- The Global History of Organic Farming by Gregory A. Barton
Gregory Barton has accomplished a difficult task in squeezing an origin story of the global organic farming movement into just over two-hundred pages. His account first locates organic agriculture’s intellectual genealogy before tracing its spread across the Anglo-British world and Japan. Where most histories position modern organic farming as a branch of the consumer environmentalism of the 1970s, Barton identifies it as “the core of a middle stage of the environmental movement” (p. 2)—a trunk connecting conservation to environmentalism. The Global History of Organic Farming makes this argument by pushing the movement’s chronology back into the first half of the twentieth century. What Barton finds there is rather troubling. The organic agriculture movement drew nourishment from peasant romanticism and blood and soil fascism. Its agricultural methods were the product of imperial experiment stations in India. Its popularity was strongest among advocates of a cornucopia of fringe ideas including Lebensreform (life reform), vegetarianism, pantheism, ecology, holism, [End Page 650] vitalism, transcendentalism, and anthroposophy. In short, the practices of organic farming were bound up with both imperial science and right-wing romanticism as they flourished across the world from the United States and Europe to the furthest reaches of empire during the 1920s and 1930s.
The origins of modern organic practice lay in colonial India where it was the product of the “unique genius” of Sir Albert Howard (p. 49). There are a few surprises in Barton’s revisionist biography of this celebrated mycologist turned imperial scientist turned revered sage. Using newly available family papers, Barton highlights the extent of Albert’s collaboration with his first wife Gabrielle, an important scientist in her own right. Their collaboration produced some ninety-three reports, articles, and books between 1905 and 1923. He also casts doubt on the account of Albert Howard learning his famed Indore process of composting at the feet of Indian peasants. This myth, he argues, was crafted by Albert’s second wife (Gabrielle’s sister) who Albert married after his retirement from India in 1935. As Barton recounts it, Louise “tutored Albert on how to turn . . . the uninspiring topic of composting into flaming and passionate texts of romantic farm literature which amateur enthusiasts and professionals of all stripes . . . would enjoy reading” (p. 99). The publication of Howard’s The Waste Products of Agriculture in 1940 was the fruit of this collaboration. At a time when the Green Revolution was taking hold in global agriculture, Howards’ work appealed to peasant romanticism, orientalism and anti-modernism. The book solidified Howard’s position at the head of a global organic farming movement that was as concerned with health and ecology as it was with agricultural productivity. Louise was a driving force in Albert’s rebirth as an organic prophet. After his death in 1947 she continued to promote their vision, work that Barton believes positions her as one of “the single most influential women in the global environmental movement” (p. 201). This particular story of “the unsung role of women in science” (p. 2)is one of the book’s most important contributions to the history of environmentalism and science in the twentieth century.
The Global History of Organic Farming combines a superb intellectual genealogy of organic farming with a transformative biography of the three Howards. This is quite an achievement. Unfortunately, the book struggles to carry these insights through its account of the spread of the organic movement globally from 1947 to the present. Here Barton sketches the dissemination of organic farming to Australia, Canada, the United States, and Japan including the major policy supports the movement gained in the early 1980s in a scant fifty pages. This final [End Page 651] section raises two important questions that should spur additional work on the subject. First, how did a movement whose intellectual roots both focused on agricultural production gain such popularity in the 1980s as a movement of consumption? This change seems to have less...