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The Development of the Organic Network: Linking People and Themes, 1945-95
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The Development of the Organic Network: Linking People and Themes,1945-95

Mark Newton

8th September, 2011

Phillip Conford's treatise on the rise of the organic movement is anything but dull, says Mark Newton

The post-war era has seen sweeping changes in agriculture. The last half century has seen big commercial enterprises dominate the landscape and political process. Fertiliser companies became core to ‘good’ government policy for farming, marked by a move that possessed all the gusto of a modern biotech giant: ‘the appointment of ICI’s agricultural advisor Sir William Gavin as a chief agricultural advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries early in the war was clearly a crucial moment in that process.’

Conford begins this impressive post-war history by summarising the propaganda campaigns that the organic movement found itself up against. Agriculture became an intensive industry in the belief that this alone was the most appropriate manner in which to rapidly increase food production, while other agricultural methods were considered primitive, even superstitious. This is not to say it was unsuccessful, but it has come at a cost – the ‘implications of agricultural efficiency,’ as Conford dryly explains. Farm acreage increased, machines took over previously manual tasks, workers left the fields for towns and cities in search of new jobs, factory farms were created and chemicals were applied to the land on a breathtaking scale. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium plus the ‘hormone’ herbicides MCPA, 2,4-D and DDT made their way into the eco-system. This is an important point to note in that, as Conford suggests, ‘low-input methods, properly experimented with, might prove equally profitable.’

Conford spends considerable time highlighting the scientific rigour of organic methods – something that has been dismissed by years of corporate propaganda campaigns, which dismiss organic farming as: ‘the build-up of humus, through a slower process than the rapid results which artificial could achieve, would ensure a long-term facility free from dependence on external inputs… avoid the dangers of reducing the earthworm population, polluting water-courses and damaging the health of animals and human beings who eat the chemically produced crops.’

The many different names for this method of farming - sustainable, ecological, alternative, traditional - are, for the sake of ease, united throughout the book under the banner of ‘organic’, the term itself having originated in the 1930s as a response to more intensive forms of agriculture. To the casual reader, the very existence of the organic movement decades before the publication of books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring will be striking. The history of the organic movement is vast and complicated, and after the post-war policy situation has been discussed, Conford goes into painstaking detail; mapping out the key individuals involved in the movement’s genesis through to its development over the next few decades, as well as considering the importance of various societies and publications that became the platform for discussion.

Examples include organic activist Eve Balfour, writer of The Living Soil, one of the founders of the Soil Association and influential figure in the Haughley Experiment (an ambitious plan to investigate the mechanisms and successes of organic farming); Rudolf Steiner, the ‘scientist, mystic and educationalist’ who set in motion the remarkable theories of biodynamic cultivation (or organic plus); E.F. Schumacher, known for his bold economic theories and his book Small is Beautiful, became a ‘powerful influence on the seventies generation of organic activists’; one of the most important organic farming organisations, the Soil Association, that published its journal Mother Earth in which numerous techniques and philosophical ideas were discussed; the Ecologist, which in its former print life proved to be a fiery and bold publication that supported many of the organic movement’s ‘antidotes’ to big businesses and intensive agriculture -  these are just a few names plucked out of the hundreds mentioned and discussed within the book.
Conford’s hugely impressive and assiduous book is more than a who’s who of the organic movement, though it is that too. It frames some of the most powerful forms of anti-establishment agricultural and environmental thinking along with an effort to demonstrate the scientific rigour that was brought to the table; moreover, it connects the discussions and influences to give an important picture of the challenges and development of the one of most important agricultural movements of our age.

Without a hint of sentimentality or bias, Conford has written a deeply sensible book, separated from the distracting passions of modern media, and which proves to be one that is indispensible for anyone who wishing to discuss organic farming in the UK.  Though it doesn't deal explicitly with scientific theories (that's not the point), it does provide you with everything you could possibly need to know on the post-war era in organic farming, and to see just what its key figures were up against. In Jonathan Porritt’s introduction to the book, he suggests ‘these battles with every aspect of orthodoxy and ‘establishment thinking’ provide an inspiring testament to the work of countless champions over the decades.’ This is the lingering impression that the book gives us, and for that Conford is to be congratulated: it is a powerful legacy to the organic innovators.

The Development of the Organic Network: Linking People and Themes, 1945-95 by Phillip Conford (£25, Floris Books) is available from Amazon

Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN

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