To use the terms of the day, his task was to teach natives of
the tropics how to grow cash crops for the Mother Country. The
method was to be rigorously scientific. He was a "laboratory
hermit," he would later write, "intent on learning
more and more about less and less."
The real Arsenal
of Democracy is a fertile soil, the fresh produce
of which is the birthright of nations.
Sir Albert Howard,
The Soil and Health
But the "natives," in turn, had something to teach
him. On tours through Barbados and neighboring islands, through
"contact with the land itself and the practical men working
on it," a new idea dawned on Howard: that "the most
promising method for dealing with plant diseases lay in prevention,"
not in after-the-fact treatments.
The insight was radical. Then, as now, conventional science
tended to view plant diseases as isolated phenomena in need
of a cure. But Howard began to see diseases as part of a broader
whole. As quickly as he could, he fled the controlled environment
of the lab and concerned himself with how plants thrive or
wither in their own context -- outside in the dirt, tended
Sir Albert Howard would eventually transform the insights
he gained from farmers in Barbados and later colonial India
into the founding texts of the modern organic-agriculture
movement: An Agricultural Testament, published in 1940, and
Soil and Health, which came out five years later. Inflamed
by his readings of Howard, a young American named J.I. Rodale
launched his seminal Organic Farming and Gardening magazine
in the early 1940s. That publication popularized Howard's
ideas in the United States, galvanizing the first generation
of organic farmers here.
Perhaps appropriately for an author who concerned himself
with the ground beneath our feet, Howard -- who died in 1947
-- is a genuine underground hero. If his influence has been
epochal, his books have remained maddeningly obscure, out
of print since their initial publication. Until last December,
that is, when the University Press of Kentucky -- perhaps
inspired by Michael Pollan's excellent work on the history
of organic agriculture -- brought out a new paperback edition
Soil and Health. Now we don't have to hunt down musty,
pricey old copies of the book to find out what the fuss was
Sixty years after its initial publication, what does The
Soil and Health have to teach us? Plenty, it turns out.
Howard never foresaw the brand of agriculture he championed
as an "alternative" that would occupy a trendy niche.
He launched a broad and fundamental critique of industrial
agriculture that still resonates -- and indeed applies to
much of what passes for "organic" agriculture today.
Madmen and Specialists
Sir Albert his due
In the abstract to a recent journal article1,2,
Rutgers University Professor J. Heckman wrote:
“The system of agriculture advocated by
Howard was coined ‘organic’ by Walter
Northbourne to refer to a system ‘having
a complex but necessary relationship of parts,
similar to that in living things.’ …
Jerome Rodale, a publisher and early convert to
organic farming, was instrumental in the diffusion
and popularization of organics in the U.S.
“Both Howard and Rodale saw organic and
non-organic agriculture as a conflict between
two different visions of what agriculture should
become as they engaged in a war of words with
the agricultural establishment.”
The paper traces the eventual rise of organics
as a legitimate farming system and body of science
despite continuing resistance from traditional
institutions in education, science and business.
Howard began his career not long after the triumph of the
Industrial Revolution. The rise of mass production had prompted
a mass migration from farms to cities, leaving a dearth of
rural labor and a surplus of urban mouths to feed. Tasked
with the problem of growing more food with less land and labor,
scientists in Howard's time worked to apply industrial techniques
By then, science itself had succumbed to industrialism's
division-of-labor logic. The study of plant disease had become
a specialized branch of plant science, itself a subset of
biology. The task of growing food could only be studied as
a set of separate processes, each with its own subset of problems
Soil specialists working at that time had isolated the key
elements in soil that nurture plants: nitrogen, potassium,
and phosphorus. Known as N, K, and P, respectively, these
three elements still dominate modern fertilizer production.
By learning to synthesize them, soil specialists had "solved"
the "problem" of soil fertility.
The process for synthesizing nitrogen, it turned out, also
made effective explosives. The same specialists who had industrialized
agriculture also, as tensions among European powers mounted
in the early 20th century, began to think about industrializing
war. During World War I, munitions factories sprouted throughout
England, using those fertilizer-making techniques to mass-produce
Soon thereafter, weapons technology repaid its debt to agriculture.
As Howard puts it, "When peace came, some use had to
be found for the huge factories [that had been] set up and
it was obvious to turn them over to the manufacture of [fertilizer]
for the land. This fertilizer began to flood the market."
These technologies made their way over the Atlantic to the
Thus began modern agriculture. No longer dependent on animal
manure to replenish soil, farmers could buy ready-made fertilizer
from a fledgling chemical industry. For the first time in
history, animal husbandry could be separated from the growing
of crops -- and meat, dairy, egg, and crop production could
all be intensified. As production boomed, prices for farm
goods dropped, forcing many farmers out of business. Technology
had triumphed: fewer and fewer people had to concern themselves
with growing food.
But Howard prophesied that the victories of industrial agriculture,
whose beginnings he lived to see, would prove short-lived.
In its obsession with compartmentalization, modern science
had failed to see that the health of each of the earth's organisms
was deeply interconnected. Against the specialists who thought
they had "solved" the fertility problem by isolating
a few elements, Howard viewed the "whole problem of health
in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject."
Artificial fertilizer could replace key elements, but it
could not replenish the vibrant, healthy topsoil, or humus,
required to grow health-giving food. Humus isn't an inert
substance composed of separable elements, but rather a complex
ecosystem teeming with diverse microorganisms. Only by carefully
composting animal and plant waste and returning it to the
land, he argued, could topsoil be replaced. For Howard, agriculture
wasn't a process sustained by isolated inputs and outputs;
rather, it functions as a cycle governed by the "Law
of Return": what comes from the soil must be returned
to the soil. Farmers who violate the "Law of Return,"
Howard claimed, are "bandits" stealing soil fertility
from future generations.
Looking Back for a Way Forward
For Howard, the ideal laboratory for agriculture lay not
in some well-appointed university building, but rather in
wild landscapes. As he put it in a celebrated passage in An
Agricultural Testament, "Mother earth never attempts
to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops;
great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent
erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted
into humus; there is no waste; [and] the processes of growth
and the processes of decay balance one another."
Was Howard right? Despite his gloomy pronouncements, industrial
agriculture has so far kept many of its promises. Food production
has undeniably boomed over the past century.
And yet, the Green Revolution -- the concerted effort, begun
at about the time of The
Soil and Health's publication, to spread the benefits
of industrial agriculture to the global south -- has failed
to eradicate world hunger. According to the U.N. Food and
Agriculture Organization, more than 800 million people live
in a state of undernourishment. And in the United States,
where industrial agriculture arguably won its most complete
victory, diet-related maladies are reaching epidemic proportions.
Howard's contention that chemical-dependent soil can't produce
healthy food may yet be borne out.
And, of course, industrial agriculture's environmental liabilities
are piling up, and could still prove its undoing.
Howard's books belong on the shelf with other 20th-century
classics like Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American
Cities and E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. These works
challenge a scientific/bureaucratic establishment that seeks
to solve the problems of mass industrialization with more
industrialization. In the words of the great German-Jewish
writer Walter Benjamin, a contemporary of Howard, they seek
to "make whole what has been smashed" by a zeal
for specialization. Much-cited and little-heeded, they may
yet point a way out of our mounting environmental and social