March 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" (25).
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 thought.
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.