil Association's
current president, Jonathan Dimbledy, and his endorsement
is crucial, because one of Conford's major arguments is that
the organic farming movement had strong early links to the
radical Right as well as to the radical Left. Jorian Jenks,
for instance, editor of the Soil Association journal Mother
Earth from its founding until 1963, was an active supporter
of the British Union of Fascists. Other early supporters were
members of a secret society known as the English Mistery,
whose objectives included fortifying 'Anglo-Saxon' culture
against supposedly pernicious 'foreign' influences like Judaism.
Such connections may come as an unpleasant surprise to those
who believe that organic farming or environmental thinking
more generally have always been the exclusive province of
the Left. But as Dimbledy puts it, "better by far to
give the dirty linen an airing than to whitewash the past"
(13). Without seeking to excuse or apologize for these distasteful
elements of the early movement, Conford places them along
the expansive political and social spectrum of individuals
and organizations articulating a critique of emerging industrial
and capitalist systems.
Among the book's most interesting sections are those which
broaden the discussion beyond Britain, including a chapter
on the organic movement in the United States, another on the
influence of Rudolf Steiner, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and the biodynamic
movement in Europe, and third on the role of the British colonial
experience in shaping ideas about sustainable agriculture
and good soil management practices.
This last includes not just Sir Albert Howard's development
of the Indore Process of composting in India, but also the
work of Sir Robert McCarrison, a physician whose experience
as a civil servant in India in the first three decades of
the 20th century led him to observe that traditional peasant
foods—fresh vegetables, whole grains, and grass-fed
meat and dairy products—preserved human health while
many modern foods--tinned meat, margarine, white bread, and
boiled vegetables—seemed to endanger it.
A third colonial figure Conford identifies as influential
in the early organic movement was Richard St Barbe Baker,
a forester stationed in Kenya who sought to counter the environmental
destruction of imperial settlement by founding a group called
the Men of the Trees (now the International Tree Foundation).
Each of these men, Conford argues, respected the intelligence
of the local people, paid close attention to indigenous agricultural
practices, and then sought to test their efficacy according
to Western scientific principles that would legitimize their
more widespread adoption.
Finally, Conford attributes a considerable role in the early
organic movement to a publication called the New English Weekly,
founded in 1932 and edited first by A. R. Orage and then by
Philip Mairet, a member of the Chandos Group, a collection
of social and economic thinkers who met fortnightly at a Soho
restaurant over a period of four decades. "Today,"
Conford observes, "only founder members of the Soil Association
or veterans and historians of the Social Credit movement are
likely to be aware of the NEW's importance to British environmentalism"
Readers may well find the proliferation of names and groups
in this history bewildering. Fortunately, Conford supplies
two appendices, one a biographical list of major figures and
the other an annotated list of influential organizations and
periodical publications. Including writers like Louis Bromfield,
Edward Faulkner, and H. J. Massingham, academics like R. H.
Tawney, researchers like Edward John Russell, as well as many
more obscure characters, these lists are a resource in themselves
and go a long way towards mapping the constellation of organic
Among the topics deserving of further research, Conford lists:
"the life and work of Sir Albert, Gabrielle and Louise
Howard, Lady Balfour, Jorian Jenks, and the members of the
Kinship in Husbandry; the history of the biodynamic movement
in the English-speaking world; the Economic Reform Club; the
Rural Reconstruction Association; the Council for the Church
and Countryside; the Faber archives; the contribution of dental
science to the organic case; the effect of commercial pressure
on agricultural policy during the Second World War; the history
of alternative medicine, with special reference to Edgar Saxon,
and the controversies over the quality of bread during and
after the Second World War" (214). To this collection
individual readers will be able to add many more. If a new
generation of organic advocates and scholars can pursue those
ideas, the result will be a richer and fuller understanding
of where we have come from, and thus where we can now go.
Laura Sayre is a writer and editor for www.newfarm.org.