Throughout the world there are many standards for organically grown food. What they all share is the concept of growing crops without the use of chemical/synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and other agricultural chemicals. Until less than 100 years ago there was no distinction between “organic” and “conventional” agriculture. Before the 1950’s the vast majority of our food supply was sustainably produced without the use of synthetic chemicals.
In the early days of industrial farming, producing large amounts of food for a growing population was a priority. The possibility of using agricultural chemicals to increase crop production was quite appealing to many farmers. What began as a seemingly beneficial new phenomenon to producing more food became a widely accepted way to farm.
Initially, the increase in crop yields was the main result that fanners observed and the agrochemical industry was born. By the 1960’s farmers began to see other results beyond higher yields, including new phenomenon, such as massive loss of topsoil, loss of beneficial (predatory) insects, decrease of wildlife, and widespread fouling of rivers and streams. All these were observed and became increasingly common. These were side effects that most farmers were not expecting or pleased with. By the time these effects began to be apparent, the farmers were often dependent on the “agrochemicals” to maintain their new level of production. Because of mortgages, loans and leans, many farmers didn’t have the option of going back to more “traditional” methods that may have lessened their yields.
Over the next 30-40 years, the side effects became increasingly clear as they penetrated the food chain. One worth mentioning is the impact on the health of humans. Both the farmers (with farm workers), consumers, and people who lived near farms began to experience symptoms such as birth defects, compromised immune systems, reproductive disorders, new types of cancers, and a host of other health conditions. This was all documented in the landmark book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which explores the impact of industrial/chemical agriculture.
During this time the farmers began to see the increase in their dependence on these chemicals to achieve the same results as in previous years. In a relatively short time most farmers became highly dependent on these methods as this approach to farming was labeled “conventional agriculture”.
Fortunately there have always been farmers who have believed in more traditional methods of growing food like using compost, mulching, encouraging presence of beneficial insects, saving seeds, and other sustainable strategies to produce our food. When we support and participate in organic/sustainable agriculture we directly benefit from consuming higher quality food.