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History of Organics

1920's to 1940's

Writers in the U.S. and Great Britain published influential works introducing the basic idea of organics – that the health of plants, soil, livestock and people are interrelated – and advocating a fundamental approach to farming based on understanding and working with natural systems rather than trying to control them.


Synthetic pesticides and herbicides were introduced to American agriculture in the 1940s, and like many new inventions of the era, were embraced and used wholeheartedly.

1940's to 1950's

A loose network of farmers, including J.I. Rodale, Ehrnefried Pfeiffer of Kemberton Farm School, and Paul Keene of Walnut Acres Farms, shunned chemical agriculture by farming organically and writing about their experiences.


Natural Food Associates (NFA) was formed in Atlanta, Texas, to help connect scattered organic growers with fledgling markets for organically grown foods.


Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring was published, documenting some of the negative consequences associated with chemical use in agriculture. Its publication gave rise to environmental consciousness and a renewed focus on organic agriculture.


The growth of the organics industry prompted activists across the U.S. to form regional groups and create organic standards to certify farmers and their crops. A group of farmers formed California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), becoming the first organization to certify organic farms in North America. Their standards eventually became the model for the Organic Food Protection Act of 1990.


Some attribute the United States' ban of the pesticide DDT as the start of the modern environmental movement. The organics industry grew substantially due to expanding consumer opposition to chemical pesticides coupled with a desire for food that was produced without harming the environment.


The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released their report on the carcinogenic growth regulator Alar, which was used on apples. This was one of the earlier studies illustrating the health risks of genetic engineering.


The organic industry had estimated sales of more than billion, and Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), which established the framework to create National Organic Standards. OFPA mandated the formation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards for the UDSA National Organic Program (NOP). NOSB based its recommendations on industry consensus.


The USDA’s initial proposal for organic standards was presented for approval despite some provisions not recommended by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and was severely rejected. This marked the first time in history an industry fought for stricter standards for themselves.


Organic industry members and consumers sent over 275,000 responses to the USDA on their proposed National Organic Standards, requesting stricter standards for organic farmers.


USDA passed the National Organic Program (NOP) after reinstating prohibitions on irradiation, sewage sludge and genetically-engineered seeds.

October 21, 2002

Official implementation date of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) certification for organic labeling.

April 2004

USDA passed new rules that allow USDA-certified organic farms to use fertilizers and pesticides that contain "unknown" ingredients, and USDA-certified organic dairy cows that have been administered antibiotics or fed non-organic fishmeal – made with synthetic preservatives and potentially contaminated by mercury and PCBs (a known carcinogen).

USDA also announced they will no longer regulate non-agricultural products labeled as "organic". Any seafood, body care products, pet foods, fertilizer, and clothing, no matter how they are produced, could be labeled "organic".

May 2004

After a flood of petition signatures, calls, and letters, the USDA retracted their directives from the previous month.

June 2004

USDA reinstated one of the three directives from April, which allows seafood, body care products, pet foods, fertilizer, and clothing to be labeled "organic", regardless of how they are produced. (More...)


Debates arose about the legitimacy of "organic" dairy farms, and the USDA NOP controversy continues about which substances producers can use when making certified organic products.

Organics went mainstream as big businesses like Wal-Mart pledged to sell more organic foods. Sales of sustainable seafood, meat, poultry and produce all continue to rise.


Nearly $300 billion in taxpayer dollars is at stake in the Farm Bill over the next five years. With two Californian Congressional Democrats taking over leadership of two key House Ag Subcommittees, California food, farming, health, environmental, and nutrition groups can play a pivotal role in shaping the upcoming Food and Farm Bill. (More...)

The majority of the timeline text until 2001 is excerpted from the Whole Foods website, © 2000–2004, Whole Foods IP, L.P.