Lord Northbourne

The first use of the term organic in the agricultural sense was by Lord Northbourne in his 1940 work Look to the Land.

The farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life.

Lord Northbourne, 1896-1982

Lord Northbourne (1896-1982), born Walter Ernest Christopher James, was the 4th Baron Northbourne of Kent, England. He was an agriculturist, educator, translator, and writer on both agriculture and comparative religion. He was educated at Oxford and was for many years Provost of Wye College—the agricultural college of London University. He was also an accomplished rower, in 1920 he was a member of the Oxford crew. He was also a member of the Leander eight which won the silver medal for Great Britain rowing at the 1920 Summer Olympics.

Lord Northbourne was a keen agronomist, and wrote an influential book in 1940, Look to the Land. In this book, Northbourne introduced the term “organic farming” to the world, as well as the concepts related to managing a farm as an “organic whole.” After reading the book, Marco Pallis,contacted Lord Northbourne and later introduced him to traditionalist  and perennialist writers and their ideas. In years to come, he would integrate their thinking into his own writings and life, and corresponded with many of the most prominent writers of this school, as well as with Thomas Merton.

Lord Northbourne later began to make his own contributions to the traditionalist body of work, writing articles for the British journal Studies in Comparative Religion. Many of these essays were later included in his books Religion in the Modern World (1963) and Looking Back on Progress (1970). Lord Northbourne wrote on a wide range of topics, often pointing blunt charges at the failings of the modern world, and used vivid examples to substantiate his criticisms. His writings are noted for their clarity and logical progression, and so the books of Lord Northbourne are often cited as excellent introductions to the traditionalist perspective

This is the excerpt from his work Look to the Land, where Lord Northbourne first mentions the term organic:

“The best can only spring from that kind of biological completeness which has been called wholeness. If it is to be attained, the farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balance organic life. Every branch of work is interlocked with all others. The cycle of conversion of vegetable products through the animal into manure and back to vegetables is of great complexity, and highly sensitive, especially over long periods, to any disturbance of its proper balance. The penalty for failure to maintain this balance, is in the long run, a progressive impoverishment of the soil. Real fertility can only be built up gradually under a system appropriate to the conditions of each particular farm, and by adherence to the essentials of that system, whatever they may be in each case, over long periods.”