A quick search & you’ll find an IFOAM document discussing the 3rd wave of the global organic movement. This wave has been much anticipated and as part of that process we need to understand the past. In my book a few years ago I anticipated a number of possible organic futures.
The diagram here shows how I conceptualise the waves of the global organic movement.
The first period of ‘holism’ was a reaction to the environmental crisis of the 1920 & 30s. This combined a concern for the health of people & the dire predicament of the soils. Unfortunately although much of this pioneering work was overshadowed by global events rather than empowered by it. The post-WW2 embrace of the Green Rebolution pushed many of the movement’s ideas into the margins. In part that was deserved as elements of the organic movement had been too interested in racial theories, blood & soil. During the period after the war until the late 60’s the organic movement experimented & worked on what organic farming what would look like.
The second period of consumerism started as a far more radical challenge to food & farming than it looked after 30 years in the field. One of the guiding forces was Fritz Schumacher & his adaptation of Catholic social teachings to organic food. The idea of linking a farming scheme to a symbol & then allowing consumers to select the products as a way of both mobilising the movement but also creating an infrastructure to support it grew slowly at first but during the 1980s began to hit its stride. Any idea that led to success was going to face problems in a movement that had got used to its marginality but the growing engagement with the bastions of the agri-food system that the movement opposed was going to be particularly challenging. The exposure and to some degree the funding that came with growing success allowed some of the institutions of the organic movement to become increasing important players in both framing policies to promote and protect organics, but also in relentless and often effect campaigning. These campaigns, most notably over pesticide residues and GM crops succeeded very effectively in raising questions about non-organic agriculture, but were less successful in putting organics in places as an alternative. More corrosive that then threat of creeping commercialisation was the cultural assault on organic food, as it became fashionable. The appropriation of organic food as part of an assertive middle class, locking it into discussions about aspiration, lifestyles and marketing talk of branding began to erode the harder edge, more transformative edge of the earlier campaigns.
By the turn of the millennium the radical edge of the movement was looking for ways beyond the consumerism and its close links to the marketing machinery of agri-business. Various routes were, and are, being explored but they largely centred around the concept of participation. The answer to the exclusionary branding, the barriers put up by the price premium were to get personally and directly involved in the production, distribution and eating of the organic food. At the easiest end was the advent of the veg-box scheme, requiring greater commitment than a trip to a supermarket it demands of people eating from a limited menu of vegetables, this then shades through to people growing in their own back gardens, on parcels of land in cities, investing in community owned farms, saving food from becoming waste and volunteering to work in some way in food production. At its grandest this is described as a new form of ‘citizenship’ and its more grounded as just helping out. Of course in many ways this is just as exclusionary as consumerism, with social and cultural capital replacing money as the keys to engage in the movement but these cut across a range of social differences consumerist orientations struggled with. It also risks cutting out policy makers who are supportive as its focus on a DIY ethic, of farmers working together with researchers to co-create new management options, with eaters working together with retailers in not for profits and community interested companies it its orientation is increasingly local and urban. It is focused on solving problems not campaigning for systemic change, which may be its strength but also its weakness.