A review of Organic Revolutionary, A memoir of the movement for real food, planetary healing, and human liberation, by Grace Gershuny. (2017). Second Edition. Published by Joes Book Press. 242 pages. www.organic-revolutionary.com
In this elegant and informative book, Grace glides between her personal and professional life as well as historical events to tell her journey of creating the organic standards for the National Organic Program (NOP). However, this book isn’t simply an historical context of the organic movement. A great amount of time is spent painting a picture of how Grace learned and became passionate about soil, agriculture, and organic which proves useful to know as it later folds into her story of developing the standards as well as her own “true organic vision”. I can’t stress enough how illuminating it was to read the history and beginnings of organic and will provide no spoilers here. Ultimately, Grace strives to pull the curtain back on what she believes to be misconceptions about the development of the organic regulations and the organic movement itself by telling her version of the story.
And her story is refreshing. I began reading with a sense of reluctance as I thought that this was going to be another white bread story about a beautiful and idyllic life with organic and how we should all embrace its purity. While sometimes where Grace lived was indeed beautiful, it was not the typical organic story. I felt increasingly connected to the author as she spoke about complex and adaptive systems, cybernetics, and her own disconnection with organic purists as the author speaks about the importance of diversity and even equity. She highlights persistent questions that I’ve had countless, tiring conversations about myself from the term ‘organic’ being elusive as all compounds can be organic to food activists and farmers feeling that the organic label has lost its meaning because of it being taken over by industrial organic. She bares her truth to speak directly to young activists. She had me hooked in a matter of pages.
At the beginning, the author provides a graphic timeline depicting the organic beginnings in 1900 with Rudolph Steiner and the biodynamic movement to it becoming an organic movement and finally becoming a part of the USDA. She walks the reader through this timeline with impeccable detail and weaving. Purity is a main thread that Grace tugs on and continues to pull throughout the book from Germany in the early 1900’s to modern food activists and farmers. Purity has an inherent lack of diversity and within the food system illuminates philosophical divides within the organic movement. As there have been food purists there have also been early adopters and modern food activists who “described a holistic concept in which the farmer serves as coordinator of diverse elements of a self-regulating farming system, so as to optimize the cycling of nutrients.”
The idea of organic is not only steeped in leftist progressiveness (as we typically believe) like biodynamic farming, agroecology, food sovereignty, socialism, the populist movement, the back-to-the-land movement, and Ghandi, but also fascism. With what can seem like an alarming past for organic, not to mention a reminder of many conversations I’ve had with organic purists, it was a relief to read how Grace decidedly stated the importance of diversity, complex systems, integrated collaboration, and place-based farming. Whether it’s food or people, we need diversity within the environment and with ideas, groups, or coalitions. Purity creates homogeneity which is anathema to the survival of nature and humans as the author states.
This leads the reader into the second theme of the book which focuses not only on the development of organic standards, but also systems thinking and food sovereignty. The author first points out that the consumer-driven approach to organic standards (which according to the author is not only the approach but also perpetuates consumer ignorance) doesn’t allow for local and regional variances moving organic away from soil, human, and ecosystem health. It pulled away from what the author calls “agronomic responsibility” and pushed towards a focus on individual materials making up the food product. We went from systems to a mechanistic approach in standards. Any food activist may begin to see the flavors of food sovereignty which only become stronger as the author talks about the importance of flexible, site-specific, systems-based approaches. Typically, standards do not allow for this or complexity and local adaptation. Rather, they focus on cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approaches.
The author builds to a crescendo where she states, and then explains, that her story for getting the National Organic Program published over a time span of more than three years contradicts much common knowledge. This is a behind-the-door look at not only what took place over those three years, but also the misinformation that was, and still is, widespread. If you’ve lost interest in the organic movement – whatever the reason – Grace provides a reminder and resurgence to its cause.