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Science, People & Politics

Science, People and Politics,Volume ii, Volume II, 6th September, 2010.

Organic farming as a social movement and critical community

by Helen Gavaghan

Rebels for the soil by Matthew Reed;
Earthscan;
£49 (hardback);
ISBN 0-226-35944-1

The ideas, or discourse, of the early organic movement rose during the social and cultural tumult of the period between the two world wars.
p33, Rebels for the soil by Matthew Reed.

This book is a story of twentieth Century organic farming's conceptualisations, seen primarily from a British perspective, and it is told within and in relationship to national and international societal, political and commercial structures. Though care for the soil is not new, debate about whether that care is industrialised and based on artificial chemicals or not has gained force with the rise of globalised thinking and the emergence of transnational commercial corporate structures for agricultural production.

No call is made on the techniques of fiction writing to make the topic palatable. Erudite English, structured self sufficient chapters with internal references among chapters, frequent summations of what is and has been explored in each chapter, brief notes at the end of each chapter and an alphabetised bibliography covering the whole book: all these tools assert the place of Rebels for the soil in the publishing panoply.

The central intellectual thread is that organic farming is not a reactive societal response hijacked by, created by or indicative of other agendas, such as opposition to the power of supermarkets, activists intent on reducing global warming or those disaffected with modern living. Rather organic farming is a proactive, internally self sufficient movement that has had various incarnations in the Twentieth century with some minority manifestations such as biodynamics and anthroposophy falling by the wayside.

By shedding esoteria and by hard work, modern science, ecology, spirituality and business acumen the organic farming community has established itself as a real alternate to the status quo. The rubric's of global and national food security are the one's within which the author wants his readers to evaluate his book's content.

In his preface the author seeks to defend his platform from superficial and reflexive antipathy by acknowledging that what he has written about the early years of organic farming will make uncomfortable reading for insiders. I am not an expert in the history of organic farming and this is not a history book. The author is a sociologist by practice. So I cannot evaluate whether what he has written will provoke hostility from historians. But I am an author who has written histories in fiercely contested national and international territory and do know that shining a different light on history can upset those who have thought theirs was the only definitive knowledge set capable of providing insight. Given his bibliography I hope Matt Reed's defensive parry is successful.

His chronological arch covers the 1920s to 2008 with a nod to Britain's empire, informal empire, dominions and colonies in the early Twentieth century. He describes briefly how India's famine of 1898 to 1902 was a driver for the establishment of organisational structures that gave impetus to efforts by Albert Howard to work with the land and local communities. Nor does he gloss over the existence of antisemitic language among those seeking from the 1920s to improve soil usage and food quality to ameliorate starvation and ill health from poor nutrition. But he makes no effort at scholarly analysis of whether the language was that of frustration, was politically motivated in the context of knowledge of the time, or was indicative of deep-seated Fascism. When Albert Howard was most effective the truth of the inhuman obscenity of Nazi concentration camps was not widely known and, actually, for a lot of the time he was a prime mover it had not yet happened. Humanity was yet to give full expression to an externalisation of its own discomfort with its own failings by resurrecting yet again the Jew as enemy and doing so with grotesque efficiency and specificity.

Reed's sociologist's mind set does not follow the historian's path of horror. Rather he gives analytic dominance to thinking about critical communities and social movements. His introduction in his own words is organic farming 101. Language showing he lives in today's angloshere. The chapter skates over a contour map of the dimensions of his book's content and, as is right and proper for a book of this kind, the chapter's real value becomes apparent only by reading the chapter, accepting mystification, battling through the whole book and then rereading the first chapter. This is not organic farming easy reading.

From the introduction we enter social movements, learn of critical communities, encounter the geopolitics of the inter War years (for Europeans the Inter War years are specifically those between the First and Second World Wars) and land in the 1940s when Eve Balfour, founder of The Soil Association, kept the movement alive despite the War's imperative of maximising agricultural productivity. The historian in me finds her success problematic, but as I say, this is not a history text.

Only by chapter six do we see organic food in the mainstream of food retail.

The retailing of organic food began in the 1950s, but it was only through the mobilization of the environment movement in the 1980s that organic food became a regular fixture on the shelves of supermarkets and began to form a notable part of the food industry.
p91, Rebels for the soil by Matthew Reed.

From the pioneering days when the protagonists would not have recognised they were chapter one in an historical narrative arch that would be called organic farming, via establishment of organisational structures and reformulation of organic farming in the radical mould of the 1960s we arrive in the age of legislation, regulation and sophisticated product development. Can organic farming survive in today's globalised commercial world where supermarkets control revenue streams that gush with the power and throughput of national treasuries? It is this modern question which makes clear this is a sociological and not an historical text.

I do not think you should spend £50 on this book unless you have a need, a strong interest in and /or an openness to learning about what organic farming can offer today's globalised, fractured and fractious Earth and societies. This is a book for scholars, policy makers, University libraries and thinks tanks.


About the book's author: Matt Reed is a sociologist with expertise in researching rural areas and a senior research fellow at the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire.

About the author of this review: Helen Gavaghan edits Science, People & Politics (ISSN 1751-598X). She has been an editor, journalist and author since graduating in 1980 from the University of Leeds with a Bsc (hons) in biophysics and has since the 1970s had strong belief in the need to break down the British english concept of "the two cultures" and to show science at the leading edge as the uncertain,exploratory enterprise it actually is. She spent nearly two years as a part time research student at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at The University of Manchester (2002 to 2004) where she was researching and writing a transfer report under the supervision of Dr Jeff Hughes from M. Phil to Ph.D on a topic related to the history of the international geophysical year of 1957 to 1958. She is an Alfred P Sloan Foundation Fellowship winner and she researched and wrote a history of application satellites, published in New York (Copernicus), with her grant. She was the first to write a history of EUMETSAT, working with unrestricted access to restricted papers.

This review was approved for publication by the magazine's deputy editor and editor-in-chief, Fred Pearce. Fred Pearce and Helen Gavaghan first worked together in 1984 when she was appointed technology news editor of New Scientist and he was the magazine's news editor with partial responsibility for her appointment and having a quasi line management role. They are now co-directors in Science, People and Politics Ltd. (Co. No. 0590-1911), which owns the title.

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