Vol.9 No.1 (2014)

Lord Northbourne, the man who invented organic farming, a biography

John Paull




It was Lord Northbourne (Walter James; 1896-1982) who gifted to the world the term ‘organic farming’. His 1940 book Look to the Land is a manifesto of organic agriculture. In it he mooted a contest of “organic versus chemical farming” which he foresaw as a clash of world views that may last for generations. Northbourne’s ideas were foundational in launching the worldwide organics movement, and the book was a turning point in his own life. This biography relies on primary sources to draw a picture of Lord Northbourne. He was a very shy man, a talented artist, a capable linguist, a keen sportsman and an Olympic silver medallist, a graduate and lecturer in agriculture of the University of Oxford, a lifelong farmer, he was profoundly spiritual, an accomplished author, and as a wordsmith he could be a compelling advocate for his cause as Look to the Land shows. His interest in biodynamics led him to visit Switzerland in 1939 to invite the leading advocate of the times, Dr Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, to present the first conference on biodynamic farming in Britain, and it was in the following year that Look to the Land appeared. Rather than the mechanics or the practices of organics, Northbourne’s book presents the philosophy, the rationale, and the imperative of organic farming. The ideas of his organics manifesto took on a life of their own and were quickly spread globally, with early uptakes in the USA and Australia. Meanwhile, while maintaining lifelong interests and commitments to agriculture and education, Northbourne became progressively more engaged with spiritual matters, and his subsequent writings reflect his growing interest in metaphysics. He translated books by leading perennialist authors Frithjof Schuon, René Guénon, and Titus Burckhardt. Northbourne led a full life, but it is Look to the Land that is his enduring ideological legacy. This biography examines: firstly, the book, its ideas, history, uptake and impact; secondly, Northbourne’s life before Look to the Land; and thirdly, his life after Look to the Land.

Key words: Walter Ernest Christopher James, 4th Baron Northbourne, organic agriculture, biodynamic farming, biodynamic agriculture, organic food, Oxford University, Perennialism, perennialist philosophy, Traditionalist School, Traditionalism, Anthroposophy, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, Eve Balfour, Rudolf Steiner, René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Kent.



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School of Land & Food, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia




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