Colonial Advisor Who Was Willing To Learn

It was 1940 when Albert Howard had his important work An Agricultural Testament published for the first time in Oxford. A botanist and agronomist, Sir Albert Howard was a true trailblazer in his field, able to clearly identify the problems which would beset agriculture today, over sixty years after his heyday.

He was posted to India by the British government in 1905 in order to teach the Indians new methods for improving local crops, but very quickly realized that he had a lot to learn from his new home. As he states in his book, “there were no diseases in the fields or problems of soil fertility”, so he decided to make the peasant farmers and diseases his teachers. The results were extraordinary. The legacy he has passed on to us in his “testament” can rightly be considered far more modern and forward-looking than a lot of contemporary thought relating to agriculture.

Now that the Italian edition of the book is being published by Slow Food Editore (under the title I diritti della terra. Alle radici dell’agricoltura naturale), I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to this person who is of such relevance today and has inspired present-day organic agriculture.

Sir Albert starts from the observation that you mustn’t damage the fertility of the land if you want to maintain a good agricultural system. It might be easy to understand in theory but translating it into practice is another thing. In every ecosystem, from the forests to the seas, there is a self-regulating equilibrium. The environment’s great strength is variety, and in nature there is no sign of monocultures, that bizarre invention of human beings. A great range of biodiversity ensures that there is efficient use of all the resources. There is no question of waste— an automatic component of a consumer society—as everything not needed by a species is food for others and everything, down to the last leaf, returns to the earth.

There isn’t any equilibrium in fields cultivated with intensive methods, where humans remove resources without offering the land adequate compensation. The advent of industrial civilization has brought things to a head. In the past, fields just had to feed the farmers and their animals, then they had to feed ever-expanding urban areas.

But the land now faces an even bigger task in trying to satisfy the hunger of machines for raw materials they can transform. This third irresistible force imposed by industrialization meant massive use of chemical fertilizers. And they were available in huge quantities: when the First World War ended, the need to reposition the war economy involved finding new markets. The factories which had produced nitrogen compounds for explosives during the war began to sell nitrogenous fertilizers to farmers around the world.

It is what Howard calls the “NPK mentality”, after the chemical symbols for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. His inspired insight was to realize that it was an act of war against nature.

While fertilizers gave an immediate illusion of making farmers’ work easier by enabling flourishing crops to grow with less effort, over the long-term it was to prove unsustainable. The processes of growth and decay would never again be balanced, leading to the impoverishment of the natural reserves of humus in the soil.

What makes Howard’s ideas so topical is that he revealed the existence of a causal link between the spread of new methods of fertilization, plants being weakened and less resistant to attack from parasites, and the denaturing of soil. In his willingness to learn from traditional Indian knowledge, Howard demonstrated uncommon humility for his time, when the Colonial Empires, though nearing their demise, still prevailed and faith in the positivist notions of progress were well entrenched.

Now, 65 years from its first publication, it is up to us to act on the ideas contained in An Agricultural Testament, combining traditional wisdom and scientific knowledge so that the soil continues to be the “real capital of nations”.

First published in La Stampa on 03/11/2005

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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