Reviving a much-cited, little-read sustainable-ag masterpiece
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
Around 1900, a 27-year-old British scientist named Albert Howard, a specialist in plant diseases, arrived in Barbados, then a province of the British Empire. His charge was to find cutting-edge cures for diseases that attacked tropical crops like sugar cane, cocoa, bananas, and limes.
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.”
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 today.
Madmen and Specialists
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 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 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.
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.