REVIEW: The Origins of the Organic Movement
Getting back to our roots
A British scholar traces the history of organic agriculture

By Laura Sayre


The Origins of the Organic Movement

By Philip Conford

Floris Books, 2001
ISBN 0863153364, 287 pp, $24.95

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