Organic agriculture as a philosophy and practice of farming began in the early twentieth century. The pioneers were the English scientist Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), and the German philosopher, writer and artist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).
Howard became dissatisfied with the poor results and toxic side-effects of chemical-based farming while working as a research scientist in India.He began to study and develop scientific, biologically-based approaches to building soil fertility and repelling pests and diseases.
His philosophy and practice of organic farming informed the world's first organic farming and gardening organisations – New Zealand's Humic Compost Club, formed in 1941 (now the Soil and Health Association) and the Soil Association in the U.K., formed in 1946.
The principles and practice of biodynamic agriculture are derived from a series of lectures given by Steiner in 1924 (first published in English in 1928 as The Agriculture Course). The New Zealand Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association was formed in 1939.
Post-war agriculture’s chemical age
Both New Zealand organic organisations were formed during war time, when there was a great need for increasing home garden production without using imported chemicals. The Humic Compost Club educated thousands of gardeners in making compost and the other skills of organic gardening.
After World War Two, fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals became cheap and plentiful in New Zealand, and agriculture became increasingly dependent on them. By the 1960s the first signs of the dangers of going too far down this route were becoming painfully apparent: soil loss and degradation, water pollution, and the loss of native plants and animals, especially birds.
The 1962 book Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson warned of the damage being done to nature by agricultural chemicals. The dangers to humans exposed to the chemicals were also starting to cause concern, with problems ranging from acute poisoning leading to death or permanent disability, through to severe birth defects in the children of workers. (Although the worst of the old-generation pesticides such as DDT were banned, their replacements are just as toxic, albeit in different ways – see Our Stolen Future.)
Organic renaissance in the 70s
Organic gardening at home experienced a revival in the 1970s. The number of commercial organic farmers and growers began to expand to meet the growing consumer demand for nature-friendly food, free from toxic and polluting chemicals.
New Zealand's first domestic organic certifying agency, BioGro, was set up in 1983 to ensure that high production standards were maintained, and consumers could have confidence that what they were buying was truly organic.
By the 1990s New Zealand was exporting hundreds of tonnes of organic products. In the first decade of the new millennium, the export and domestic markets for organics both grew significantly, being worth a combined total of $350 million by 2012. (For more information on the market growth of organics see the New Zealand Organic Market Report 2012.)
OANZ is born
In 2006 Organics Aotearoa New Zealand was formed to represent and promote the interests of the organic sector as a whole to decision-makers and the public.