Undergraduate Thesis: Reflecting on the Heart of the Organic Movement

During my senior year at Soka University of America (SUA), I worked on this thesis project, or capstone, as a graduation requirement for my B.A. in Liberal Arts. I was a student in the Humanities Concentration and the topic needed to have relevance in that area.

At the time, I knew that food has profound implications on human life and wanted to explore those ideas further. Wanting to merge my love for food, philosophy and the environment, I began researching what current industry leaders and historical writers have said in regards to the organic food movement.

READ MY CAPSTONE

GOAL

I sought to understand the implications behind the emergence of the 1960’s organic movement and how that affects the relationship between humans and their environment. More importantly, I wanted to understand what the biggest pain points are in the American food industry and propose a solution that is aligned with the philosophical values of the organic movement.

Some of the critical questions that I addressed are: How have the ways that humans relate to food and their environment changed? What are the philosophical and cultural implications of that? Does our current definition of “organic food” align with the founding principles? Where is the food industry headed? What’s my personal vision and how can I contribute to alleviating the issues?


PROJECT DETAILS

My Role: Student, Researcher
Time Frame:
 August 2010 – April 2011
Status: Complete
Mentor: James Spady, PhD., Associate Professor of American History
Institution: Soka University of America, Aliso Viejo, California
Budget: $250.00 (spent on travel fees, books, videos and conference costs)


RESOURCES

Below is a list of resources that I used in this project. Since this was a year-long project, this list is by no means complete. For a complete list, please refer to the bibliography at the end of the project.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living by Helen and Scott Nearing
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
America’s Food: What You Don’t Know About What You Eat by Harvey Blatt
Look to the Land by Lord Northbourne
Pay Dirt: Farming and Gardening with Composts by Jerome Irving Rodale
Back from the Land by Eleanor Agnew
Against the Machine by Nichols Fox
An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard


UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEMS

Before going out to do research, I brainstormed a list of problems that I could think of at the intersect of food, nature and humanity. These are problems I’ve identified because of articles I’ve read in the past or conversations I’ve had with professors and fellow students since the beginning of my undergraduate career.

  • Many people have no idea where their food comes from. Why is this? Should this be a norm?
  • There is a Slow Food movement out there. Why is there a need for this? What sparked the emergence of an anti-fast food movement? What does this organization do?
  • Food has profound abilities to connect people with each other – why aren’t people eating together as much anymore?
  • What does “organic” mean? Why was there a need to distinguish food as “organic”? How different are the definitions based on who you ask?
  • When did the organic movement really start?

Trying to write a capstone on the entire food industry was definitely unrealistic in terms of the time and resources I had. I decided to focus on the emergence of the organic food movement. Before researching, I had attributed the “start” of the movement in the 1960’s because Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published in 1962. The biggest task for this project was to validate whether or not the organic movement really started in the 60’s. If not, I had to understand when it began, what the historical context was to provoke the movement and most importantly, what the values were.


RESEARCH & WRITING

The first few months of this project were dedicated solely to research. Once I was able to identify the core problem for my project, I immersed myself in every food book available in the library and sought to understand what the biggest discussions around food were. In addition to obsessively reading about food, I also followed industry leaders (such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle and more) on social media. I noted compelling themes that I noticed and what the unanswered questions of today are.

In the beginning stages, I heavily utilized Amazon to identify relevant material for research. Amazon was incredibly useful for three big reasons. The first was that customer reviews provided deep insights as to whether a particular book or documentary was going to be useful for my project. The second was that the reviews helped me identify the biggest questions that are directed towards the food industry. Finally, the third was that the website has a “customers who bought this item also bought” section that shows books and other resources that are similar to the one I’m looking at.

The thing about understanding the emergence of the organic movement is that most people did not even refer to it as that. My role as a researcher was to dig deep and understand what sparked the need for an organic movement and recognize whether an idea aligned with that. Did people want “organic food” simply because regular food was contaminated with pesticides and didn’t want to put their health at risk? Or was there a deeper reason rooted in fundamental human happiness? I was beginning to lean towards the latter and if that was the case, the organic movement started way before the environmental movement of the 60’s.

The reality of doing research for a major thesis project is that I could spent months just reading all kinds of books but ultimately, only about 10% (maybe less) make it in the actual capstone. Since there are so many books written about the food industry and tons of documentaries and videos that exist, it became impossible to absorb all of them.


RESULT & FINAL GRADE

“It is with great pleasure I tell you that I will be asking John to record an “A” as your Capstone grade. Your essay is substantive, extensive, and interesting–engagingly and persuasively written. You managed to weave Thoreau into the text appropriately. And the discussions of Rodale and the Nearings are very good. You prescriptions for what industry and government could be required to do as far as transparency and cooperation are provocative. What a titanic struggle you are suggesting. Are you aware of that?

Anyway, the piece flows quite naturally from start to finish–though there are word choice and other similar minor problems along the way. Your reading list is extensive (about 45 items) and you cite about half that list specifically in the text. I hope you are very pleased with the personally resonant quality of what you have achieved. It is very closely related to your personal passions and yet extends and expands your knowledge substantially.

Lastly, it is personally gratifying to me as a prof who has known you as a student for several years and can well remember working with you in America in the Era of Slavery… your writing has come a long way. You would be right to be proud of what your labors have wrought. Congratulations! A first rate example of how to execute a capstone in a deeply meaningful way that is simultaneously academically responsible.”

– James Spady, May 2011


FINAL REFLECTIONS

Although this was a tough project, it still remains as my proudest academic achievement. There are so many things I would change about this now that I’m more academically mature but I am still happy with the quality of work that I produced. It was a way to explore a topic that I’m passionate about and incorporate everything that I learned at SUA during my four years of studying there.

Where I succeeded:

  • Tell a clear story of how and why the organic food movement emerged even before the 60’s as previously percieved.
  • Bring together various discussions from the food industry and relate them back to the origins of the organic food movement.

Where I failed:

  • Live every day of senior year at SUA embracing the principles of the organic movement. Sorry to say but as a desperate and overworked college student, I survived on cup noodles and energy drinks.
  • Extending my discussion to other food industry influencers, especially contemporary activists.

POST-CAPSTONE

After completing this project and graduating from Soka University of America, I landed an internship with Slow Food USA. They’re a non-profit organization that inspires individuals and communities to change the world through food that is good, clean and fair for all. I worked there for seven months as an assistant to the President and Chief of Staff under the executive team.

My experience there was a phenomenal way to take everything I learned from capstone and apply it to the real world scenario. It’s one thing to research a topic for an entire year and put it together into a 60+ page thesis but it’s another to experience it in context. It was interesting to study the organic food industry for such a long time and then immersing myself in an organization that is putting those philosophical principles into practice.

What are your thoughts on the organic food industry? I’d love to know if you have any comments or feedback!

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