Friday, March 02, 2007

"Fertile Ground"

From Grist:

"Reviving a much-cited, little-read sustainable-ag masterpiece"

Sir Albert Howard would eventually transform the insights he gained from farmers in Barbados and later colonial India into the founding texts of the modern organic-agriculture movement: An Agricultural Testament, published in 1940, and The Soil And Health, which came out five years later. Inflamed by his readings of Howard, a young American named J.I. Rodale launched his seminal Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in the early 1940s. That publication popularized Howard's ideas in the United States, galvanizing the first generation of organic farmers here....

Howard began his career not long after the triumph of the Industrial Revolution. The rise of mass production had prompted a mass migration from farms to cities, leaving a dearth of rural labor and a surplus of urban mouths to feed. Tasked with the problem of growing more food with less land and labor, scientists in Howard's time worked to apply industrial techniques to agriculture.

By then, science itself had succumbed to industrialism's division-of-labor logic. The study of plant disease had become a specialized branch of plant science, itself a subset of biology. The task of growing food could only be studied as a set of separate processes, each with its own subset of problems and solutions.

Soil specialists working at that time had isolated the key elements in soil that nurture plants: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Known as N, K, and P, respectively, these three elements still dominate modern fertilizer production. By learning to synthesize them, soil specialists had "solved" the "problem" of soil fertility.

The process for synthesizing nitrogen, it turned out, also made effective explosives. The same specialists who had industrialized agriculture also, as tensions among European powers mounted in the early 20th century, began to think about industrializing war. During World War I, munitions factories sprouted throughout England, using those fertilizer-making techniques to mass-produce explosives.

Soon thereafter, weapons technology repaid its debt to agriculture. As Howard puts it, "When peace came, some use had to be found for the huge factories [that had been] set up and it was obvious to turn them over to the manufacture of [fertilizer] for the land. This fertilizer began to flood the market." These technologies made their way over the Atlantic to the United States.

But Howard prophesied that the victories of industrial agriculture, whose beginnings he lived to see, would prove short-lived. In its obsession with compartmentalization, modern science had failed to see that the health of each of the earth's organisms was deeply interconnected. Against the specialists who thought they had "solved" the fertility problem by isolating a few elements, Howard viewed the "whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject."

Artificial fertilizer could replace key elements, but it could not replenish the vibrant, healthy topsoil, or humus, required to grow health-giving food. Humus isn't an inert substance composed of separable elements, but rather a complex ecosystem teeming with diverse microorganisms. Only by carefully composting animal and plant waste and returning it to the land, he argued, could topsoil be replaced. For Howard, agriculture wasn't a process sustained by isolated inputs and outputs; rather, it functions as a cycle governed by the "Law of Return": what comes from the soil must be returned to the soil. Farmers who violate the "Law of Return," Howard claimed, are "bandits" stealing soil fertility from future generations...

For Howard, the ideal laboratory for agriculture lay not in some well-appointed university building, but rather in wild landscapes. As he put it in a celebrated passage in An Agricultural Testament, "Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; [and] the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another."

Was Howard right? Despite his gloomy pronouncements, industrial agriculture has so far kept many of its promises. Food production has undeniably boomed over the past century.

And yet, the Green Revolution -- the concerted effort, begun at about the time of The Soil and Health's publication, to spread the benefits of industrial agriculture to the global south -- has failed to eradicate world hunger. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 800 million people live in a state of undernourishment. And in the United States, where industrial agriculture arguably won its most complete victory, diet-related maladies are reaching epidemic proportions. Howard's contention that chemical-dependent soil can't produce healthy food may yet be borne out.

And, of course, industrial agriculture's environmental liabilities are piling up, and could still prove its undoing.

Howard's books belong on the shelf with other 20th-century classics like Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities and E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. These works challenge a scientific/bureaucratic establishment that seeks to solve the problems of mass industrialization with more industrialization. In the words of the great German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin, a contemporary of Howard, they seek to "make whole what has been smashed" by a zeal for specialization. Much-cited and little-heeded, they may yet point a way out of our mounting environmental and social crises.

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