Organic Farming | 2016 | Volume 2 | Issue 1 | Pages 21–22
DOI: 10.12924/of2016.02010021
ISSN: 2297–6485
Book Review
A Review of ‘Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable
Agriculture in the United States’
Published: 31 May 2016
Keywords: big organic; local food systems; organic certification; organic farming; organic food economics
Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable
Agriculture in the United States
Obach BK
MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, USA. 2015
327 pp.; ISBN: 978-0-262-02909-4
Organic Struggle chronicles the challenges encountered
by innovators in a growing segment of the U.S. food pro-
duction and marketing system. Practiced for millenia by
farmers before the introduction of chemical fertilizers and
pesticides, and first developed more formally in Europe,
organic farming practices began to gain prominence in the
U.S. only in the 1950s. Far more than a system for pro-
ducing food, this strategy has become a focus for those
supporting healthy and pesticide-free products, for some
who embrace the organic system as a food movement, and
by many who disagree with the current domination of the
country’s food industry by large farms and a small num-
ber of multinational corporations. Within the organic sector
there is debate between those who favor a system primar-
ily run by local farmers who sell through small markets and
CSAs, and others who insist that the ‘Big-Organic’ seg-
ment that now sells more than half of all organic food is
doing more to help the environment in the large picture.
Author Brian Obach describes this ongoing struggle.
Modern origins of formalized organic agriculture are
thoughtfully traced to systems developed in northern Eu-
rope, especially in German-speaking Austria, Switzerland
and Germany in the first half of the last century. Among
the foundations for this movement are key research publi-
cations from Albert Howard based on experiences in India,
the widely-cited lectures of Rudolph Steiner on biodynamic
farming methods, and the reports of the Soil Association in
England. Notably missing from the chapter on early work in
Europe is the excellent recent review Organic Farming: an
International History by William Lockeretz [1]. Connections
with religious beliefs and spirituality were seen as detri-
mental to acceptance of organic farming methods by some
in the research establishment.
Popularizing organic farming in the U.S. is credited to
J.I. Rodale and his son Robert Rodale, with the publication
Organic Farming and Gardening [2] by Rodale Press and
pragmatic research and demonstrations at the research
center in Pennsylvania. Publication of Silent Spring by
Rachel Carson [3] provided further impetus to this move-
ment, one that became associated with innovative restau-
rants, farmers markets, and a diverse array of direct pur-
chasing arrangements between farmers and consumers.
A part of the ‘struggle’ is still associated with social justice,
concerns about poverty, and preserving small farms.
Growing concern about the veracity of advertising of
organic products in the marketplace led to calls for govern-
ment certification of the production process. As described
in Chapter 3, early statewide organizations in Maine and
California in the early 1970s set the stage for wider con-
versations, and formation of the International Federation of
Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in 1972 provided
a global platform for discussion and an attempt at uniform
standards. There were some cases of reported fraud in
the system, along with several food scares in the 1980s
that promoted action by the government. After protracted
negotiation, a national organic standard was authorized in
1990 by the U.S. Congress, but it would be more than a
decade before agreement was reached on the National Or-
ganic Program (NOP) that was enacted into law in 2002.
Moving back to the process, a continuing struggle be-
tween ‘Big Organic’ and various coalitions of small farm
groups is described as the various factions debated the
standards to be adopted, materials to be accepted in or-
2016 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
ganic farming, and the importance of independent over-
sight of the certification process. The two sides appear
to have coalesced around the Organic Trade Associa-
tion (OTA), representing big business, and the Organic
Consumers Association (OCA) and Cornucopia Institute
representing small farmers and concerned consumers.
This oversimplifies the organizational landscape of organic
groups, and Chapter 4 provides a more in-depth look at
the genesis of several groups and the ongoing debates.
The next chapter provides additional discussion of the crit-
icisms of organic certification rules as well as concerns
about health, continuing threats to the integrity of the origi-
nal program, and the ever-present pressure of large indus-
try to relax the standards to help them gain access to the
continually growing market demand for organic food.
Treatment of labor, food justice, and distribution of ben-
efits in the organic food system are explored in Chapter
6. There is widespread concern that this niche food prod-
uct has become available only to the elite, with prices of-
ten above those of conventional food in the marketplace.
There is an emergence of competing groups, such as Cer-
tified Natural Growers (CNG) that uses a network of farm-
ers who certify each other to avoid the federal bureaucracy
and rigidity of the current NOP and independent certifica-
tion system. A number of strategic initiatives from farmers
and smaller states have expanded the options for farmers
as well as consumers, and the overall effort is to create
credibility in the way that food is produced and advertised.
A concluding chapter convinces the reader that the
dynamic process of organic certification is still a work in
progress, with competing certifiers and divergent philoso-
phies. An aspect not addressed in enough detail is the
importance of organic exports from this country and es-
pecially imports from other places where certification may
be in place but at times suspect in terms of the rigor of
reviewing the production process and use of questionable
inputs. Most certification organizations, public or private
in the U.S. provide opportunity for farmers to certify for
markets outside the U.S., particularly those in E.U., Japan,
and Canada. This is a dynamic industry where there is re-
markable room for innovation, and a segment of the food
industry that continues to grow in response to consumer
In conclusion, Organic Struggle is a book well worth
reading to be able to grasp an overview of a complicated
part of our contemporary food system. With ongoing de-
bates, competing organizations, and a skeptical public that
tries to understand this complex food landscape when
making purchasing decisions, the book provides factual in-
formation and many quotes from farmers and other par-
ticipants that delivers a rich resource to help the reader
understand the organic farming and food system.
Charles Francis
Department of Agronomy & Horticulture, University of Ne-
braska - Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA; and Plant Sciences
Department, Norwegian University of Life Sciences,
Norway; E-Mail:
[1] Lockeretz W. Organic Farming: An International His-
tory. Oxfordshire, UK: CAB International; 2007.
[2] Rodale JI, Rodale R. Organic Farming and Gardening.
Emmaus, PA, USA: Rodale Press; 1942.
[3] Carson R. Silent Spring. New York, NY, USA: Ballan-
tine Books, Random House Publishers; 2002.