Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease
(The Soil and Health)
by Sir Albert Howard C.I.E., M.A.
Industrialism and the Profit Motive
One of the developments which marks off the modern world is the growth of population. The figures are startling. There were about nine hundred million persons living during the eighteenth century, but over two thousand million at the beginning of the twentieth; in a century and a half world population, therefore, more than doubled. The principal increases took place in Europe.
The first effect of this is obvious -- there were many more mouths to feed. Had no other changes accompanied this rise in population, we can guess what might have happened. The density of the peoples in rural Europe might have rivalled that in peasant China, and European agriculture would either have had to evolve methods of intensive cultivation similar to those of the Chinese or the additional population could not have survived.
Fate or their own ingenuity has sent the Western nations along another path. The picture has become quite different from that of the Far East and a very remarkable picture it is. We are so accustomed to it that we scarcely grasp the anomalies which it represents or the dangers into which it is leading us.
The Exploitation of Virgin Soil
The new populations did not, as a matter of fact, remain in Europe in their entirety. The Western peoples reached forth and put themselves in possession of vast areas of virgin soil in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Naturally agriculture became extensive, which word means that the cultivator prefers to get a smaller volume of produce per acre off a larger area rather than a great deal from a smaller area more intensively worked. The tracts seized were so enormous that each settler had at his disposal not a tiny piece of ground from which to raise as much produce as possible, but a huge section -- running into hundreds of acres for the growing of crops, into thousands for the raising of cattle or sheep. The amount of human effort to be put into each acre became indeed the crucial question -- in contrast with Europe the new populations were thin and a thin population means few hands, and few hands can do little manual work. The first significant fact we have to note is the uneven distribution of the enlarged population as between the old and the new countries.
It was in these circumstances that the machine came to the help of agriculture The outcome of the use of machines in farming was revolutionary; this is not always realized. Five men working with the most modern combine (so called because it is a machine combining cutting and threshing; a header is another form of the combine) can harvest and thresh fifty acres of wheat in the same number of hours as would require 320 persons working with old-fashioned hand tools; two men working with a header can replace 200 working with sickles; other calculations show for certain specified jobs only one-twentieth or even only one-eightieth of the amount of human labour formerly employed. (Howard, Louise E., Labour in Agriculture, Oxford University Press and Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1935, pp. 244-5.) If these particular calculations apply exclusively to the easier processes of crop cultivation and reaping, it may also be pointed out that the cream separator and machine milking have effected a dramatic augmentation of the dairy industry by saving human labour.
We have reason to be grateful to those who invented the powerful devices which made possible these results. The food which has fed the great populations of Western civilization has been, in part, machine-produced food; without these machines such populations must have starved. But there is another side to the picture. The ease with which agriculture was mechanized was in itself a temptation and this temptation the Western nations have not been able to withstand. It has seemed so easy to provide enough food with comparatively little human labour, and not only this, but also to supply with raw materials those other machines, industrial in character and situated in manufacturing districts, which have been the invention of an ingenuity even more refined than has gone to the making of the agricultural harvester or combine. From these machines, continuously fed with the wool, cotton, silk, jute, hemp, sisal, rubber, timber, and the oil seeds of the whole world, has flowed a vast stream of industrial articles which have been at the disposal of all and which have given a quite special character to our modern civilization.
The result has been inevitable. The hunger of the urban populations and the hunger of the machines has become inordinate. The land has been sadly overworked to satisfy all these demands which steadily increase as the years pass.
Not even the power of the machine would have been sufficient to feed and supply the immense populations of the nineteenth century, had it not been for the vast natural capital in the shape of the humus stored in the soils or the new continents now opened up. The general exploitation of these soils did not take place until the nineteenth century was well on its way. Then the settlers who had poured westwards in North America, trekked northwards from the coast of South Africa, landed by the boatload in the harbours of New Zealand and Australia, set themselves to exploit this natural wealth with zest: they were eager to follow the covered wagon and to draw the plough over the prairies where once only herds of bison had roamed. Meanwhile in South and Central America, Ceylon, Assam, South India, the Dutch East Indies, and East Africa the plantation system, already known in the eighteenth century in the West Indies, took on a magnitude and an aspect which made it a new phenomenon. From all these sources immense volumes of food and raw materials reached Europe in such abundance that no one stopped to ask whether the stream could continue for ever.
Yet all these processes were almost pure harvesting, a mere interception and conversion of Nature's reserves into another form. It is true the land was tilled after a fashion, cultivated and sown, though in such industries as timber and rubber not even that, the ancient riches of the forest being for many years merely plundered. But whatever cultivation processes were undertaken did not amount to much more than a slight, necessary disturbance of those rich stores of accumulated humus which Nature had for hundreds of years been collecting under the prairie or the forest. So enormous were these reserves that the land bore crop after crop without faltering. In such regions as the great wheat belt of North America fifty years of wealth was available and the farmer knew well how to dig into these riches.
The phrase mining the land is now recognized as a very accurate description of what takes place when the human race flings itself on an area of stored fertility and uses it up without thought of the future. In the mid-nineteenth century this began to take place on an unprecedented scale. For if agriculture was, so to say, the nurse of industry, she was persuaded to learn one salient lesson from her nursling. This was the lesson of the profit motive.
The Profit Motive
Of course, ever since the decay and final collapse of the Feudal System, when service steadily gave place to rents, European agriculture has been working for profit; it was already in Tudor times a feature of the British wool trade which preceded and followed enclosure; the great English agricultural pioneers of the eighteenth century were also perfectly alive to the question of the monetary return for their reforms. Indeed, as soon as any harvest is sold rather than consumed, the question of profit must arise. The problem is one of degree and emphasis. Is profit to be the master? Is it to direct and tyrannize over the aims of the farmer? Is it to distort those aims and make them injure the farmer's way of living? Is it to be pushed even further and to make him forgetful of the conditions laid down for the cultivation of the earth's surface, so that he actually comes to defy those great natural laws which are the very foundation and origin of all that he attempts? If this is so, then the profit principle has outrun its usefulness: it has been dragged from its allotted niche in the world's economy, set on a high altar, and worshipped as a golden calf.
At first sight the profit motive does not seem to have taken modern farming very far. The farmers of the new countries opened up in the nineteenth century did not make vast fortunes. Perhaps in sheep farming and without doubt in the plantation industries large money was at one time made. But on the whole the monetary rewards of the new farming were not impressive. They never bore comparison with the colossal fortunes which nineteenth-century manufacture produced for the factory owner. Unlike the cotton spinner, the North American farmer did not exchange his shack for a huge and luxurious mansion. He remains to this day a dirt farmer, and is proud to call himself so, in close contact with his work and doing it with his own hands. It is, therefore, not easy to grasp that without great personal wealth and with no harmful intentions he was, nevertheless, a true despoiler, and that in so far as the occupation on which he was engaged is the first occupation in the world, while the means which he handled -- the soil -- is the most sacred of all trusts, he did more harm in his two or three generations than might be thought possible.
The ease with which crops could be grown year after year on new soil tempted the farmer to forget the law about restoring that fertility which he was rapidly using up in his farming operations. The soil responded again and again. Crop after crop of wheat was raised. Labour, as we have seen, was scarce and animals require much knowledge and much attention. As manure did not seem to be required, animals were discarded. Thus the straw could not be rotted down and the normal practice was to burn it off where it stood. In effect this was to repeat that old wasteful practice of the primitive shifting cultivator who renders the tropical forest into ash: in both cases a potentially rich organic matter was reduced to the inert inorganic phase and so deprived of its duty to the soil population. In short, the old mixed husbandry, which had maintained Europe and which not long before the settlers migrated had been so notably improved as really to achieve something approaching a balance of the processes of growth and decay, was never brought across the waters -- its principles slipped from the settler's mind: he was unaware of his loss.
The Consequence of Soil Exploitation
The result of the exploitation of the soil has been the destruction of soil fertility on a colossal scale. This has taken place in the areas to which we have been referring at different rates over different periods and in response to various factors. The net result of a century's mismanagement in the United States was summed up in 1937 as either the complete or partial destruction of the fertility of over 250,000,000 acres, i.e. 61 per cent of the total area under crops: three-fifths of the original agricultural capital of this great country has been forfeited in less than a century. But New Zealand where a systematic burning of the rich forest to form pasture which in its turn was soon exhausted, parts of Africa where overstocking has ruined much natural grazing, Ceylon where a criminal failure to follow the native practice of terracing for rice has denuded the mountain slopes of their glorious forest humus, would probably show consequences just as startling. Almost everywhere the same dismal story could be related.
When stockbreeding in its turn began to offer strong monetary inducements, especially in Australia and New Zealand in the 1880's and 1890's, another phase set in. Animals were kept in enormous numbers -- some sheep runs owned hundreds of thousands of sheep -- but scant regard was paid to their nurture; the natural herbage, untouched for centuries, was counted upon and as long as the humus held out such specialized animal husbandry could continue. But when the stores of humus were worked out, trouble began. Disease appeared. Inevitable accidents, especially drought, brought utter disaster: there was colossal mortality. No doubt Nature is prepared for such waste: but man is not. It is a setback for him. The right provision against such emergencies would have been a reserve of fodder in the form of cultivated roots or hay, for drought kills not so much by want of water as by starvation. But as crops were not grown alongside of the animals, there were no such reserves, while the natural remedy of wandering to a new pasture, which might have mitigated the catastrophe for the much smaller numbers of wild animals, was no longer possible. Thousands of sheep or cattle therefore perished: the profit motive had become a boomerang.
As the years have passed, the toll of animal disease has become so severe that Governments feel obliged to compute it statistically and grasp at all remedies. The figures rival in their intrinsic importance the figures of erosion. Actually it is the same bad effect in each case: we are looking at the results of mono-crop farming so called.
Let us recall our examination of the methods of Nature. We had noted among other things that her mechanisms for dispelling and scattering seeds were singularly perfect. Is it not obvious that Nature refuses to grow on any one spot the same crop without other intermixtures? Some aggregation of identical plants may take place: so does some collection of animal life: Nature knows the herd, the swarm -- these are her own inventions, but they are set to carry out their lives in a mixed environment of other existences. It is to be noted that in the case of animals their natural range is great, involving change of habitat. It is also, perhaps, worth pondering over that when Nature does breed in one locality a large number of the same animals, these aggregations are particularly liable to be decimated by such diseases as she chooses to introduce; it is as though she herself repented of this principle of aggregation and in her own ruthless way chose for the time being to terminate it. But allowing for these slight modifications, the general economy of Nature is mixed in an extraordinary way. Her sowings and harvestings are intermingled to the last degree, not only spatially, but in succession of time, each plant seizing its indicated opportunity to catch at the nutrient elements in air, earth, or water, and then giving place to another, while some phases of all these growing things and of the animals, birds, and parasites which feed on them are going on together all the time. Thus the prairie, the forest, the moor, the marsh, the river, the lake, the ocean include in their several ways an interweaving of existences which is a dramatic lesson; in their lives, as in their decay and death, beasts and plants are absolutely interlocked. Above all, never does Nature separate the animal and vegetable worlds. This is a mistake she cannot endure, and of all the errors which modern agriculture has committed this abandonment of mixed husbandry has been the most fatal.
It would be to distort the picture unfairly if we were to assume that these mistakes were to be found only in the farming of the new countries. That was by no means the case. The thirst for profit profoundly affected European husbandry also. The yield became everything; quality was sacrificed for quantity. The merest glance at any recent set of agricultural statistics will reveal how wholly this factor of quantity is now insisted upon, indeed is made a boast. Rises in the yield of cereals per acre are everlastingly cited; yields of milk per cow become an obsession. There is, no doubt, virtue in increased volume of produce; it is the aim of agriculture to produce largely, and such increase is useful to mankind. But if the profit and loss account is made to look brilliant merely because capital has been transferred and then regarded as dividend, what business is sound?
The Easy Transfer of Fertility
The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple. Moreover, it is a particularly mean form of banditry because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.
It is, perhaps, not realized over what distances the transfer of fertility can now take place. This final aspect is an unforeseen consequence of the vast improvement in means of communication. It is not necessary for the modern farmer to cash in his own fertility to make a good income; he has a more subtle means at hand. Before the present world war the telephone farmer, as he was sometimes called, had merely to ring up his agent and the needed quantity of imported foodstuffs, oil-cakes, or whatever it may be, was delivered by lorry the next morning. It was claimed that the dung of his animals was thereby enriched and that whatever fields he condescended to cultivate were thus improved. This is true. But what does it amount to? Merely that the accumulated fertility of those distant regions of the earth which have produced the materials for the oil-cake is being robbed in order to bolster up a worn-out European soil: the same bad process of exhaustion is going on, but at the moment so far away that it can be temporarily ignored. On such a system of imported foodstuffs the whole of the dairy industry of Denmark was built up. The Danish farmer was not carrying on agriculture at all: he was devoting himself to a mere finishing process and what he built up was a conversion industry. It is an astonishing sidelight that before the present war the Danish farmer frequently sold his good butter to the London market and bought the cheaper margarine for his children's use. The pursuit of profit had invaded not only his farming methods but his way of life and had even encroached on the health and well-being of his family.
The transfer of fertility to current account, as it were, has not ceased: soil erosion and the toll of animal disease continue. Two recent writers calculate that erosion is even now proceeding "at a rate and on a scale unparalleled in history": between 1914 and 1934, they declare, more soil was lost to the world than in all the previous ages of mankind (Jacks, G. V. and Whyte, R. O., The Rape of the Earth, Faber and Faber, London, 1939), while a host of learned papers are evidence that new diseases of stock are being discovered day after day, baffling both farmer and veterinary surgeon.
The remedy is simple. We must look at our present civilization as a whole and realize once and for all the great principle that the activities of homo sapiens, which have created the machine age in which we are now living, are based on a very insecure basis -- the surplus food made available by the plunder of the stores of soil fertility which are not ours but the property of generations yet to come. In a thoughtful article by Mr. H. R. Broadbent recently published in the Contemporary Review (December 1943, pp. 361-4) this aspect of progress is discussed and the conclusion is reached that:
"The whole world has shared, either directly or indirectly, with the United States and British Commonwealth of Nations in the use of the surplus from the eroded lands. It has enabled us to build up our engineering knowledge and technique. Our buildings, engines, and machinery are material evidence of its consumption; but the foundation has been impoverishment of the soil. The food was cheap -- the products were cheap because the fertility of the land was neglected. We in England have often been puzzled by the arrival of cheap goods when it was known that high wages were paid to the makers. We had not seen the land which had produced not only the food for those makers, but also the organic material which they processed... We had not seen the gullies torn out from the land by unabsorbed rains and melting snows. We had not seen the dust storms of the wind seeping out the goodness from the soils and carrying it hundreds of miles from its old resting place. When we look on Battersea Power Station or our reclaimed land, the great railroads of the United States or London's Underground, or consider such wonders as the general use of electricity and mechanical transport, the spread of broadcasting and mass-production of clothes, we must also see the devastated lands which have yielded the surplus to make them possible. These things in which we take pride were built on an unbalanced surplus, the unmaintained capital of the soil. No country can continue indefinitely to provide food and material at such a cost. Under extraordinary conditions, as in war, the land must be driven beyond the normal to provide an extravagant surplus. But war is abnormal, and the normality at which we aim is peace which implies stability of foundations. Raymond Gram Swing broadcast that at the rate of soil and water depletion occurring when the 1934 survey was made in fifty years the fertile soil of the United States would be one-quarter of what was present originally, and that in a hundred years at the same rate of depletion the American continent would turn into another Sahara. Perhaps he was thinking of other civilizations buried in the sands; the ruins of ancient towns and villages in the Gobi desert, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Perhaps he feared the fate of the country north of the Nigerian boundary, where an area as large as the Union of South Africa has become depopulated in the last two hundred years. Perhaps he remembered the malaria-ridden marshes of Greece and Rome which came with the decline of their agricultural population and loss of vigour."
The Road Farming Has Travelled
What is the outcome of our arguments? We started our investigations by considering the operations of Nature and continued them by summarizing human action in relation to those operations. It is our actions, when confronted with forms of natural wealth, which have shaped the modern world in its economic, financial, and political contours. The harvesting, distribution, and use of natural resources is the first condition which determines human societies.
The supplies provided by Nature are the starting point for everything. Primitive societies have to adapt themselves to what supplies lie readily to hand; they sometimes use severe processes of self-correction, e.g. infanticide, in order to do so. But a further stage is usually reached. Nature's supplies are not static; they appear as actual surpluses, and by a bold use of these surpluses societies emerge from the primitive stage. This use later becomes crystallized as the profit motive.
To eliminate this would be impossible. In advanced societies it would be a retrograde step. The profit motive, however far it may have led us astray, is founded on physical realities. It is wiser to go back to those realities, reconsider them, and seek any necessary correction from a better understanding of them.
What are the exact conditions attaching to the creation of the surpluses which Nature accumulates?
In spite of the fact that we speak of her lavishness, Nature is not really luxurious: she works on very small margins. Natural surpluses are made up of minute individual items: the amount contributed by each plant or animal is quite tiny: it is the additive total which impresses us. The further result is that the gross amounts of these surpluses are not disproportionate to their environment: harvests are only a small part of natural existences.
The farmer is apt to disregard these facts. His object is to produce more. It pays him to select a smaller number of plants or animals and make each of these produce more intensively: he counts on the elasticity of Nature. If he kept his harvests to the very small proportions usual in wild existences, his farming would be exceedingly laborious and scarcely worth while: farming improves in proportion to the extra amounts which the cultivator manages to elicit by stimulating rates and intensities of growth. Up to a point he can do this with safety. After that Nature refuses to help him: she simply kills off the over-stimulated existence. Her elasticity is great, but it is not infinite.
Here we may find our principal warning. The pursuit of quantity at all costs is dangerous in farming. Quantity should be aimed at only in strict conformity with natural law, especially must the law of the return of all wastes to the land be faithfully observed. In other words, a firm line needs to be drawn between a legitimate use of natural abundance and exploitation.
Modern opinion is now set against all forms of exploitation. The limitation of money dividends, the disciplining of capital investments have begun. Undertaken originally only from the point of view of economic order, then continued for political and national motives, these measures bear in themselves further possibilities; it would be easy to give them wide moral significance.
In agriculture, which is so much more fundamental than industrial economics, the field is still uncharted. The agricultural expert still holds out the ideal of quantity as the highest aim. Helpless under this leadership, the farmer has first himself been exploited and has then almost automatically become an exploiter. A vicious round has been set up, resistance to which is only just showing itself.
The first pressure has been the pressure of urban demand. This pressure is of long standing and has been very greedy. It has been exercised in strange contradiction to another tendency: while the farmer was asked to produce more, the man-power needed for greater production was enticed away to the cities, there to add to the number of mouths to be fed. The farmer was always being asked to do more with less man-power to do it. This absurdity has not passed unnoticed. Severe criticisms have been enunciated; everyone would agree to any reasonable measures to restore the balance of population. That the balance of physical resources has also been disturbed is only just beginning to be realized. The transference of the wealth of the soil to the towns in the shape of immense supplies of food and raw materials has not been made good by a return of town wastes to the country. This return is a sine qua non and should at all costs include the crude sewage, which is by no means impossible even with modern systems of drainage. If this can be arranged, the existence of cities will cease to be a menace: exploitation will stop, legitimate use will return. Nevertheless, it will always be important to exercise some control over the volume of urban demand, probably by some restrictions on the size of the urban community, which means some restrictions on the launching of new industries or the expansion of old ones. However far off this sort of control may seem at the present time, it must at some future date rank among the preoccupations of the statesman. Otherwise there will never be any protection for the farming world from the incredible demand for quantity.
It has been under the pressure of this insatiable demand that the farmer has himself become an exploiter: in two ways. Having exhausted the possibilities of production from his own fields, he has actually had the temerity to transfer to those fields the stored-up natural wealth, representing centuries of accumulation, Iying many thousand miles away. The importation of feeding stuffs, of guanos and manures of all kinds from distant parts of the world to intensify European farming is only robbery on a vast scale. It is not necessary to claim that every national agriculture must be completely self-contained: this would be a great pity. But the tide has been all one way. While from the economic and financial point of view the return flow of manufactured goods is supposed to be a quid pro quo, from the point of view of ultimate realities this type of return is perfectly useless. The draining away of natural fertility from tropical and sub-tropical regions is exceedingly dangerous. It is a point on which the peoples of these regions may later come to put a colossal question to the conscience of the so-called civilized countries: Why has the stored-up wealth of our lands been taken away to distant parts of the world which offer us no means of replacing it?
Even this dangerous expedient has been insufficient. Faced with the demand for higher yields, the farmer has grasped at the most desperate of all methods: he has robbed the future. He has provided the huge output demanded of him, but only at the cost of cashing in the future fertility of the land he cultivates. In this he has been the rather unwilling, but also the rather blind, pupil of an authority he has been taught to respect: the pundits of science have urged him to go forward and have made it a matter of boasting that they have done so. How this has come about will be described in our next chapter.