Only certified organic food is organic.

There’s nothing new or modish about organics – until the 1950s, all the food we ate was organically produced.

I have a lot of time for Joanna Blythman, as well as owning several of her books, and in this recent quote she is echoing an idea I’ve heard many times. But I believe that in several important ways this notion undersells the innovation of organic food and farming.

First of all it is not historically accurate. The people who were busy in the 1930s, 40s and 50s inventing organic farming didn’t think this was the case. They noted the use of nitrogen fertilisers, DDT as a pesticide, as well as the destruction and/or poor management of the farmed environment. Interestingly they were amongst the first people to note the impacts of pesticides in the 1950s. In fact they were discussing how to stop members of the Soil Association from using it. In 1952 the ‘Members Information Bulletin’ suggested that members should read a report on the effects of DDT and stop using it, but as late as 1959 in ‘Mother Earth’ there was an editorial pondering if not using pesticides was really practical.

To be fair in 1959 the Soil Association gave $100 to Marjorie Spock of Long Island New York to campaign against the aeriel spraying of DDT. Miss Spock and her fellow campaigners managed to raise many public doubts about the wisdom of this aeriel spraying. As reflected later in a book:

“A good many people now have misgivings about aeriel distribution of lethal chemicals over millions of acres, and two mass-spraying campaigns undertaken in the 1950s gave have done much to increase these doubts”.

The book was ‘Silent Spring’; the author Rachel Carson.

What we can say about this in the 1940 and 1950s was that they were on the road to what we understand as organics.

Food is not organic unless it is certified as such, this is the distinguishing feature of organic food – not what is done in the field alone but the social agreements around those decisions. It is the conscious and deliberate decision by a farmer or grower to eschew some technologies for others and then bind themselves to an agreement that is in turn demonstrated to the consumer. Food grown without certification might be many things, may have many virtues, but it is not organic. As the little historical vignette above suggests it took a lot of work and thought to create the very idea of organic practices but the key moment was when this was fused with a set of standards and an agreement with the end consumer.

This idea was first proposed in Germany in the 1920s but took until the late 1960s to reach the UK and only in the early 1970s was it realised, almost simultaneously in the UK and the US. So before organic certification food wasn’t organic.

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