Origins of The Organic Agriculture Debate

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How in the world did so many people get so fearful of the very science and technology that have lifted humanity out of malaria and mud huts? That's the fundamental question asked and discussed at length in the new book by ACSH's Thomas DeGregori, Origins of The Organic Agriculture Debate.

The book is more than just an organic farming book; it is a far-reaching examination of the social anthropology behind the "natural" movement from the scientific and technical revolution of the past 200 years to the resulting anti-science backlash that evolved into the current organic worldview and other anti-science beliefs. Importantly, DeGregori returns throughout the book to contemporary debates on agricultural technologies and development policy to discuss why belief in such "rejected knowledge" is harmful to people and needlessly destructive to the environment.

In the first half of the book, DeGregori details the dual development of science and anti-science "in a kind of double helix" of advances and oppositional beliefs. Throughout the nineteenth century, advances in chemistry, biology, and physics began to enlighten humanity about a previously magical world a world that had once been dominated by "vital forces" and mysticism. Things that were once attributed to spirits were now exposed in rational terms. By the early twentieth century, the new sciences of microbiology and genetics had all but obliterated vitalist concepts such as "spontaneous generation."

As DeGregori states, "When vitalism was banished from science over a century ago, many scientists assumed that this was the end [of it]...they were mistaken..." Instead, this demystification and technical revolution fueled an eventual backlash, with some directly calling for a "re-enchantment" of science. Thus the birth of the new "vitalist" movements of holism (1926), biodynamic farming (1920s), and organic farming (1940s). (Holistic medicine plays a strong role and grew significantly during this time but was first developed in the late eighteenth century.)

While the book is not necessarily light reading, it is chock full of great insights and is a must-read for all university science and philosophy curricula.

DeGregori is unapologetic in his advocacy of science and technology and his open derision of mysticism, vitalism, and other anti-science systems. DeGregori points out that "Many have tried to play the role of magus or magician, from early shaman to alchemist to contemporary holistic healers, but it is the scientists who delivered." Amen, brother.

Moreover, DeGregori gives a stirring defense of science as a unifying human language that transcends national and religious barriers. "Two centuries ago, one could speak about Western science or Hindu science because the vitalism in a body of science was often tied to the dominant religious beliefs of a culture. Today, science and technology need no modifiers as they have become universal."

The most controversial aspect of DeGregori's book is sure to be his close examination of the shared beliefs among today's radical vitalists and the Nazis, as well as the role such beliefs played in encouraging the Holocaust. DeGregori states that the only reason he raises this issue is the fifty-year history of anti-science believers wrongly blaming the Holocaust on modern science.

While being careful not to equate belief in vitalism, homeopathic medicine, organic foods, or animal rights (all very popular among the Nazi elite, including Hitler himself) with support for the Holocaust, DeGregori makes a strong case that it was the Nazis' false (and shared) sense of "purity" and superiority that encouraged their incredible inhumanity.

The scope of the Nazi fascination with vitalist beliefs is startling. Hitler was a vegetarian along with many elite Nazis "who believed in 'organic health'." The Nazi minister of agriculture from 1933-1943 promoted chemical-free "agriculture according to the laws of nature." The SS organized concentration camps to produce organic herbal medicines. The land surrounding the concentration camps was slated to become wildlife preserves, and Himmler instructed the SS to treat the camp's land and resources accordingly.

I wish that DeGregori had followed this thread further and more directly into today's controversies. He could easily have noted the direct similarities to today's radical animal rights and organic activists, whose own sense of purity and superiority give them "permission" to harm others. Animal rights activists and other vitalists have committed murders, terrorism, and enormous property destruction in their cause to purify modern society of practices with which they disagree. Organic farmers are currently using "genetic contamination" claims to block the spread of biotechnology to developing countries where the technology could save both human lives and wildlife habitat (through higher crop yields). While these connections are implied in the book, they need to be spelled out more clearly and directly.

In all, however, DeGregori's book is a well-written, wide-ranging discussion of current food and farming controversies in the context of the historical evolution of vitalist beliefs. For those uninitiated in current debates, this book is a great introduction and overview. For those who are already familiar with the details of today's debates, there is still much insight in this book. I highly recommend it.

Alex Avery is Director of Research and Education at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Virginia.