An Agricultural Testament

by Sir Albert Howard

Chapter 1

THE maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture. In the ordinary processes of crop production fertility is steadily lost: its continuous restoration by means of manuring and soil management is therefore imperative.

In the study of soil fertility the first step is to bring under review the various systems of agriculture which so far have been evolved. These fall into four main groups:

  1. the methods of Nature -- the supreme farmer -- as seen in the primeval forest, in the prairie, and in the ocean;
  2. the agriculture of the nations which have passed away;
  3. the practices of the Orient, which have been almost unaffected by Western science; and
  4. the methods in vogue in regions like Europe and North America to which a large amount of scientific attention has been paid during the last hundred years.

Nature's Methods of Soil Management

Little or no consideration is paid in the literature of agriculture to the means by which Nature manages land and conducts her water culture. Nevertheless, these natural methods of soil management must form the basis of all our studies of soil fertility.

What are the main principles underlying Nature's agriculture? These can most easily be seen in operation in our woods and forests.

Mixed farming is the rule: plants are always found with animals: many species of plants and of animals all live together. In the forest every form of animal life, from mammals to the simplest invertebrates, occurs. The vegetable kingdom exhibits a similar range: there is never any attempt at monoculture: mixed crops and mixed farming are the rule.

The soil is always protected from the direct action of sun, rain, and wind. In this care of the soil strict economy is the watchword: nothing is lost. The whole of the energy of sunlight is made use of by the foliage of the forest canopy and of the undergrowth. The leaves also break up the rainfall into fine spray so that it can the more easily be dealt with by the litter of plant and animal remains which provide the last line of defence of the precious soil. These methods of protection, so effective in dealing with sun and rain, also reduce the power of the strongest winds to a gentle air current.

The rainfall in particular is carefully conserved. A large portion is retained in the surface soil: the excess is gently transferred to the subsoil and in due course to the streams and rivers. The fine spray created by the foliage is transformed by the protective ground litter into thin films of water which move slowly downwards, first into the humus layer and then into the soil and subsoil. These latter have been made porous in two ways: by the creation of a well-marked crumb structure and by a network of drainage and aeration channels made by earthworms and other burrowing animals. The pore space of the forest soil is at its maximum so that there is a large internal soil surface over which the thin films of water can creep. There is also ample humus for the direct absorption of moisture. The excess drains away slowly by way of the subsoil. There is remarkably little run-off, even from the primeval rain forest. When this occurs it is practically clear water. Hardly any soil is removed. Nothing in the nature of soil erosion occurs. The streams and rivers in forest areas are always perennial because of the vast quantity of water in slow transit between the rainstorms and the sea. There is therefore little or no drought in forest areas because so much of the rainfall is retained exactly where it is needed. There is no waste anywhere.

The forest manures itself. It makes its own humus and supplies itself with minerals. If we watch a piece of woodland we find that a gentle accumulation of mixed vegetable and animal residues is constantly taking place on the ground and that these wastes are being converted by fungi and bacteria into humus. The processes involved in the early stages of this transformation depend throughout on oxidation: afterwards they take place in the absence of air. They are sanitary. There is no nuisance of any kind -- no smell, no flies, no dustbins, no incinerators, no artificial sewage system, no water-borne diseases, no town councils, and no rates. On the contrary, the forest affords a place for the ideal summer holiday: sufficient shade and an abundance of pure fresh air. Nevertheless, all over the surface of the woods the conversion of vegetable and animal wastes into humus is never so rapid and so intense as during the holiday months -- July to September.

The mineral matter needed by the trees and the undergrowth is obtained from the subsoil. This is collected in dilute solution in water by the deeper roots, which also help in anchoring the trees. The details of root distribution and the manner in which the subsoil is thoroughly combed for minerals are referred to in a future chapter. Even in soils markedly deficient in phosphorus trees have no difficulty in obtaining ample supplies of this element. Potash, phosphate, and other minerals are always collected in situ and carried by the transpiration current for use in the green leaves. Afterwards they are either used in growth or deposited on the floor of the forest in the form of vegetable waste -- one of the constituents needed in the synthesis of humus. This humus is again utilized by the roots of the trees. Nature's farming, as seen in the forest, is characterized by two things:

  1. a constant circulation of the mineral matter absorbed by the trees;
  2. a constant addition of new mineral matter from the vast reserves held in the subsoil.

There is therefore no need to add phosphates: there is no necessity for more potash salts. No mineral deficiencies of any kind occur. The supply of all the manure needed is automatic and is provided either by humus or by the soil. There is a natural division of the subject into organic and inorganic. Humus provides the organic manure: the soil the mineral matter.

The soil always carries a large fertility reserve. There is no hand to mouth existence about Nature's farming. The reserves are carried in the upper layers of the soil in the form of humus. Yet any useless accumulation of humus is avoided because it is automatically mingled with the upper soil by the activities of burrowing animals such as earthworms and insects. The extent of this enormous reserve is only realized when the trees are cut down and the virgin land is used for agriculture. When plants like tea, coffee, rubber, and bananas are grown on recently cleared land, good crops can be raised without manure for ten years or more. Like all good administrators, therefore, Nature carries strong liquid reserves effectively invested. There is no squandering of these reserves to be seen anywhere.

The crops and live stock look after themselves. Nature has never found it necessary to design the equivalent of the spraying machine and the poison spray for the control of insect and fungous pests. There is nothing in the nature of vaccines and serums for the protection of the live stock. It is true that all kinds of diseases are to be found here and there among the plants and animals of the forest, but these never assume large proportions. The principle followed is that the plants and animals can very well protect themselves even when such things as parasites are to be found in their midst. Nature's rule in these matters is to live and let live.

If we study the prairie and the ocean we find that similar principles are followed. The grass carpet deals with the rainfall very much as the forest does. There is little or no soil erosion: the run-off is practically clear water. Humus is again stored in the upper soil. The best of the grassland areas of North America carried a mixed herbage which maintained vast herds of bison. No veterinary service was in existence for keeping these animals alive. When brought into cultivation by the early settlers, so great was the store of fertility that these prairie soils yielded heavy crops of wheat for many years without live stock and without manure.

In lakes, rivers, and the sea mixed farming is again the rule: a great variety of plants and animals are found living together: nowhere does one find monoculture. The vegetable and animal wastes are again dealt with by effective methods. Nothing is wasted. Humus again plays an important part and is found everywhere in solution, in suspension, and in the deposits of mud. The sea, like the forest and the prairie, manures itself.

The main characteristic of Nature's farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; 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; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

In considering the various man-made systems of agriculture, which so far have been devised, it will be interesting to see how far Nature's principles have been adopted, whether they have ever been improved upon, and what happens when they are disregarded.

The Agriculture of the Nations which have Passed Away

The difficulties inherent in the study of the agriculture of the nations which are no more are obvious. Unlike their buildings, where it is possible from a critical study of the buried remains of cities to reproduce a picture of bygone civilizations, the fields of the ancients have seldom been maintained. The land has either gone back to forest or has been used for one system of farming after another.

In one case, however, the actual fields of a bygone people have been preserved together with the irrigation methods by which these lands were made productive. No written records, alas, have come down to us of the staircase cultivation of the ancient Peruvians, perhaps one of the oldest forms of Stone Age agriculture. This arose either in mountains or in the upland areas under grass because of the difficulty, before the discovery of iron, of removing the dense forest growth. In Peru irrigated staircase farming seems to have reached its highest known development. More than twenty years ago the National Geographical Society of the United States sent an expedition to study the relics of this ancient method of agriculture, an account of which was published by O. F. Cook in the Society's Magazine of May 1916, under the title: 'Staircase Farms of the Ancients.' The system of the megalithic people of old Peru was to construct a stairway of terraced fields up the slopes of the mountains, tier upon tier, sometimes as many as fifty in number. The outer retaining walls of these terraces were made of large stones which fit into one another with such accuracy that even at the present day, like those of the Egyptian pyramids, a knife blade cannot be inserted between them. After the retaining wall was built, the foundation of the future field was prepared by means of coarse stones covered with clay. On this basis layers of soil, several feet thick, originally imported from beyond the great mountains, were super-imposed and then levelled for irrigation. The final result was a small flat field with only just sufficient slope for artificial watering. In other words, a series of huge flower pots, each provided with ample drainage below, was prepared with incredible labour by this ancient people for their crops. Such were the megalithic achievements in agriculture, beside which 'our undertakings sink into insignificance in face of what this vanished race accomplished. The narrow floors and steep walls of rocky valleys that would appear utterly worthless and hopeless to our engineers were transformed, literally made over, into fertile lands and were the homes of teeming populations in pre-historic days' (O. F. Cook). The engineers of old Peru did what they did through necessity because iron, steel, reinforced concrete, and the modern power units had not been invented. The plunder of the forest soil was beyond their reach.

These terraced fields had to be irrigated. Water had to be led to them over immense distances by means of aqueducts. Prescott states that one which traversed the district of Condesuyu measured between four and five hundred miles. Cook gives a photograph of one of these channels as a thin dark line traversing a steep mountain wall many hundreds of feet above the valley.

These ancient methods of agriculture are represented at the present day by the terraced cultivation of the Himalayas, of the mountainous areas of China and Japan, and of the irrigated rice fields so common in the hills of South India, Ceylon, and the Malayan Archipelago. Conway's description, published in 1894, of the terraces of Hunza on the North-West Frontier of India and of the canal, carried for long distances across the face of precipices to the one available supply of perennial water -- the torrent from the Ultor glacier -- tallies almost completely with what he found in 1901 in the Bolivian Andes. This distinguished scholar and mountaineer considered that the native population of Hunza of the present day is living in a stage of civilization that must bear no little likeness to that of the Peruvians under Inca government. An example of this ancient method of farming has thus been preserved through the ages. In a future chapter the relation which exists between the nutritional value of the food grown on these irrigated terraces and the health of the people will be discussed. This relic of the past is interesting from the point of view of quality in food as well as from its historical value.

Some other systems of agriculture of the past have come down to us in the form of written records which have furnished ample material for constructive research. In the case of Rome in particular a fairly complete account of the position of agriculture, from the period of the monarchy to the fall of the Roman Empire, is available; the facts can be conveniently followed in the writings of Mommsen, Heitland, and other scholars. In the case of Rome the Servian Reform (Servius Tullius, 578-534 B.C.) shows very clearly not only that the agricultural class originally preponderated in the State but also that an effort was made to maintain the collective body of freeholders as the pith and marrow of the community. The conception that the constitution itself rested on the freehold system permeated the whole policy of Roman war and conquest. The aim of war was to increase the number of its freehold members.

These splendid ideals did not persist. During the period which elapsed between the union of Italy and the subjugation of Carthage, a gradual decay of the farmers set in; the small-holdings ceased to yield any substantial clear return; the cultivators one by one faced ruin; the moral tone and frugal habits of the earlier ages of the Republic were lost; the land of the Italian farmers became merged into the larger estates. The landlord capitalist became the centre of the subject. He not only produced at a cheaper rate than the farmer because he had more land, but he began to use slaves. The same space which in the olden time, when small-holdings prevailed, had supported from a hundred to a hundred and fifty families was now occupied by one family of free persons and about fifty, for the most part unmarried, slaves. 'If this was the remedy by which the decaying national economy was to be restored to vigour, it bore, unhappily, an aspect of extreme resemblance to disease' (Mommsen). The main causes of this decline appear to have been fourfold: the constant drain on the manhood of the country-side by the legions, which culminated in the two long wars with Carthage; the operations of the Roman capitalist landlords which 'contributed quite as much as Hamilcar and Hannibal to the decline in the vigour and the number of the Italian people' (Mommsen); failure to work out a balanced agriculture between crops and live stock and to maintain the fertility of the soil; the employment of slaves instead of free labourers. During this period the wholesale commerce of Latium passed into the hands of the large landed proprietors who at the same time were the speculators and capitalists. The natural consequence was the destruction of the middle classes, particularly of the small-holders, and the development of landed and moneyed lords on the one hand and of an agricultural proletariat on the other. The power of capital was greatly enhanced by the growth of the class of tax-farmers and contractors to whom the State farmed out its indirect revenues for a fixed sum. Subsequent political and social conflicts did not give real relief to the agricultural community. Colonies founded to secure Roman sovereignty over Italy provided farms for the agricultural proletariat, but the root causes of the decline in agriculture were not removed in spite of the efforts of Cato and other reformers. A capitalist system of which the apparent interests were fundamentally opposed to a sound agriculture remained supreme. The last half of the second century saw degradation and more and more decadence. Then came Tiberius Gracchus and the Agrarian Law with the appointment of an official commission to counteract the diminution of the farmer class by the comprehensive establishment of new small-holdings from the whole Italian landed property at the disposal of the State: eighty thousand new Italian farmers were provided with land. These efforts to restore agriculture to its rightful place in the State were accompanied by many improvements in Roman agriculture which, unfortunately, were most suitable for large estates. Land no longer able to produce corn became pasture; cattle now roamed over large ranches; the vine and the olive were cultivated with commercial success. These systems of agriculture, however, had to be carried on with slave labour, the supply of which had to be maintained by constant importation. Such extensive methods of farming naturally failed to supply sufficient food for the population of Italy. Other countries were called upon to furnish essential foodstuffs; province after province was conquered to feed the growing proletariat with corn. These areas in turn slowly yielded to the same decline which had taken place in Italy. Finally the wealthy classes abandoned the depopulated remnants of the mother country and built themselves a new capital at Constantinople. The situation had to be saved by a migration to fresh lands. In their new capital the Romans relied on the unexhausted fertility of Egypt as well as on that of Asia Minor and the Balkan and Danubian provinces.

Judged by the ordinary standards of achievement the agricultural history of the Roman Empire ended in failure due to inability to realize the fundamental principle that the maintenance of soil fertility coupled with the legitimate claims of the agricultural population should never have been allowed to come in conflict with the operations of the capitalist. The most important possession of a country is its population. If this is maintained in health and vigour everything else will follow; if this is allowed to decline nothing, not even great riches, can save the country from eventual ruin. It follows, therefore, that the strongest possible support of capital must always be a prosperous and contented country-side. A working compromise between agriculture and finance should therefore have been evolved. Failure to achieve this naturally ended in the ruin of both.

The Practices of the Orient

In the agriculture of Asia we find ourselves confronted with a system of peasant farming which in essentials soon became stabilized. What is happening to-day in the small fields of India and China took place many centuries ago. There is here no need to study historical records or to pay a visit to the remains of the megalithic farming of the Andes. The agricultural practices of the Orient have passed the supreme test -- they are almost as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie or of the ocean. The small-holdings of China, for example, are still maintaining a steady output and there is no loss of fertility after forty centuries of management. What are the chief characteristics of this Eastern farming?

The holdings are minute. Taking India as an example, the relation between man power and cultivated area is referred to in the Census Report of 1931 as follows: 'For every agriculturalist there is 2.9 acres of cropped land of which 0.65 of an acre is irrigated. The corresponding figures of 1921 are 2.7 and 0.61.' These figures illustrate how intense is the struggle for existence in this portion of the tropics. These small-holdings are often cultivated by extensive methods (those suitable for large areas) which utilize neither the full energies of man or beast nor the potential fertility of the soil.

If we turn to the Far East, to China and Japan, a similar system of small-holdings is accompanied by an even more intense pressure of population both human and bovine. In the introduction to Farmers of Forty Centuries, King states that the three main islands of Japan had in 1907 a population of 46,977,000, maintained on 20,000 square miles of cultivated fields. This is at the rate of 2,349 to the square mile or more than three people to each acre. In addition, Japan fed on each square mile of cultivation a very large animal population -- 69 horses and 56 cattle, nearly all employed in labour; 825 poultry; 13 swine, goats, and sheep. Though no accurate statistics are available in China, the examples quoted by King reveal a condition of affairs not unlike that in Japan. In the Shantung Province a farmer with a family of twelve kept one donkey, one cow, and two pigs on 2.5 acres of cultivated land -- a density of population at the rate of 3,072 people, 256 donkeys, 256 cattle, and 512 pigs per square mile. The average of seven Chinese holdings visited gave a maintenance capacity of 1,783 people, 212 cattle or donkeys, and 399 pigs -- nearly 2,000 consumers and 400 rough food transformers per square mile of farmed land. In comparison with these remarkable figures, the corresponding statistics for 1900 in the case of the United States per square mile were: population 61, horses and mules 30.

Food and forage crops are predominant. The primary function of Eastern agriculture is to supply the cultivators and their cattle with food. This automatically follows because of the pressure of the population on the land: the main hunger the soil has to appease is that of the stomach. A subsidiary hunger is that of the machine which needs raw materials for manufacture. This extra hunger is new but has developed considerably since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 (by which the small fields of the cultivator have been brought into effective contact with the markets of the West) and the establishment of local industries like cotton and jute. To both these hungers soil fertility has to respond. We know from long experience that the fields of India can respond to the hunger of the stomach. Whether they can fulfil the added demands of the machine remains to be seen. The Suez Canal has only been in operation for seventy years. The first cotton mill in India was opened in 1818 at Fort Gloster, near Calcutta. The jute industry of Bengal has grown up within a century. Jute was first exported in 1838. The first jute mill on the Hoogly began operations in 1855. These local industries as well as the export trade in raw products for the use of the factories of the West are an extra drain on soil fertility. Their future well-being and indeed their very existence is only possible provided adequate steps are taken to maintain this fertility. There is obviously no point in establishing cotton and jute mills in India, in founding trading agencies like those of Calcutta and in building ships for the conveyance of raw products unless such enterprises are stable and permanent. It would be folly and an obvious waste of capital to pursue such activities if they are founded only on the existing store of soil fertility. All concerned in the hunger of the machine -- government, financiers, manufacturers, and distributors -- must see to it that the fields of India are equal to the new burden which has been thrust upon her during the last fifty years or so. The demands of commerce and industry on the one hand and the fertility of the soil on the other must be maintained in correct relation the one to the other.

The response of India to the two hungers -- the stomach and the machine -- will be evident from a study of Table I, in which the area in acres under food and fodder crops is compared with that under money crops.

The chief food crops in order of importance are rice, pulses, millets, wheat, and fodder crops. The money crops are more varied; cotton and oil seeds are the most important, followed by jute and other fibres, tobacco, tea, coffee, and opium. It will be seen that food and fodder crops comprise 86 per cent. of the total area under crops and that money crops, as far as extent is concerned, are less important, and constitute only one-seventh of the total cultivated area.

Table 1
Agricultural Statistics of British India, 1935-6
Area, in acres, under food and fodder crops
Rice 79,888,000
Millets 38,144,000
Wheat 25,150,000
Gram 14,897,000
Pulses and other food grains 29,792,000
Fodder crops 10,791,000
Condiments, spices, fruits, vegetables and miscellaneous food crops 8,308,000
Barley 6,178,000
Maize 6,211,000
Sugar 4,038,000
Total food and fodder crops
Area, in acres, under money crops
Cotton 15,761,000
Oil seeds, chiefly ground-nuts, sesamum, rape, mustard and linseed 15,662,000
Jute and other fibres 2,706,000
Dyes, tanning materials, drugs, narcotics, and miscellaneous 1,458,000
Tobacco 1,230,000
Tea 787,000
Coffee 97,000
Indigo 40,000
Opium 10,000
Total money crops 37,751,000

One interesting change in the production of Indian food crops has taken place during the last twenty-five years. The output of sugar used to be insufficient for the towns, and large quantities were imported from Java, Mauritius, and the continent of Europe. To-day, thanks to the work at Shahjahanpur in the United Provinces, the new varieties of cane bred at Coimbatore and the protection now enjoyed by the sugar industry, India is almost self-supporting as far as sugar is concerned. The pre-war average amount of sugar imported was 634,000 tons; in 1937-8 the total had fallen to 14,000 tons.

Mixed crops are the rule. In this respect the cultivators of the Orient have followed Nature's method as seen in the primeval forest. Mixed cropping is perhaps most universal when the cereal crop is the main constituent. Crops like millets, wheat, barley, and maize are mixed with an appropriate subsidiary pulse, sometimes a species that ripens much later than the cereal. The pigeon pea (Cajanus indicus Spreng.), perhaps the most important leguminous crop of the Gangetic alluvium, is grown either with millets or with maize. The mixing of cereals and pulses appears to help both crops. When the two grow together the character of the growth improves. Do the roots of these crops excrete materials useful to each other? Is the mycorrhizal association found in the roots of these tropical legumes and cereals the agent involved in this excretion? Science at the moment is unable to answer these questions: she is only now beginning to investigate them Here we have another instance where the peasants of the East have anticipated and acted upon the solution of one of the problems which Western science is only just beginning to recognize. Whatever may be the reason why crops thrive best when associated in suitable combinations, the fact remains that mixtures generally give better results than monoculture. This is seen in Great Britain in the growth of dredge corn, in mixed crops of wheat and beans, vetches and rye, clover and rye-grass, and in intensive vegetable growing under glass. The produce raised under Dutch lights has noticeably increased since the mixed cropping of the Chinese vegetable growers of Australia has been copied. (Mr. F. A. Secrett was, I believe, the first to introduce this system on a large scale into Great Britain. He informed me that he saw it for the first time at Melbourne.)

A balance between live stock and crops is always maintained. Although crops are generally more important than animals in Eastern agriculture, we seldom or never find crops without animals. This is because oxen are required for cultivation and buffaloes for milk. (The buffalo is the milch cow of the Orient and is capable not only of useful labour in the cultivation of rice, but also of living and producing large quantities of rich milk on a diet on which the best dairy cows of Europe and America would starve. The acclimatization of the Indian buffalo in the villages of the Tropics -- Africa, Central America, the West Indies in particular -- would do much to improve the fertility of the soil and the nutrition of the people.)

Nevertheless, the waste products of the animal, as is often the case in other parts of the world, are not always fully utilized for the land. The Chinese have for ages past recognized the importance of the urine of animals and the great value of animal wastes in the preparation of composts. In India far less attention is paid to these wastes and a large portion of the cattle dung available is burnt for fuel. On the other hand, in most Oriental countries human wastes find their way back to the land. In China these are collected for manuring the crops direct. In India they are concentrated on the zone of highly manured land immediately round each village. If the population or a portion of it could be persuaded to use a more distant zone for a few years, the area of village lands under intensive agriculture could at least be doubled. Here is an opportunity for the new system of government in India to raise production without the expenditure of a single rupee. In India there are 500,000 villages each of which is surrounded by a zone of very fertile land which is constantly being over-manured by the habits of the people. If we examine the crops grown on this land we find that the yields are high and the plants are remarkably free from disease. Although half a million examples of the connexion between a fertile soil and a healthy plant exist in India alone, and these natural experiments have been in operation for centuries before experiment stations like Rothamsted were ever thought of, modern agricultural science takes no notice of the results and resolutely refuses to accept them as evidence, largely because they lack the support furnished by the higher mathematics. They also dispose of one of the ideas of the disciples of Rudolph Steiner, who argue that the use of human wastes in agriculture is harmful.

Leguminous plants are common. Although it was not till 1888, after a protracted controversy lasting thirty years, that Western science finally accepted as proved the important part played by pulse crops in enriching the soil, centuries of experience had taught the peasants of the East the same lesson. The leguminous crop in the rotation is everywhere one of their old fixed practices. In some areas, such as the Indo- Gangetic plain, one of these pulses -- the pigeon pea -- is also made use of as a subsoil cultivator. The deep spreading root system is used to promote the aeration of the closely packed silt soils, which so closely resemble those of the Holland Division of Lincolnshire in Great Britain.

Cultivation is generally superficial and is carried out by wooden ploughs furnished with an iron point. Soil-inverting ploughs, as used in the West for the destruction of weeds, have never been designed by Eastern peoples. The reasons for this appear to be two: (1) soil inversion for the destruction of weeds is not necessary in a hot climate where the same work is done by the sun for nothing; (2) the preservation of the level of the fields is essential for surface drainage, for preventing local waterlogging, and for irrigation. Another reason for this surface cultivation has recently been pointed out. The store of nitrogen in the soil in the form of organic matter has to be carefully conserved: it is part of the cultivator's working capital. Too much cultivation and deep ploughing would oxidize this reserve and the balance of soil fertility would soon be destroyed.

Rice is grown whenever possible. By far the most important crop in the East is rice. In India, as has already been pointed out, the production of rice exceeds that of any two food crops put together. Whenever the soil and water supply permit, rice is invariably grown. A study of this crop is illuminating. At first sight rice appears to contradict one of the great principles of the agricultural science of the Occident, namely, the dependence of cereals on nitrogenous manures. Large crops of rice are produced in many parts of India on the same land year after year without the addition of any manure whatever. The rice fields of the country export paddy in large quantities to the centres of population or abroad, but there is no corresponding import of combined nitrogen.

(Taking Burma as an example of an area exporting rice beyond seas, during the twenty years ending 1924, about 25,000,000 tons of paddy have been exported from a tract roughly 10,000,000 acres in area. As unhusked rice contains about 1.2 per cent. of nitrogen the amount of this element, shipped overseas during twenty years or destroyed in the burning of the husk, is in the neighbourhood of 300,000 tons. As this constant drain of nitrogen is not made up for by the import of manure, we should expect to find a gradual loss of fertility. Nevertheless, this does not take place either in Burma or in Bengal, where rice has been grown on the same land year after year for centuries. Clearly the soil must obtain fresh supplies of nitrogen from somewhere, otherwise the crop would cease to grow. The only likely source is fixation from the atmosphere, probably in the submerged algal film on the surface of the mud. This is one of the problems of tropical agriculture which is now being investigated.)

Where does the rice crop obtain its nitrogen? One source in all probability is fixation from the atmosphere in the submerged algal film on the surface of the mud. Another is the rice nursery itself, where the seedlings are raised on land heavily manured with cattle dung. Large quantities of nitrogen and other nutrients are stored in the seedling itself; this at transplanting time contains a veritable arsenal of reserves of all kinds which carry the plant successfully through this process and probably also furnish some of the nitrogen needed during subsequent growth. The manuring of the rice seedling illustrates a very general principle in agriculture, namely, the importance of starting a crop in a really fertile soil and so arranging matters that the plant can absorb a great deal of what it needs as early as possible in its development.

There is an adequate supply of labour. Labour is everywhere abundant, as would naturally follow from the great density of the rural population. Indeed, in India it is so great that if the leisure time of the cultivators and their cattle for a single year could be calculated as money at the local rates a perfectly colossal figure would be obtained. This leisure, however, is not altogether wasted. It enables the cultivators and their oxen to recover from the periods of intensive work which precede the sowing of the crops and which are needed at harvest time. At these periods time is everything: everybody works from sunrise to sunset. The preparation of the land and the sowing of the crops need the greatest care and skill; the work must be completed in a very short time so that a large labour force is essential.

It will be observed that in this peasant agriculture the great pressure of population on the soil results in poverty, most marked where, as in India, extensive methods are used on small-holdings which really need intensive farming. It is amazing that in spite of this unfavourable factor soil fertility should have been preserved for centuries: this is because natural means have been used and not artificial manures. The crops are able to withstand the inroads of insects and fungi without a thin film of protective poison.

The Agricultural Methods of the Occident

If we take a wide survey of the contribution which is being made by the fields of the West, we find that they are engaged in trying to satisfy no less than three hungers: (1) the local hunger of the rural population, including the live stock; (2) the hunger of the growing urban areas, the population of which is unproductive from the point of view of soil fertility; and (3) the hunger of the machine avid for a constant stream of the raw materials required for manufacture. The urban population during the last century has grown out of all knowledge; the needs of the machine increase as it becomes more and more efficient; falling profits are met by increasing the output of manufactured articles. All this adds to the burden on the land and to the calls on its fertility. It will not be without interest to analyse critically the agriculture of the West and see how it is fitting itself for its growing task. This can be done by examining its main characteristics. These are as follows:

The holding tends to increase in size. There is a great variation in the size of the agricultural holdings of the West from the small family units of France and Switzerland to the immense collective farms of Russia and the spacious ranches of the United States and Argentina. Side by side with this growth in the size of the farm is the diminution of the number of men per square mile. In Canada, for example, the number of workers per 1,000 acres of cropped land fell from 26 in 1911 to 16 in 1926. Since these data were published the size of the working population has shrunk still further. This state of things has arisen from the scarcity and dearness of labour which has naturally led to the study of labour-saving devices.

Monoculture is the rule. Almost everywhere crops are grown in pure culture. Except in temporary leys, mixed crops are rare. On the rich prairie lands of North America even rotations are unknown: crops of wheat follow one another and no attempt is made to convert the straw into humus by means of the urine and dung of cattle. The straw is a tiresome encumbrance and is burnt off annually.

The machine is rapidly replacing the animal. Increasing mechanization is one of the main features of Western agriculture. Whenever a machine can be invented which saves human or animal labour its spread is rapid. Engines and motors of various kinds are the rule everywhere. The electrification of agriculture is beginning. The inevitable march of the combine harvester in all the wheat-producing areas of the world is one of the latest examples of the mechanization of the agriculture of the West. Cultivation tends to be quicker and deeper. There is a growing feeling that the more and the deeper the soil is stirred the better will be the crop. The invention of the gyrotiller, a heavy and expensive soil churn, is one of the answers to this demand. The slaves of the Roman Empire have been replaced by mechanical slaves. The replacement of the horse and the ox by the internal combustion engine and the electric motor is, however, attended by one great disadvantage. These machines do not void urine and dung and so contribute nothing to the maintenance of soil fertility. In this sense the slaves of Western agriculture are less efficient than those of ancient Rome.

Artificial manures are widely used. The feature of the manuring of the West is the use of artificial manures. The factories engaged during the Great War in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen for the manufacture of explosives had to find other markets, the use of nitrogenous fertilizers in agriculture increased, until to-day the majority of farmers and market gardeners base their manurial programme on the cheapest forms of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) on the market. What may be conveniently described as the NPK mentality dominates farming alike in the experimental stations and the country-side. Vested interests, entrenched in time of national emergency, have gained a stranglehold.

Artificial manures involve less labour and less trouble than farm-yard manure. The tractor is superior to the horse in power and in speed of work: it needs no food and no expensive care during its long hours of rest. These two agencies have made it easier to run a farm. A satisfactory profit and loss account has been obtained. For the moment farming has been made to pay. But there is another side to this picture. These chemicals and these machines can do nothing to keep the soil in good heart. By their use the processes of growth can never be balanced by the processes of decay. All that they can accomplish is the transfer of the soil's capital to current account. That this is so will be much clearer when the attempts now being made to farm without any animals at all march to their inevitable failure.

Diseases are on the increase. With the spread of artificials and the exhaustion of the original supplies of humus, carried by every fertile soil, there has been a corresponding increase in the diseases of crops and of the animals which feed on them. If the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe and its comparative insignificance among well fed animals in the East are compared, or if the comparison is made between certain areas in Europe, the conclusion is inevitable that there must be an intimate connexion between faulty methods of agriculture and animal disease. In crops like potatoes and fruit, the use of the poison spray has closely followed the reduction in the supplies of farm-yard manure and the diminution of fertility.

Food preservation processes are also on the increase. A feature of the agriculture of the West is the development of food preservation processes by which the journey of products like meat, milk, vegetables, and fruit between the soil and the stomach is prolonged. This is done by freezing, by the use of carbon dioxide, by drying, and by canning. Although food is preserved for a time in this way, what is the effect of these processes on the health of the community during a period of, say, twenty-five years? Is it possible to preserve the first freshness of food? If so then science will have made a very real contribution.

Science has been called in to help production. Another of the features of the agriculture of the West is the development of agricultural science. Efforts have been made to enlist the help of a number of separate sciences in studying the problems of agriculture and in increasing the production of the soil. This has entailed the foundation of numerous experiment stations which every year pour out a large volume of advice in the shape of printed matter.

These mushroom ideas of agriculture are failing; mother earth deprived of her manurial rights is in revolt; the land is going on strike; the fertility of the soil is declining. An examination of the areas which feed the population and the machines of a country like Great Britain leaves no doubt that the soil is no longer able to stand the strain. Soil fertility is rapidly diminishing, particularly in the United States, Canada, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In Great Britain itself real farming has already been given up except on the best lands. The loss of fertility all over the world is indicated by the growing menace of soil erosion. The seriousness of the situation is proved by the attention now being paid to this matter in the press and by the various Administrations. In the United States, for example, the whole resources of government are being mobilized to save what is left of the good earth.

The agricultural record has been briefly reviewed from the standpoint of soil fertility. The main characteristics of the various methods of agriculture have been summarized. The most significant of these are the operations of Nature as seen in the forest. There the fullest use is made of sunlight and rainfall in raising heavy crops of produce and at the same time not only maintaining fertility but actually building up large reserves of humus. The peasants of China, who pay great attention to the return of all wastes to the land, come nearest to the ideal set by Nature. They have maintained a large population on the land without any falling off in fertility. The agriculture of ancient Rome failed because it was unable to maintain the soil in a fertile condition. The farmers of the West are repeating the mistakes made by Imperial Rome. The soils of the Roman Empire, however, were only called upon to assuage the hunger of a relatively small population. The demands of the machine were then almost non-existent. In the West there are relatively more stomachs to fill while the growing hunger of the machine is an additional burden on the soil. The Roman Empire lasted for eleven centuries. How long will the supremacy of the West endure? The answer depends on the wisdom and courage of the population in dealing with the things that matter. Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession -- the fertility of the soil -- is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization depends.


Agricultural Statistics of India, 1, Delhi, 1938.

Howard, A., and Howard, G. L. C. The Development of Indian Agriculture, Oxford University Press, 1929.

King, F. H. Farmers of Forty Centuries or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan, London, 1916.

Lymington, Viscount. Famine in England, London, 1938.

Mommsen, Theodor. The History of Rome, transl. Dickson, London, 1894.

Wrench, G. T. The Wheel of Health, London, 1938.

Next: 2. The Nature of Soil Fertility

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