Tuesday, November 3, 2009: 1:40 PM
Convention Center, Room 318, Third Floor
In recent decades, there has been a notable upsurge in scientific work investigating the influence of agricultural methods on the nutritional quality of foods. This research has, on the whole, given support to "organic" and "ecological" farming practices. It is now not unusual, for example, to see claims regarding the higher antioxidant content of organic fruits and vegetables or the healthier fat profile of pasture-fed beef and dairy. Interest in the nutritional ramifications of agricultural technique, however, is hardly new. During the 1930s and 1940s, discoveries in the nutrition and agricultural sciences dovetailed at many points, and excited some of the best minds in both fields. Moreover, the growing understanding of plant, animal, and human nutrition in that period informed the contemporaneous “ecological agriculture" movement. Hopes for a better food supply, and thus better public health, were linked to visions of agrarian development and soil improvement. It was in this context that the early organic movement, with a particular set of claims to health and wholeness, arose in opposition to the "chemical" and "industrial" status quo. Unfortunately, the basic premises of this debate introduced conceptual problems that often hampered fruitful scientific exchange. During the postwar years, the researchers exploring the connections between soil and food, in particular, got caught in the tumultuous middle ground. Drastic changes in nutrition policy and agriculture, unforeseen in the 1930s, further assured these researchers' consignment to relative obscurity by the 1970s. A longer historical view suggests that the recent growth of interest in the nutritional dimensions of agronomy represents the revival of an older scientific tradition, rather than a new departure.