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Editor's note: With this issue of AgriMarketing, we begin a series of excerpts from author Alex Avery's book, "The Truth About Organic Foods," which will be released this fall. To order an advance copy, go to and access the "Books" link in the upper left hand corner.

How did the "organic movement" get started? Where, when, and who started it? The answers are interesting and illuminate the somewhat absurd foundation for the entire organic philosophy.

It could be argued that organic farming is the default farming system of mankind and that food was "organic" for most of human history. After all, prior to the 20th century synthetic fertilizers and synthetic chemical pesticides simply didn't exist. But today's organic farming movement goes far beyond simply farming without the use of modern inputs; it's a belief system and a worldview that crystallized at the dawn of the 20th century as a backlash against modern science.

The notion that certain chemicals could only be made by living creatures was at the core of "vitalism"— a scientific theory of life that was held by many scientists prior to the 20th century. Vitalism held that life arises from and involves special "life forces" that are apart from the purely physical/chemical realm. But the theory of vitalism was dealt a major blow in 1828 when a young scientist named Friedrich Wohler accidentally made urea in the laboratory by heating inorganic salts to-gether in a dish. As Wohler wrote, he had witnessed "The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." 

A fierce debate between vitalist and non-vitalist scientists ensued for the next 75 years. By the turn of the 20th century, vitalism was dead within the mainstream scientific community, having been replaced by our modern understanding of chemistry and biology.

The final nail in the coffin of vitalism was the successful synthesis of ammonia for fertilizer on an industrial scale in 1909. This critically important technological feat was the spark that ignited the modern organic farming movement.

The man that would eventually fan that spark into a fire was an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner. As a child, Steiner professed to be clairvoyant and to be able to follow the "further journeys" of those who had died.

A devoted vitalist, Steiner claimed that unseen "ethereal" and "astral" forces permeated the universe and were intimately tied to living creatures. Steiner was incredibly arrogant, prolific and charismatic. He edited numerous respected intellectual magazines, wrote several plays, and was an avid architect. Before his death in 1925, he gave over 6,000 lectures on topics ranging from nutrition, medicine, and homeopathy, to the arts and theology. He even created a new type of school for the children of the Waldorf Astoria company's factory workers that emphasized hands-on learning, art, music, and physical activities (eurhythmy). Even today there are hundreds of "Waldorf Schools" throughout the world that continue to follow Steiner's teaching philosophy.

But it was his lectures on agriculture that spawned the organic movement we know today. Steiner taught his followers in the early 1920s that the then-new synthetic nitrogen fertilizers were "dead." Synthetic fertilizers did not possess critical "vital" forces, thus yielded "dead" food. Steiner recommended using only animal manures and crop rotation to fertilize fields. He taught his followers that the "new" food from synthetic fertilizers was spiritually and physically deficient and resulted in poor health.

Steiner went so far as to recommend specific farming practices that are still followed today by an ex-treme wing of the organic movement under the trade name "biodynamic." There are biodynamic farmer associations in every part of the world and foods and cosmetics sold using this name must adhere to Steiner's bizarre recipes.

For example, according to Steiner, manure has special cosmic properties. "What is farm-yard-manure? . . . it has been inside the organism and has thus been permeated with an astral and ethereal content. For this reason the dung has a life-giving and also astralising influence upon the soil."

Steiner claims that the best way to improve a farm is to add more "living forces" to manure. How do you do that? By burying a handful of manure inside a cow's horn for a year. "You see, by burying the horn with its filling of manure, we preserve in the horn the forces it was accustomed to exert within the cow itself . . . all the radiations that tend to etherealize and astralise are poured into the inner hollow of the horn. And the manure inside the horn is inwardly quickened with these forces, which thus gather up and attract from the surrounding earth all that is ethereal and life-giving."

To fully understand the roots of the organic farming movement and the organic marketing ruse, read the rest of this story in "The Truth About Organic Farming," which will be published by Henderson Communications in September.

Next Month's installment: Nutrition Notions

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