Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

Review Article

Organic agriculture in the United States: A 30-year retrospective

Garth Youngberga1 c1 and Suzanne P. DeMutha2

a1 320 S. Gaylord Street, Denver, Colorado 80209, USA

a2 Shady Lane Farm, 2861 Kittering Road, Macedon, New York 14502, USA


Since the early 1980s organic agriculture has undergone enormous growth and innovation in the US and throughout the world. Some observers have pointed to the US Department of Agriculture's 1980 Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming as having provided the catalyst for many of these developments. It is important, however, to understand how the evolving character of organic ideology during the 1960s and 1970s helped lay the foundation for moving organic agriculture onto the US governmental agenda in the early 1980s. We explore these and other contextual factors surrounding the USDA Report's release, including its methods, findings and recommendations, and both positive and negative reactions, as well as those factors that led to the Report's declining influence by the decade's end. The need for agricultural sustainability has played an important role in shaping, not only the path of organic agriculture in the US but also the overall politics of American agriculture. Legislative efforts to support organic agriculture have evolved along with this altered policy environment and are considered here within the broader context of the politics of sustainable agriculture. Next, we consider the organic industry's transition from a privately managed enterprise to the pivotal role now played by the federal government in the administration of the National Organic Program. Calls to move ‘beyond organic’ are also examined. Finally, we explore the impact of sustainable agriculture, agricultural research and farm structure upon the future of organic agriculture in the US. The politics within these three interrelated domains of public agricultural policy will likely bear heavily upon the future of organic farming and the organic industry as a whole.

(Accepted January 09 2013)

(Online publication May 31 2013)

Key words

  • organic farming;
  • organic agriculture;
  • sustainable agriculture;
  • alternative agriculture;
  • organic ideology;
  • R. Rodale;
  • US Department of Agriculture;
  • agricultural research;
  • agricultural policy;
  • legislation;
  • organic marketing;
  • USDA Certified Organic;
  • beyond organic


c1 Corresponding author: