'Medical Testament'

Food and Health

Soil Fertility and Health

by Sir Albert Howard, C.I.E.

-- From "Feeding the Family in War-time, Based on the New Knowledge of Nutrition" by Doris Grant, Harrap, London, 1942.

THE earth is the mother of all living things -- plants, animals, and man. All natural processes, which include growth and decay, are consummated in her. She is the beginning and the end of every cell in existence.

The earth produces most of the food of mankind, and this food to be nutritious must come from a healthy and fertile soil -- one rich in humus.

Soil-sickness, however, afflicts the land in many countries, and almost everywhere soil fertility is declining. The 'medicine cupboard' of poison sprays and dope of all kinds which are now necessary to produce a saleable potato, an attractive tomato, and a bunch of grapes without blemish tells its own tale, which finds confirmation in the frequent and unaccountable epidemics of foot-and-mouth disease which sweep across Europe, in the many and fantastic sicknesses of poultry, and in the complexity of present-day veterinary work. That man also (who feeds upon such unnatural plants and animals) does not escape is proved by the widespread and alarming occurrence of malnutrition, of little-understood mental and physical ailments and of increasing susceptibility to disease.

On the other hand, evidence for the view that a fertile soil means healthy crops, healthy animals, and healthy human beings is rapidly accumulating. At least half of the millions spent every year in trying to protect all three from disease in every form would be unnecessary the moment our soils are restored and our population is fed on the fresh produce of fertile land.

Once the first principle in Nature's farming is recognized and applied, all goes well. This principle can be stated in a few words -- the processes of growth and the processes of decay must always balance one another. If we speed up growth we must accelerate decay, otherwise farming becomes unbalanced and unstable, as does the population nourished, as it is today, on its products. One of the outward and visible signs of this instability is malnutrition followed by disease.

The fundamental cause of the many maladies which now afflict the people of Great Britain is beginning to be recognized by the medical profession. The local Medical and Panel Committee of Cheshire, who are in touch with some six hundred family doctors of the county, affirmed in their " Medical Testament," which was accepted at a public meeting held at Crewe in March 1939, that most of the ills they were called upon to attend were the result not only of wrong nutrition, but also of inferior foods grown on exhausted land.

It follows, therefore, that there can be no satisfactory response to the 'Dig for Victory' campaign unless we first restore soil fertility. Obviously there is nothing to be got out of worn-out land beyond disappointment and the inevitable onslaught of disease in plant, animal, and mankind.

Until such time as the governments of tomorrow assume their chief duty -- the restoration and maintenance of the fertility of the soil -- it is incumbent on the holder of every garden and every allotment to grow not only more food but more and better food.

There is only one way to accomplish this -- to use natural methods of manuring instead of artificial ones. This brings us back again to humus, which is the material necessary for creating and maintaining a fertile soil and which alone can cure soil-sickness once it has occurred. Humus, by the agency of food, is the key to health and fitness.

What is this humus, how is it prepared, and what is it for?

If we watch how Nature -- the supreme farmer and gardener -- prepares humus we shall learn much about its nature, its manufacture for the garden, and its purpose in the soil.

With her usual thoroughness Nature provides us with examples to copy (in our woods and forests) and also to avoid (in the peat bog) in the correct treatment of wastes. Let us consider what we must copy when preparing humus. If we examine the floor of any piece of mixed woodland we can see for ourselves how to make humus. All kinds of vegetable and animal wastes form a loose litter under the trees, but this litter does not accumulate beyond a certain point. It is constantly undergoing transformation, first becoming mouldy, then rotten, and finally passing into dark-coloured leaf mould. The mixed carpet has been changed into humus. The agents which bring this about are alive -- fungi and bacteria. These organisms live on the mixed vegetable and animal matter, rapidly multiply in number, and in the process reduce the total carbon content of the mass, releasing this carbon as carbon dioxide. Besides the wastes these organisms need air and water, both of which are supplied from the atmosphere. Soon the intense activity of these fungi and bacteria slows down, when their dead bodies and the undecomposed portions of the wastes amalgamate to form leaf mould or humus. Humus is therefore a residue. But it is only a temporary residue as it were. When mixed with the soil it undergoes a further slow but complete oxidation by micro-organisms into carbon dioxide, water, and the chemical salts needed in the green leaf.

If we examine the ground under the trees still further we shall find that the humus layer under the loose litter is constantly being mingled with the upper soil by means of earthworms and other animals. In this rich soil we shall discover how the roots of the trees and undergrowth make use of the humus. The upper soil layers are permeated by a network of fine roots which are provided with root hairs and a structure known as the mycorrhizal association. It is by means of these two agencies that the soil and the roots of the trees come into gear. Let us first consider the root hairs which are merely prolongations of the epidermis of the young roots. These absorb water and dilute salts (obtained as we have seen by the complete oxidation of some of the humus) which are carried up to the green leaves by the sap current. The mycorrhizal association is a composite structure made up of threads of fungous tissue (mycelium) which feed on the soil humus and surround or invade the young cells of the root, where fungus and plant cell live together in partnership (symbiosis). Eventually the fungous threads, which are rich in protein, are digested, the products of digestion passing up to the leaves in the sap current. The roots of the trees and undergrowth therefore feed in two ways simultaneously -- by means of the chemical salts absorbed by the root hairs and by means of the proteins of the mycorrhizal association.

Such a double contact between soil and plant is practically universal -- in our gardens, in our arable land, and in our meadows and pastures. It has a profound significance. The quality and nutritive value of our food depend to a very large extent on the efficiency of the mycorrhizal association and therefore on humus. This explains why soil fertility is so important. We can provide a substitute in the shape of artificial manures for the chemical salts absorbed by the root hairs, but there is no substitute for the mycorrhizal association and for the proteins supplied by humus; crops so raised are, therefore, deficient in real food value -- they are artificial crops. Unfortunately much of our food is grown by the help of chemical manures, which partly explains why malnutrition and ill-health are so common in this country.
Most of these troubles can be avoided by making the soils of our gardens and allotments fertile. This involves regular applications of freshly prepared humus. How is this to be obtained? By converting all available vegetable and animal wastes into leaf mould.

The Nature of Health (Introduction and Table of Contents)
Medical Testament
McCarrison bibliography (References)
Speeches by Sir Robert McCarrison and Sir Albert Howard
Correspondence in the British Medical Journal
Food and Health -- Lionel Picton
Soil Fertility and Health -- Sir Albert Howard
Soil Fertility: The Farm's Capital -- Sir Bernard Greenwell
Open-Air Dairying -- A.J. Hosier
Farming for Profit with Organic Manures -- Friend Sykes
Nutrition and Health -- Sir Robert McCarrison
Nutrition in Health and Disease -- Sir Robert McCarrison
Studies in Deficiency Disease (Introduction) -- Sir Robert McCarrison
Diseases of Faulty Nutrition -- Sir Robert McCarrison
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration -- Weston A. Price
The Saccharine Disease -- T. L. Cleave
An Agricultural Testament -- Sir Albert Howard
Ill Fares the Land -- Dr. Walter Yellowlees
Food & Health in the Scottish Highlands: Four Lectures from a Rural Practice -- Dr Walter Yellowlees

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