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."
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 by farmers.
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 The
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 of The
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 about.
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
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 to agriculture.
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 and solutions.
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
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 explosives.
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 United States.
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 crises.