Majoring in Organics

North America's first degree program in organic agriculture models a holistic future for farming

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

In 1998 some 350 students at Ontario's University of Guelph took a novel approach to signing up for a class: They circulated a petition demanding its creation.

Their effort was a success, and Introduction to Organic Agriculture was added to the curriculum. But the grassroots push for organic agriculture education at Guelph didn't stop there. Thanks to the persistent efforts of agriculture professor E. Ann Clark-the David to a well-heeled Goliath on a campus where biotech agribusiness money flows into research-April 2006 saw students complete the first of four years in a bachelor of science program with a major in organic agriculture.

Given the mainstreaming of certified organic products and the rapid growth in their popularity, it may come as a surprise to some that no other school in North America offered an organic major until Guelph came along.

It was even a surprise to Clark, until she and a graduate student started investigating how organic agriculture was being addressed in North American education. The two surveyed 25 programs (15 in Canada and 10 in the United States), as well as 10 experiential programs that they thought were likely to have at least some organic focus. In 2002 they presented their results to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements conference in Victoria, British Columbia. There were courses in organics, and in sustainable or ecological agriculture. There were even some specializations in organics at a diploma level, some liberal arts degrees focusing on organics, and some majors in things like human ecology where organics is a central topic.

But at the time, no other school had a major in organic agriculture. (In the fall of 2006, Washington State University enrolled students in its newly launched major degree program, Organic Agriculture Systems.)

'Other places just have some wing nut faculty member like me who is willing to buck the trend and offer organics against all odds,' Clark says. 'But it's always on the periphery, it is always tangential, it has never been done intentionally from the inside. So that's what distinguishes this degree of ours.'