Sir Albert Howard Memorial Issue
Organic Gardening Magazine (Vol. 13, No. 8), September, 1948
Sir Albert Howard, Founder of the Organic Farming Movement, died in England in October 1947 at the age of 74. Most of this issue of J.I. Rodale's Organic Gardening Magazine was devoted to his memorial. Five of the 15 papers in the issue are presented in full below.
The Work At Indore -- Yeshwant D. Wad
The Lessons of the East -- E. Fairlie Watson
The Birth of the Organic Farming Movement -- Lady Louise E. Howard
Sir Albert Howard's Deed for Science -- Dr. Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer
The Scientific Work of Sir Albert Howard -- B. F. Lutman
By Yeshwant D. Wad, M.A., M.Sc.
Formerly Chief Chemist and Agronomist, Institute of Plant Industry, Indore, Central India
Yeshwant D. Wad was co-author with Howard of The Waste Products of Agriculture, which first presented the Indore system of composting.
IN 1928 I joined the staff of the Institute of Plant Industry just started at Indore by the late Sir Albert Howard and his wife for introducing improved agriculture in States of Central India and Rajputana and advising on their agricultural problems. Sir Albert's previous work at Pusa had enabled him to arrive at reforms in agriculture supremely suitable to rural India and very largely meeting the current needs of the population.
The principal features of his system were: improved implements and new labour-saving appliances, some improvised by the Howards themselves; adequate provision of food and fodders by suitable rotation of crops and grazing areas and the maintenance of grassed edges on field boundaries to prevent erosion; making of silage; systematic care of cattle and implements; orderly harvesting, threshing, and storage; planning of field operations to reduce hours of work, make effort easier and distribute it more evenly; and, the most outstanding item of all, the conversion of wastes to humus and their systematic return to the fields. On these principles the land and buildings of the Institute were laid out in grazing areas, irrigated and dry fields for cultivated crops, cattle shed, silage pits, compost factory, threshing floors, seed godowns, implement sheds, stores and storage godowns, etc., with a small model village for the workers, offices and quarters for the superintendent, students and visitors. The standard Indore Process for making humus was first evolved here, afterwards modified and adapted to suit varying requirements and different types of waste, whether at Indore or elsewhere.
This later proved to be the initial stage in founding an entirely new school of agricultural thought, which promises in the near future to offer a creed to humanity destined to halt its present headlong race towards destruction and the ruin of civilization, enabling it to pause and think and direct its course to safety, security and stable prosperity. This creed is the maintenance of a live and active soil, producing food capable of imparting to human beings genuine vitality and lasting power of survival. It has by now been fully established that it is the crumb structure of the soil which is essential for the production of healthy and high-yielding crops, by ensuring in the root zones throughout the seasons adequate ventilation, drainage, and release of nutrients in proper proportions as required. Crumb structure is dependent on humus; and humus regulates crop nutrition by many different devices, not only by supplying soluble minerals but by direct nutrition in the growth of the symbiotic mycorrhiza, and by storing surplus mineral nutrients in colloidal absorption to be released later. The balanced food or fodder thus produced is superior in quality, health, and vigour-making properties when eaten by animals and humans. Healthy and vigorous bodies are the essential basis for healthy and vigorous mentalities, without which humanity cannot survive or progress.
This will indicate what Sir Albert has given to the world, and that surely at a very critical moment in history, when events are occurring in quick succession to distract unprepared humanity. In his report on Palestine to the National Jewish Agency the American specialist Lowdermilk [see Notes, below] has shown how since Biblical times the prosperity and welfare of races has coincided with careful land management and the maintenance of soil fertility, while misery, downfall, and destruction at the hands of barbarian hordes accompanied the neglect of Mother Earth's holy trust -- the soil.
The deep attachment of Mr. and Mrs. Howard to their work, their colleagues, their staff, students and field workers, not forgetting their cattle, fields, and crops, was so marvellous that it inspired each and all voluntarily to respect, admire and enthusiastically co-operate with them in all their activities. It was a happy sight to see them on their rounds of inspection meet each worker at his duties, inquiring, encouraging, discussing as the case might be, caressing bullocks and gratified to find crops and land in condition. Wherever they moved, all was life. Their associates at Indore still look back on those days with fond memories.
May his soul rest in eternal peace, confident that he lighted a torch for a world drifting and groping in darkness to discover the right path.
"Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years" by W. C. Lowdermilk, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, February 1948. Full text online at Journey to Forever.
A full account of Albert and Gabrielle Howard's agricultural development work in India can be found in "Sir Albert Howard In India" by Louise E. Howard.
The Lessons of the East
By E. Fairlie Watson, O.B.E., one-time Superintendent, Governor's Estates, Bengal
I was a close friend to Sir Albert Howard ever since he took up the post of Economic Botanist to the Government of India at Pusa in 1905. There he was looked upon as a rebel, as anyone who blazes new trails is bound to be. But to few pioneers has it been vouchsafed as it was to him to see their views so generally accepted throughout the world. Even in Pusa days his laboratories showed a great contrast to those of the other experts there. They all worked on diseases and abnormalities, while he chose the strongest and healthiest plants to discover the cause of their health.
Howard was always wont to say that he learned more from the ryot [peasant] in his fields than he did from text books and the pundits of the class room. Certainly there were instances enough at Pusa. For example, the soil in the neighbourhood was found on analysis to be so deficient in phosphorus and nitrogen that the other experts declared that without manure it could only grow indifferent crops and that for a short time. Yet for generations the ryot had got fair crops from his outlying fields without manure. Round the villages the crops were magnificent, explained by the habits of the people, which led to a supply of the missing elements to the surface soil of the fields in their excreta.
Howard showed that the outlying fields were not dependent for their phosphorus on the very small amounts in the surface soil, as the ryots' practice was always to have some deep-rooted crop in the rotation. His work on the root systems of fruit and forest trees showed that many of them combed the whole area between the 8 ft. level of the subsoil water after the monsoon and the 20 ft. level at the end of the dry season afresh each year with new rootlets, and deposited the phosphorus they got from this enormous area on the surface soil in their leaf fall. The deep-rooted crop of the ryot's rotation, usually pigeon pea, did the same thing on a lesser scale.
The explanation of the supply of the nitrogen needs was found in the very calcareous nature of the soil which enabled Azotobacter to flourish and fix sufficient from the atmosphere for the day-to-day requirements of the crop.
When Howard had got his area into good condition with his own work cattle fed on the produce of his fertile soil, there was a great outbreak of cattle disease and he was much blamed for refusing to have his herd inoculated. But in the outcome his herd were the only animals that escaped unscathed, though I frequently saw them mix with diseased animals.
It was a stroke of genius that enabled him to halve the time required for investigations by growing one crop in the plains of India and rushing off the seed to Quetta in Baluchistan in time to grow another crop there, reversing the process in the autumn. It was a great disappointment to me when his work as Economic Botanist to the Government of India came to an end through his insistence on having a free hand to treat agriculture as a whole. But the loss to Pusa became a gain to the world at large as his inspiring book -- An Agricultural Testament -- shows.
It is sad that he is gone just as every one is accepting his view that health is so much more than freedom from disease. But the sound foundations he had laid are there ready for others to build on.
The Birth of the Organic Farming Movement
By Lady Louise E. Howard
Lady Louise E. Howard, wife of the late Sir Albert Howard, is the author of The Earth's Green Carpet.
THE organic farming movement was born on the lovely shores of the Adriatic at the seaside resort of Rimini. In May, 1931 before the tourist season had opened, with the sun-bathed stretches of sea and sand on either side, not a soul in sight, Mr. Howard as he then was, sat and corrected the proofs of his book The Waste Products of Agriculture: their Utilization as Humus. We had agreed to meet for a holiday, having fortunately been able to arrange our official vacations to coincide.
Mr. Howard had been bearing a colossal burden. The death of his wife, Gabrielle Howard, who for twenty-five years had been his fellow worker, had meant that before he left India for good he had not only to complete his research programmes at Indore -- his commitments to the twenty-one Indian States which he served were heavy -- but he had to take over all her work, including all those domestic and social details which she organized to perfection side by side with her scientific researches and her relations with the Indian cultivators. He had to deal well and generously with a large staff and to wind up a residence of many years in the East.
The integrity which was an abiding part of his character urged him to do more, to make one last gift of his genius to the peoples of India. This final gift was to be a book on the manurial future of a country which for four thousand years had used three-fourths of its dried animal dung as its sole domestic fuel, thereby reducing the potentialities of its agriculture to an enormous extent. Yet the fuel was a necessity and no substitute was possible over the area of this huge continent. It was a cruel problem only too well known -- a solution had never yet been suggested. Yet Mr. and Mrs. Howard had gradually become convinced that all their successful plant-breeding work -- their new wheats were famous and were alone bringing in over £3 million yearly in increased production, all this work would end in nothing unless the basic question of enhanced fertility could be dealt with on behalf of the Indian peasants. In later years Sir Albert expressed the opinion that until the level of soil fertility could be raised on the peasant holdings the introduction of more intensively growing varieties of the staple crops in an indigenous agriculture might have the unforeseen effect of exhausting the soil humus hitherto so carefully conserved, thus disastrously reversing the work of an empiric policy of wisdom and restraint pursued for centuries.
The complete solution which now suggested itself was no last-minute invention, though the writing down of it was a last effort. To secure the time for this task Mr. Howard rose at 3 o'clock in the morning and did 'a day's work before the day's work,' to recall the exact words he used to me. When at last he staggered on to the homeward-bound vessel he alarmed his cabin companion by a seasickness which coughed up blood. But this effect of an extreme fatigue passed away rapidly with that capacity for 'sleeping it off' which he retained all his life and which he shared with other well-known men of great endowments and great physique.
At Rimini his immediate acceptance from another of the considerable corrections of form suggested to him revealed the innate humility of the seeker after truth. This point is to be stressed because he did not to the outside observer exhibit this trait: yet it was a part of his character.
The science of the book needed no amendment and has stood four-square ever since. It is the foundation of all theories of compost making, as well it may be, being the outcome of thirty years' patient and exact labour: the solution of India's manurial problem was presented as a proved method of breaking down all organic wastes in a process apart from the growing of crops. On this basis of two separate undertakings, one dealing with decay (restoration of fertility), the other with growth (utilization of fertility), intensive forms of agriculture can be built even in India.
The central idea was borrowed from Chinese practice, and it is sometimes supposed that all that happened was that the composting principle was summarily transferred from one Eastern country to another. This was far from being the case. Like all original thinkers Albert Howard had the faculty of incorporating into his own mentality the ideas of those who preceded him or worked alongside him; again and again he recognized, better than the originators themselves, the significance of something done. On this crucial question of the return of wastes to the soil he always acknowledged his debt to the great American missionary, F. H. King, whose famous book, The Farmers of Forty Centuries (see Notes, below), was to him a kind of bible. Nevertheless this faithful and interesting description of Chinese agriculture had been a mere starting-point. A prolonged series of experiments in composting, never wholly laid aside during all the years at the Indian Experiment Stations and brought to a final conclusion at the Institute of Plant Industry in the Indian State of Indore, of which Institute Mr. Howard was Director and Founder, had served to test under strict scientific conditions every stage of compost making, the use of different materials including patent materials like Adco and artificial fertilizers, the chemical reactions involved, temperature and moisture and build-up, until the basic principles which govern the decay of organic materials had been so truly mastered that henceforward they could be presented to the public without further parley. The great simplicity of Sir Albert's later writing, which has proved such an asset to the general community, was the final outcome of a deep scientific study lasting half a life-time. Only those who have finally wrestled with the minutia of an intricate scientific problem can thus speak with such assurance and plainness. It was a favourite later thesis of Sir Albert's to explain to would-be patentees of one or other suggested composting methods that the laws governing organic decay were among the most complicated in Nature and that though, if we followed certain obvious rules we might be sure that decay would occur, yet the internal history of no single compost heap would ever be the same as the history of any other heap.
With this book on the principles and practice of composting written, Mr. Howard was prepared for retirement in fact as well as in form. It is curious to look back on this period and to remember how he planned all the leisure of a prolonged holiday. He had the good sense to take some part of it and the freshness of his later years cannot but be attributed to the interval of 'slacking' -- to use another of his favourite expressions -- which succeeded the stay at Rimini. One can sometimes hardly resist the suggestion that this admirable instinct to indulge in rest when necessary, so close to what an animal in its wisdom always practices, is a valuable faculty of the human being. It should be more nearly respected. Sir Albert had a strong feeling in this direction. He was an early advocate of shorter hours of work and of the five-day week, and actually in the course of his previous official career had succeeded in introducing what he rightly described as the miracle of speeding up Indian labour by sheer reduction of hours of work from the customary ten hours a day to seven and a half hours in the cold weather and only six hours in the hot. The interesting details of his management of his Indian labour force will be found in his paper, An Experiment in the Management of Indian Labour (International Labour Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 5, 1931).
Nevertheless the voyage round Africa which was undertaken for enjoyment as part of his retirement suddenly plunged him once more into the vortex of ideas. Eager invitations to go up-country in Kenya revealed the amazing fact that the principle which he had presented to the Indian cultivator had already received a far wider application. The coffee growers of Kenya had caught it up and were eagerly applying it with success.
From that moment there was no looking back. First the great plantation industries seized on the compost principle to turn it into a huge scale proposition: compost began to be reckoned in thousands of tons per year on the tea gardens of Assam and Ceylon. Further countries came in: correspondence increased: calls for advice and instructions multiplied. Then the Western farming world awoke; notable assistance was given in a practical way by pioneers and large estate owners -- it was put beyond doubt that the process was perfectly at home in the temperate zones. Then the last phase of all -- visible results in the improved health of crops and stock began to accumulate.
The evidence about improved health took on significance, confirming and strengthening earlier experiences which had always lain in the background of thought. The theory of disease resistance arising out of a fertile soil shaped itself and by the very boldness of the new path so uncompromisingly indicated aroused first contempt and then a frantic opposition.
This was just what was needed for one of Sir Albert's temperament: his opponents served him well. As he amusingly said in later years they provided him with a first-class advertising service worth many thousands of pounds per year and 'he would not have done without them for anything.' In his two great books, An Agricultural Testament, and more especially in the last of these, Soil and Health, issue was joined and the glove flung down for any to pick up. The simple needs of the Indian peasant had finally merged into a world problem.
As the new ideas pursued their way they widened and deepened. The history of the last ten years of the organic farming movement are above all interesting for the number and importance of the apparently extraneous topics which have gradually been collected and fitted into a great theory of natural law: these additions have eventually proved to be part of one whole. First the earthworm came into prominence and was so hotly championed that one witty speaker described that lowly creature as 'gratefully looping after Sir Albert Howard.' Then the mycorrhizal association, the living together of fungus and plant root and the absorption of the fungus by the root, attracted attention: evidence was collected that this natural arrangement played an immense part in keeping the plant healthy. Finally, the mineral problem was attacked, for here the opponents of the organic school hoped to find a weak spot and to deter the agricultural world from final acceptance of the humus theory by the bogy of threatening mineral deficiencies in the soil. Once more, and for the last time, Sir Albert was ready: early significant work on the role of the tree root in Nature was revived and it was pointed out how satisfactory and complete was the natural arrangement for restoring mineral wealth to depleted soils by means of the suction action of deep-rooted trees and plants.
Does not this gradual growth and widening of an original sound idea, derived from ancient practice and experience in the East but also supported by all the findings of Western knowledge, point to a pre-supposition of its truth? A fragmentary discovery limited in range and application would inevitably have narrowed over the years. But the work of Sir Albert Howard has expanded from an immediate practical problem by slow and magnificent stages to ideas which in their range and scope must place him in the forefront of our modern thinkers.
Farmers of Forty Centuries, or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, by Prof. F.H. King, Chief of the Soil Management Division, US Department of Agriculture, Jonathan Cape, London, 1926.
Sir Albert Howard's Deed for Science
By Dr. Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer
Dr. Pfeiffer, Rudolf Steiner's pupil, was responsible for the introduction of the Biodynamic system of organic farming.
SIR Albert Howard's life work has only just begun. It is the highest tribute one can make to a man if one can say that his aims, his thought, his work begin only at his death and will survive his physical death, granting him a spiritual survival. Sir Albert is one of whom one can thus speak. The importance of his thought is established not only for agriculture but it also leads into the realms of nutrition and health. And it is here that future generations will take up the work in order to complete what he has begun.
Sir Albert (this is the way one would address him in England according to his title of knighthood) started out from an intimate study of soil fertility. At a time when not the least thought of soil conservation existed and the term "erosion" had not yet been formed (even though erosion had existed all over the earth for hundreds of years) he began to worry about the poor state of agricultural soils, the decline of their fertility and the decline of crops, despite the fact that agricultural methods seemed to improve and more and more fertilizers were applied. At the same period when mineral fertilizers held the highest rank, his attention was directed to the very core of soils -- the role which humus plays in their maintenance and improvement. It is true that the humus concept was not new. There was, to refer only to one, the humus theory of the German agriculturist Thaer, current early in the 19th century, long before Liebig.
But Liebig had given the agricultural concept a turn towards the mineral theory, in fact, towards the very one-sided concept that only a few major elements are needed for plant growth, namely, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate. The application of these three elements brought about a revolution in farming; an increase of crops was observed. As a consequence, agricultural science and practice still believe today that "this is it." Many other factors were neglected during the next hundred years as a result of Liebig's discovery. One can objectively state that it led to the excessive use of soils and brought increases of crops at the expense of other factors in soil, all the other elements, including trace elements, the important biocatalysts, and organic matter. World agriculture, deceived by the NPK theory, demanded more from soils than they could give and a general depletion cycle began. More fertilizer had to be applied in order to maintain the new crop levels until the breakdown of soils set in. "To hold the soil" by all means became the urgent demand. Mankind was living on the capital of soils rather than on what they could offer in a natural way.
It was here, decades ago, at the high tide of the mineral theory, that Sir Albert Howard, as a Cassandra, with courageous words and writing, based on observation and experience, began to stem the tide and call attention to the fallacies of a one-sided agriculture. Had his call been listened to thirty years ago, then a U.S. Soil Conservation Service might not have been necessary, or have been founded fifteen years earlier than it actually was. It is this foresight which scientists could treasure highly in studying Sir Albert's life work.
Sir Albert had to walk the rough and thorny path of every prophet and pioneer, overlooked, viewed with pitying silence, attacked from the side of the then current beliefs and customs -- a lone man for many years. Even his enemies have to admire the will power and enthusiasm with which he propagated his gospel of soil fertility as an organic concept in spite of all obstacles. Time and future developments and discoveries upheld him though and he could, at least during the last decade of his life, look with satisfaction upon the fact that the organic movement grew in momentum and depth.
A few years before the outbreak of World War II a symposium of scientists and practical farmers took place, called together upon the initiative of Lord Lymington (now the Earl of Portsmouth). "Famine in England," a book by Viscount Lymington (published in 1938), picturing in urgent words the future of English agriculture, which came only too true, was just in preparation. Lord Northborn in "Look to the Land" seconded the organic idea. Captain Wilson, the auccessful farmer and gardener from Lincolnshire, whose products stole all the prizes at agricultural exhibits, was also there. Many outstanding personalities were present. Sir Robert McCarrison (see Notes, below), the apostle of health based on better nutrition from living soils, was there, too.
The purpose of the symposium was to bring together and merge into one great endeavour all the different organic points of view and movements. It was felt that differences of opinion in the organic field could be bridged over, in fact, were healthy and a stimulus for the creation of future research and cooperation rather than opposition and stubborn disagreement. Field tests, laboratory experiments and health studies were decided upon. The need to extend soil studies into the analysis of products, their health and nutrition values, in short, a broad program of future research was instituted. Many valuable experiences and observations were contributed. Such a spirit of cooperation, mutual stimulation and enthusiasm to give momentum to the organic cause reigned there as the writer has rarely experienced at any other scientific conference. The meeting radiated a truly creative atmosphere. It was at this meeting that the writer, as the representative of the Biodynamic Movement (see Notes, below), met Sir Albert Howard for the first time, although he had followed his ideas with the greatest interest before. In fact, one purpose of the conference was to bring the organic idea of Sir Albert Howard and the biodynamic method into peaceful cooperation. Mutual experiments were discussed, thoughts exchanged and results agreed upon. This acquaintance was continued with several visits of Sir Albert to the writer's former biodynamic farm in Holland, where he inspected and acknowledged the results of the biodynamic endeavour.
A personal memory of the first impression made by Sir Albert's personality may perhaps be mentioned here. When the writer entered the livingroom of Lord Lymington's beautiful home a lively discussion was already in full swing. Sir Albert was "enthroned" on the davenport and the writer was seated beside him. He was very impressive with his large head, which might be called a "Jupiter head" by a phrenologist, as he sat there animatedly propounding the organic gospel. There was immediate contact in basic ideas, in our approach to the needs of soil and health. Past experience provided a foundation for ideas for future research. Sir Albert had a slightly singing voice and spoke always with warmth and life. Never an abstract theory was voiced but everything sprang from a long and rich life experience. One had the feeling, one can trust this man, his whole personality is devoted to his cause. He has nothing for sale but his arguments are sound for they are founded on reality. The writer always wondered why Sir Albert, with his solid background, appeared at times to be so much on the defensive, particularly toward "professional" scientists and officials. This would not have been necessary since the organic movement even at that time, ten years ago, already had substance enough to wait until the others came around. When we rose from our seats to continue a lively discussion standing and walking about, the writer experienced a real surprise. Sir Albert was what one calls a "sitting giant" with a large head and trunk, but short legs. When he stood up he seemed to diminish in stature. He had this peculiar physical characteristic in common with Goethe.
The research program outlined at the symposium is still valid: to study soils treated with and without organic fertilizer; to follow up the health value of products thus raised; to study the influence of organic and mineral soils with a view to the resistence of plants to disease; to study the health and resistance of cattle and other animals fed with the different types of products thus raised; to introduce the organic idea as a basis for human health and diet. Doctors and dietitians, nowadays, unaware of the organic approach, prescribe diets. They speak, for instance, of vitamins, of orange juice, lemons, etc. etc. as daily supplements necessary for health. Such a program as outlined above if truly taken up by experiment stations could deliver data of the most surprising nature and lead eventually to an entirely different aspect of the problem of health. We have heard much of preventive medicine in recent years. Sir Albert Howard's importance was that he sought to catch the trouble at its very source, namely the soil from which our food comes. Here indeed is the source of health, not merely later when we eat the fruits of the earth. All questions of the preservation of farm products in such a way that the original nutritive level is maintained are involved too.
Were we to follow the organic concept such embarrassing situations as that described to the writer recently by a chemist could not occur. This chemist had analyzed tomatoes and carrots and found not a trace of vitamins. One should grasp what that really means. A doctor tells a patient to eat carrots, tomatoes, or other vegetables and fruits for his health. The patient buys such products -- but they are worthless. He believes he has done the right thing and wonders why the diet does not help, finally he blames the poor doctor. However, it is certain that the doctor was at fault, if he did not consider the origin of the products he prescribed. Ignorance of the organic idea excuses him no longer since Sir Albert Howard's organic movement and the sister movement of Rudolf Steiner's biodynamics have paved the way. We must become conscious of all the questions involved, otherwise mankind will "starve" in spite of eating. "Hidden Hunger" has since become a familiar concept but it should be enlarged so as to embrace the organic field as well.
An interesting panorama is revealed to us when we start to study composting processes. Bacteriological processes of different kinds, breakdown processes and up-building, humus forming processes are going on. For thousands of years these composting methods have been instinctively applied by the Chinese, by the natives of India (here Sir Albert made his basic observations). They took place at random, but now they have developed into a science. What goes on can be called by proper names, and what is active can be identified. These processes can now be consciously followed and directed. Composting has become a science, yes, even an art. If man loses out with the soil he can only blame his own ignorance of organic matters. Future research institutions will add all the tests and proofs which Sir Albert Howard needed so much and the absence of which forced him still to be on the defensive, even though he could point to empirical findings.
The soil itself is now considered a living being. It dies when it is abused and mineralized. It is sustained when organic methods are practiced. A new soil science has begun -- that of humus as the basic matter. If humus is in the minimum, all other improvements will be costly and in the long run condemned to inefficacy. The law of the minimum has been broadened so that it now embraces not only a purely mineral, dead concept, but a wider, living concept too. It is this enlarged horizon in agriculture which forms one of Howard's most important contributions to science. Sir Albert has thousands of followers in the practical realms of farming and gardening. The day is near when professional scientists will furnish proof of the enlightenment they received from him for research and the betterment of our basic conditions for health. Then his eternal entelechy will live forever in a future more prosperous and healthier mankind.
Sir Robert McCarrison
Nutrition and Health, by Sir Robert McCarrison -- McCarrison's Cantor Lectures, to the Royal Society of Arts in 1936, Faber and Faber, London, 1953. A full outline of McCarrison's groundbreaking work in India with national diets and how closely they were reflected in patterns of health and disease. With photographs. Full text online at the Small Farms Library.
"Nutrition in Health and Disease" by Sir Robert McCarrison, British Medical Journal-- Full text of a speech opening discussion in the Section of Nutrition at the Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association, Oxford, 1936. (5,100 words)
"Studies in Deficiency Disease", Introduction, by Sir Robert McCarrison, Oxford Medical Publications, Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1921
"Diseases of Faulty Nutrition" by Sir Robert McCarrison, Transactions of the Far Eastern Association of Tropical Medicine, 1927
"Nutrition & Soil Fertility" -- Full text of speeches by Sir Robert McCarrison and Sir Albert Howard at a meeting at the Town Hall, Crewe, on March 22nd, 1939, in support of the Medical Testament of the Local Medical and Panel Committees of the County Palatine of Chester. From Supplement to "The New English Weekly," April 6th, 1939 (3,500 words)
Sir Robert McCarrison's contribution to the Medical Testament -- Nutrition, Soil Fertility, and the National Health, published by the 31 doctors of the Cheshire Panel Committee in England in 1939. (1,350 words)
McCarrison bibliography -- References to the "Medical Testament"
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA) Home Page -- "Based on a series of lectures given by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924, Biodynamics is a method of agriculture which seeks to actively work with the health-giving forces of nature. It is the oldest non-chemical agricultural movement, predating the organic agriculture movement by some 20 years and has now spread throughout the world." Biodynamics is very impressive, in its wholism, its results, and its science.
The Scientific Work of Sir Albert Howard
By B. F. Lutman
Professor Emeritus University of Vermont
SIR Albert Howard has finished what may be considered a fortunate life. It was fortunate in that his training and his work seemed to fit his temperament and the aims and ideals that he developed. Too many men are square pegs pushed into round holes, or vice versa. At the best, they are square pegs in square holes which they do not fit. But Sir Albert was, or appeared to be, a square peg which fitted exactly the square hole into which his work had placed him. He must surely be looked upon as a soldier of science.
Such a happy coincidence is not entirely a matter of luck. Training and work (which is also only a long continued and intensive training) must combine to bring out the best that a man can offer to his day and generation.
Sir Albert was fortunate in being born and raised in an English country home. No amount of book or laboratory training could have taken the place of boyhood years spent among the problems and uncertainties of a family whose livelihood depended on the soil. Those years gave him a practical touch with agriculture that he never lost.
His education at London and Cambridge Universities does not seem to have made a deep impression upon him and still, someone in those impressionable years must have drawn his attention and stirred his enthusiasm for plants and plant diseases. That teacher seems to have been Marshall Ward, a professor at Cambridge University. Ward had one of those uncompartmented minds that could roam over the whole field of plant life and touch every branch of it from the bacteria and fungi to the higher plants with the fingers of genius. Ward had been the student of some of the great botanists of his day and had served as an assistant to the zoologist, Huxley, the most noted biological teacher of his generation. In contact with such a mind as that of Marshall Ward, Sir Albert must have taken on some of those habits of thought and methods of approach to scientific problems, that made specialized technicians who knew only one small segment of their subject, almost as undesirable as investigators as those who were entirely ignorant of the subject. That Sir Albert Howard must have profited by Marshall Ward's influence is shown by the fact that he won honors in botany and plant diseases and after his graduation was appointed as a lecturer in botany and especially in plant diseases to the West Indies. He was stationed at the agricultural college on Barbados. This was in 1899 when he was 25 years old. Again he was fortunate. Barbados is the oldest, most civilized and cultured of all the many British colonies; it is like a little bit of England transplanted to a tropical island setting.
Howard's work here was to investigate the diseases of the cultivated tropical plants and to lecture to teachers on school gardens and to planters on plant diseases. He was not entirely happy in his work for as he later wrote, he was only a "laboratory hermit" without contacts with the large planters and without any opportunities for experimentation or for testing the treatments he might devise. In spite of this lack, however, he wrote some excellent scientific papers even if later he came to speak of them slightingly as "learned reports fortified by a judicious mixture of scientific jargon."
His three years here were all a part of his training, especially in the background it gave him of tropical plant diseases. His return to England in 1902 as botanist to the agricultural college at Wye in Kent in the great hop-growing region of southern England gave him an entirely different training. He continued the breeding work on hops that had been started by the former head of the school, Mr. A. D. Hall, who is better known as the famous Director of the Rothamsted Experiment Station.
The two sexes in the hop are borne in flowers of separate plants. The male plants have no value except for their pollen; commercial hops all come from the female plants. But, unless at least four male plants per acre are always scattered among the female flower-producing plants, the hop yield was cut down and the plants were susceptible to disease. Sir Albert was particularily proud of the fact that he was able to point out this necessity for male plants. It was a good practical contribution to the knowledge of hop growing and he was primarily and always a practical investigator. During his stay at Wye he had learned much about plant breeding, a still further piece of good fortune.
His three years at Wye were followed by an appointment in 1905 as Economic Botanist to the Agricultural Research Institute at Pusa near Calcutta in Bengal in northeast India. Here followed another period of learning. The crops were new to him and the methods of growing them had to be mastered, a task which he reckoned at five years (1905-1910). His teachers were the natives whom he watched growing their crops of wheat, tobacco, chick peas and linseed with no artificial fertilizers or sprayings. From these observations he arrived at an important conclusion: "The birthright of every crop is health."
The motive power for all farm operations in India is the ox. On his experimental fields, all his oxen remained healthy and none of them contracted the common contagious diseases such as rinderpest or foot and mouth disease although they had frequent chances of infection from animals on adjoining farms.
From these observations on both plants and animals, Sir Albert was led to the conclusion that the secret of health and disease lay in the soil. The soil must be fertile, to produce healthy plants and fertility meant a high percentage of humus. Humus was the key to the whole problem, not only of yields but of health and disease. From healthy plants grown on humus-rich soil, animals would feed and be healthy. To produce this humus and soil fertility, the Indian cultivator had to depend on the manure of his cows and bullocks.
Shortage of fuel in India has forced the poorer classes to use dried dung as fuel for cooking, in this way decreasing severely the manure returned yearly to the soil. To replace a part of the manure lost in this way as fuel, the Indore method of making humus from any plant remains was devised. In this method only a part of the humus is manure, the larger part may be any plant remains available. Howard credits the Chinese with the basic ideas on which he built his humus piles. The Chinese had kept their soil in a high state of fertility and supported an enormous population by carefully utilizing every bit of organic remains, even human excreta, and returning it to the land in the form of humus.
The land for experimentation at the Pusa Station was limited and the division of the work into air-tight compartments such as plant breeding, mycology, bacteriology, agricultural chemistry, etc. prevented any one man from attacking any problem except that of his narrow speciality. A transfer in 1924 to the Indore Institute of Plant Industry gave Sir Albert a free hand to experiment in any or all biological and agricultural fields. The opportunity was what he had been looking for. He could work on a large scale on this farm of 300 acres and, while the experimentation was supposed to be on cotton raising, he could spread out into the general problem of soil fertility which he felt was the real basis of everything agricultural. It was here that he developed his compost-making technic and here the work was done for which all the other positions had been only a training.
Sir Albert Howard published his humus methods and results in collaboration with a chemist, Mr. Y. D. Yad, in 1931 in the book The Waste Products of Agriculture. Into this book went more than 30 years of experience and observation in the laboratory and fields on soil in England, the West Indies, and India. It marked his crowning achievement as a scientist.
With the publication of this book and his retirement from active scientific duties in 1931, Sir Albert regarded his career ended. But, as a matter of fact, it was only a change of base, from India to England, and the beginning of a 16-year campaign to impress on England and the world the importance of humus in the soil. His later books have all been written with this end in mind. While without any means to continue personal investigations on humus, humus making and the use of humus in agriculture, he was still able from his years of experience and his wide correspondence with all parts of the world to interpret work being done in many lands as a result of the stimulus that he had given in showing the essential position which humus must hold in any permanent agriculture that was to grow healthy plants and animals. He remained to the end, receptive of new ideas and approaches to the humus problem and never developed that closed mind which is too frequently the accompaniment of advancing years; the fixed conclusion that all had been done that was of any importance and that the last word had been written and was in the text books.
The 90 years from 1840 to 1930 might well be called the era of Liebig and chemical farming. Liebig's work seemed to be so absolutely unassailable from any possible attack that it was rapidly accepted not only in Germany but throughout the world. Liebig's laboratory at Giessen became the focal point for students who wished to specialize in agriculture or biological chemistry and from that laboratory they carried back with them his methods and theories. They translated his books into their own languages. The principle upon which his plant nutrition theory was based was so simple that any farmer untrained in chemistry could grasp it and understand the immense practical conclusions to be drawn from it.
Liebig's approach to the problem of plant nutrition was purely chemical and disregarded any biological elements. It was not only purely chemical; it was inorganically chemical since organic chemistry (the composition of the carbon compounds) was still in its infancy.
His technic was to analyze chemically the ash of the dried remains of any plant for its inorganic substances: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sodium, sulphur, iron, etc. This analysis was the answer to the question, What materials does the plant take up from the soil? The carbon compounds came from the air as carbon dioxide (carbonic acid gas) and the nitrogen salts were derived from the soil so they were always included in such an analysis.
To grow a plant such as a sunflower successfully with chemicals, all that was necessary to know was the composition of the ash. If the inorganic materials were supplied as chemicals soluble in water and in about the proportions that they occur in soil water, a plant could be grown to full size and maturity in water cultures. Hydroponics is the modern version of the Liebig ideas. Boiled down to its essentials, it may be stated still more briefly as: the inorganic chemicals which once made a plant, if they are applied to another small plant should make another one just like it.
In compounding such chemical solutions, it was soon found that three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium occurred in all plants and were withdrawn in quantity from any culture solution. These three were the basic elements but they had to be supplemented by smaller quantities of calcium, magnesium, iron, sulphur, etc. Crops removed large quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from the solution or the soil and these chemicals had to be replaced if crops were to be grown successfully on the same land year after year.
Liebig's theories and laboratory experiments were now transplanted to the garden and field. With nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium compounds needed for crop production, the problem was up to the chemists to supply these chemicals as cheaply and as readily available to the plant as possible. The N-P-K mark on every fertilizer bag sold today, was the answer of the chemists and the chemical manufacturers.
The original Liebig work and theory was of the academic type -- what would be referred to as "the ivory tower" variety of investigations. But as soon as the practical and highly profitable financial returns from the exploitation of the "ivory tower" theory became evident, an entirely new set of faces appeared and an abundance of money was available to finance further experimentation and to exploit this new, rich chemical field. The famous Rothamsted Agricultural Station was established in England by Lawes, the inventor of superphosphate, who contributed both scientifically and financially to its support. From this station and from government stations in the United States and other countries, Liebig's theories were elaborated.
Between the years 1840 and 1914, these chemical fertilizers were used to supplement the huge quantities of stable manure still available from the work animals, horses, mules and oxen, the motive power of the farms. The introduction of gasoline-propelled trucks and tractors made many of these animals unnecessary; manure became scarcer and the shift to chemical fertilizers increased every year. Shortage of farm labor over the entire world during the war still further increased our dependence on tractors and chemicals.
A bold, courageous scientist with a broad training in all the newer biology: plant breeding, plant diseases, and fertilizers as well as with a practical agricultural field experience was needed to throw down the gauntlet to interests as firmly entrenched as the Liebig theories and the chemical fertilizer industry. The century-old Rothamsted Station with its brilliant array of scientific Directors and soil chemists had spread its influence over the government-subsidized experimental work in England and the United States as well as in Germany. The theoretical work based on that of Liebig seemed unassailable. The purely chemical plant nutrition theory held all the key positions in experimental work and was backed by the almost unlimited financial resources of the gigantic chemical fertilizer companies which were in many cases interlocking throughout the world.
In the United States, with a few notable exceptions, the soil experimenters were chemists with the chemical viewpoint and with little training or interest in the biological and living parts of the soil. Humus was recognized as an important factor in soil fertility but always in a secondary position to the inorganic chemicals. The physical properties of humus, such as its capacity to hold water and soluble chemicals, or to prevent heavy clay soils from caking when dried out were emphasized rather than the possibility that the humus might itself furnish chemicals that were essential for normal, healthy plant growth. Plant nutrition involved only quite simple chemical compounds, or even the ions into which these compounds might be split when in the soil water. The essential feature of the Howard theory of humus and plant nutrition is that the organic remains which constituted the humus, supplied in some way, chemicals which plants found necessary for their growth and health. As a corollary to this absorption by plants of these complicated compounds, growth substances, or whatever they were, Sir Albert added his suggestion, derived from his observations that animals or humans that feed on plants grown on chemically fertilized soil will also be lacking in some of those qualities which give health and vigor.
The use of humus in successful, permanent agriculture was not new to Sir Albert Howard and he would have disclaimed any pretensions to being its discoverer. He insisted that the hundred years in which Liebig's theories have been tested had shown that mankind had gone downhill in general health although the life-span had been lengthened and that our cultivated plants had become an easy prey to the attacks of fungi and insects, especially the so-called degeneration and virus diseases. We had fed more people but we had fed them poorly although their stomachs had been filled. He was simply insisting on a return to the old farming methods of the pre-Liebig era when manure was the standard farm fertilizer. He wished to supplement the manure by the use of any plant or animal remains available.
While the length of life in man has doubled during the last century, many diseases have much more than doubled in the number of deaths they cause. Mankind has learned through medical research to control the diseases of the early days, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and intestinal disorders, as well as the infective diseases of the middle period of life such as typhoid, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases but has not been as successful with the diseases of the later years. These diseases seem to have obscure or undetermined causes: poor teeth, pernicious anemia, arthritis, and that bane of the later years, cancer. In livestock, the foot and mouth disease is threatening cattle raising. In plants, a group of socalled "degenerative" diseases due to ultramicroscopic viruses require constant vigilance on the part of plant breeders and plant pathologists to keep them in check as do new and unexplained outbreaks of fungus troubles such as the recent disastrous epidemic of the late blight of the tomato in this country.
England has bred in the past three centuries some great innovators and leaders in agriculture and in the sciences upon which successful agriculture is based. Land drainage, liming soil, rotation of crops, the introduction of clovers and the turnip into the crop rotation, and the work and importance of the earthworm have all been the work of some man who was willing to try something new and tell his friends and neighboring farmers about his success. It is too early after Sir Albert Howard's death to say just how high his name will stand on this great honor roll but it will be there and undoubtedly well up toward the top. No man can say at this time just how much influence this great English scientist's work and writings will have on the trend of agricultural practices. The pressure of a dense population on an insufficient food supply in the British Islands which has to be supplemented from abroad, will make the people much more willing to listen to any proposal that promises even a measure of relief.
Here in the United States, agronomists in our agricultural experiment stations will tell you that they are constantly bombarded by letters containing queries on the humus methods with suggestions that their experimentors get busy on humus problems. The pendulum of pure chemistry as a basis for plant nutrition seems to have begun to swing back from the extreme position it had attained at the beginning of the century and much of the credit for this change must be given to Sir Albert Howard.
A review of the work of the founder of the organic farming movement, Sir Albert Howard, by Keith Addison.
Introduction to "An Agricultural Testament" -- full text online at Journey to Forever.
The Manufacture of Humus from the Wastes of the Town and the Village -- "An Agricultural Testament", by Sir Albert Howard, 1940, Oxford University Press, Appendix C, full text online at Journey to Forever.
An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, Oxford University Press, 1940.
This is the book that started the organic farming and gardening revolution, the result of Howard's 25 years of research at Indore in India. The essence of organics is brilliantly encapsulated in the Introduction, which begins: "The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture." Read on! Full explanation of the Indore composting process and its application. Excellent on the relationship between soil, food and health. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
The Waste Products of Agriculture -- Their Utilization as Humus by Albert Howard and Yeshwant D. Wad, Oxford University Press, London, 1931
Where Howard's An Agricultural Testament charts a new path for sustainable agriculture, this previous book describes how the Indore composting system which was the foundation of the new movement was developed, and why. Howard's most important scientific publication. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease (The Soil and Health) by Sir Albert Howard, Faber and Faber, London, 1945, Devin-Adair 1947, Schocken 1972
This is Howard's follow-up to An Agricultural Testament, extending its themes and serving as a guide to the new organic farming movement as it unfolded -- and encountered opposition from the chemical farming lobby and the type of agricultural scientists Howard referred to as "laboratory hermits". Together, the two books provide a clear understanding of what health is and how it works. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
Sir Albert Howard in India by Louise E. Howard, Faber & Faber, London, 1953, Rodale 1954
Albert and Gabrielle Howard worked as fellow plant scientists and fellow Imperial Economic Botanists to the Government of India for 25 years, and this is a study of their work by Sir Albert's second wife Louise (sister of Gabrielle, who died in 1930). It's a classic study of effective Third World development work. Initially involved with improving crop varieties, the pair soon concluded it was futile to fiddle with seeds unless the work took full account of the system and circumstances as a whole. Thus developed a sustained interest in putting agricultural research into its right relation with the needs of the people, and a fundamental belief in peasant wisdom. Results were useful only if they could be translated into peasant practice. This led to the development of the famous Indore system of composting organic wastes: improved seeds were no use in impoverished soils. It's a great story. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
The Earth's Green Carpet by Louise E. Howard, 1947, Faber & Faber, London
In this unusually clear book, Lady Howard (Sir Albert Howard's wife), has written a "layman's introduction" which is also a work of literary distinction. Her subject is nothing less than the life cycle studied as a whole, and this leads inevitably to the importance of a reformed agriculture for the health of the community. She saw the need for a popular introduction to her husband's revolutionary ideas and principles, and her book draws a vivid picture of what lies behind the appearance of the Earth's green carpet. "Nature is not concerned to give us simple lessons," Lady Howard says -- and yet she transmits them here with admirable simplicity and clarity, a delight to read. More than an introduction, the book is a survey of the whole body of work of the pioneers of organic farming and growing. Full text online at at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
Howard on Earthworms -- Howard's Introduction to "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits" by Charles Darwin, Faber and Faber edition, London, 1945 -- 4,500-word article on worms and why they matter, also covers George Sheffield Oliver's work with earthworms in agriculture.
"The Formation of Vegetable Mould", full text online at the Soil and Health Library:
"Friend Earthworm: Practical Application of a Lifetime Study of Habits of the Most Important Animal in the World" by George Sheffield Oliver, 1941, full text online at Journey to Forever.
Howard on wholism -- Howard's Introduction to J.I. Rodale's "Pay Dirt -- Farming & Gardening with Composts" (Devin-Adair, 1946): "Everywhere knowledge increases at the expense of understanding. The remedy is to look at the whole field covered by crop production, animal husbandry, food, nutrition, and health as one related subject and then to realize the great principle that the birthright of every crop, every animal, and every human being is health."
Nutrition & Soil Fertility -- Howard's speech in support of the Cheshire doctors' "Medical Testament" when it was presented in 1939. From Supplement to "The New English Weekly," April 6th, 1939. Full text online.
Soil Fertility and Health by Sir Albert Howard -- From "Feeding the Family in War-time, Based on the New Knowledge of Nutrition" by Doris Grant, Harrap, London, 1942. A short and elegant exposition of the core concern of the Cheshire doctors' "Medical Testament".
Correspondence in the British Medical Journal -- Publication of the "Medical Testament" in the British Medical Journal drew some heated debate among readers in subsequent issues. This is a letter from Howard.
Soil Fertility: the Farm's Capital -- comments by Howard in discussion on a paper presented to the Farmers' Club by Sir Bernard Greenwell, "Journal of Farmers' Club," February, 1939, p. 9.
Quality of plant and animal products -- Sir Albert Howard: "Manufacture of Humus from the Wastes of the Town and Village": Lect. London Sch. Hygiene and Trop. Med. 17 June, 1937. Extract.
Humus and Disease Resistance -- Sir Albert Howard: "Insects and Fungi in Agriculture." Vol XV. No. 3. "Empire Cotton Growing Review." July, 1938. Extract -- 1,600 words.
Soil maintenance in the forest -- Sir Albert Howard: "A Note on the Problem of Soil Erosion." J. of Royal Society of Arts No. 4471, 29 July, 1938. p. 926. Extract.
How to Avoid a Famine of Quality -- Sir Albert Howard, Editor of Soil and Health, from Organic Gardening, Vol. II, No. 5, November, 1947: "Western civilisation is suffering from a subtle form of famine -- a famine of quality." (Scanned by Steve Solomon of the Soil and Health Library.)
The Animal As Our Farming Partner -- Sir Albert Howard, from Organic Gardening, Vol. II, No. 3, September, 1947: "In Nature animals and plants lead an interlocked existence. The connection could not be closer, more permanent, or more crucial. We can observe this partnership in operation in the forest, in the prairie, in marshes, streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean." But not on too many of our farms.
Articles by Sir Albert Howard from Organic Gardening Magazine, 1945-47: Nutrition and Health, Health Building for the Future, Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease, The Real Basis of Public Health, The Purpose of Disease, Life and Health Restored to a Dead Farm, Dried Activated and Digested Sewage Sludge for the Compost Heap, The Leguminous Crop.
Back to the Small Farms Library Index
Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles
Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations | Contact us