Excerpt from THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA by Michael Pollan (2006) pages 145-152
In 1971 organic agriculture was in its infancy—a few hundred scattered amateurs learning by trial and error how to grow food without chemicals, an ad hoc grassroots R&D effort for which there was no institutional support. (In fact, the USDA was actively hostile to organic agriculture until recently, viewing it—quite rightly—as a critique of the industrialized agriculture the USDA was promoting.) What the pioneer organic farmers had instead of the USDA's agricultural extension service was Organic Gardening and Farming … and the model of various premodern agricultural systems, as described in books like Farmers of Forty Centuries by F. H. King and Sir Albert Howard's The Soil and Health and An Agricultural Testament. This last book may fairly be called the movement's bible.
Perhaps more than any other single writer, Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), an English agronomist knighted after his thirty years of research in India, provided the philosophical foundations for organic agricultural. Even those who never read his 1940 Testament nevertheless absorbed his thinking through the pages of Rodale's Organic Gardening and Farming, where he was lionized, and in the essays of Wendell Berry, who wrote an influential piece about Howard in the The Last Whole Earth Catalog in 1971. Berry seized particularly on Howard's arresting—and prescient—idea that we needed to treat "the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject."
Like many works of social and environmental criticism, An Agricultural Testament is in broad outline the story of a Fall. In Howard's case, the serpent in question is a nineteenth-century German chemist by the name of Baron Justus von Liebig, his tempting fruit a set of initials: NPK. It was Liebig, in his 1840 monograph Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture, who set agriculture on its industrial path when he broke down the quasi-mystical concept of fertility in soil into a straightforward inventory of the chemical elements plants require for growth. At a stroke, soil biology gave way to soil chemistry, and specifically to the three chemical nutrients Liebig highlighted as crucial to plant growth: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or to use these elements' initials from the periodic table, N-P-K. (The three letters correspond to the three-digit designation printed on every bag of fertilizer.) Much of Howard's work is an attempt to demolish what he called the "NPK mentality."
The NPK mentality embraces a good deal more than fertilizer, how-ever. Indeed, to read Howard is to begin to wonder if it might not be one of the keys to everything wrong with modern civilization. In Howard's thinking, the NPK mentality serves as a shorthand for both the powers and limitations of reductionist science. For as followers of Liebig discovered, NPK "works": If you give plants these three elements, they will grow. From this success it was a short step to drawing the conclusion that the entire mystery of soil fertility had been solved. It fostered the wholesale reimagining of soil (and with it agriculture) from a living system to a kind of machine: Apply inputs of NPK at this end and you will get yields of wheat or corn on the other end. Since treating the soil as a machine seemed to work well enough, at least in the short term, there no longer seemed any need to worry about such quaint things as earthworms and humus.
Humus is the stuff in a handful of soil that gives it its blackish cast and characteristic smell. It's hard to say exactly what humus is because it is so many things. Humus is what's left of organic matter after it has been broken down by the billions of big and small organisms that in-habit a spoonful of earth—the bacteria, phages, fungi, and earthworms responsible for decomposition. (The psalmist who described life as a transit from "dust to dust" would have been more accurate to say "hu-mus to humus.") But humus is not a final product of decomposition so much as a stage, since a whole other group of organisms slowly breaks humus down into the chemical elements plants need to grow, elements including, but not limited to, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This process is as much biological as chemical, involving the symbiosis of plants and the mycorrhizal fungi that live in and among their roots; the fungi offer soluble nutrients to the roots, receiving a drop of sucrose in return. Another critical symbiotic relationship links plants to the bacteria in a humus-rich soil that fix atmospheric nitrogen, putting it into a form the plants can use. But providing a buffet of nutrients to plants is not the only thing humus does: It also serves as the glue that binds the minute mineral particles in soil together into airy crumbs and holds water in suspension so that rainfall remains available to plant roots instead of instantly seeping away.
To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one's ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine. Once that leap has been made, one input follows another, so that when the synthetic nitrogen fed to plants makes them more attractive to in-sects and vulnerable to disease, as we have discovered, the farmer turns to chemical pesticides to fix his broken machine.
In the case of artificial manures—the original term for synthetic fertilizers—Howard contended that our hubris threatened to damage the health not only of the soil (since the harsh chemicals kill off biological activity in humus) but of "the national health" as well. He linked the health of the soil to the health of all the creatures that de-pended on it, an idea that, once upon a time before the advent of industrial agriculture, was in fact a commonplace, discussed by Plato and Thomas Jefferson, among many others. Howard put it this way: "Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women."
Howard's flight of rhetoric might strike our ears as a bit over the top (we are talking about fertilizer, after all), but it was written in the heat of the pitched battle that accompanied the introduction of chemical agriculture to England in the 1930s and 1940s. "The great humus controversy," as it was called, actually reached the floor of the House of Lords in 1943, a year when one might have thought there were more pressing matters on the agenda. But England's agriculture ministry was promoting the new fertilizers, and many farmers complained their pastures and animals had become less robust as a result. Howard and his allies were convinced that "history will condemn [chemical fertilizer] as one of the greatest misfortunes to have befallen agriculture and mankind." He claimed that the wholesale adoption of artificial manures would destroy the fertility of the soil, leave plants vulnerable to pests and disease, and damage the health of the animals and peoples eating those plants, for how could such plants be any more nutritious than the soil in which they grew? Moreover, the short-term boosts in yield that fertilizers delivered could not be sustained; since the chemicals would eventually destroy the soil's fertility, today's high yields were robbing the future.
Needless to say, the great humus controversy of the 1940s was set-tied in favor of the NPK mentality.
Howard pointed down another path. "We now have to retrace our steps," he wrote, which meant jettisoning the legacy of Liebig and industrial agriculture. "We have to go back to nature and to copy the methods to be seen in the forest and prairie." Howard's call to redesign the farm as an imitation of nature wasn't merely rhetorical; he had specific practices and processes in mind, which he outlined in a paragraph at the beginning of An Agricultural Testament that stands as a fair summary of the whole organic ideal:
Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; 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; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.
Each of the biological processes at work in a forest or prairie could have its analog on a farm: Animals could feed on plant wastes as they do in the wild; in turn their wastes could feed the soil; mulches could protect bare soil in the same way leaf litter in a forest does; the compost pile, acting like the lively layer of decomposition beneath the leaf litter, could create humus. Even the diseases and insects would perform the salutary function they do in nature: to eliminate the weakest plants and animals, which he predicted would be far fewer in number once the system was operating properly. For Howard, insects and diseases—the bane of industrial agriculture—are simply "nature's censors," useful to the farmer for "pointing out unsuitable varieties and methods of farming inappropriate to the locality." On a healthy farm pests would be no more prevalent than in a healthy wood or pasture, which should be agriculture's standard. Howard was thus bidding farmers to regard their farms less like machines than living organisms.
The notion of imitating whole natural systems stands in stark opposition to reductionist science, which works by breaking such systems down into their component parts in order to understand how they work and then manipulating them—one variable at a time. In this sense, Howard's concept of organic agriculture is premodern, arguably even antiscientific: He's telling us we don't need to understand how humus works or what compost does in order to make good use of it. Our ignorance of the teeming wilderness that is the soil (even the act of regarding it as a wilderness) is no impediment to nurturing it. To the contrary, a healthy sense of all we don't know—even a sense of mystery— keeps us from reaching for oversimplifications and technological silver bullets.
A charge often leveled against organic agriculture is that it is more philosophy than science. There's some truth to this indictment, if that is what it is, though why organic farmers should feel defensive about it is itself a mystery, a relic, perhaps, of our fetishism of science as the only credible tool with which to approach nature. In Howard's conception, the philosophy of mimicking natural processes precedes the science of understanding them. The peasant rice farmer who introduces ducks and fish to his paddy may not understand all the symbiotic relation-ships he's put in play—that the ducks and fish are feeding nitrogen to the rice and at the same time eating the pests. But the high yields of food from this ingenious polyculture are his to harvest even so.
The philosophy underlying Howard's conception of organic agriculture is a variety of pragmatism, of course, the school of thought that is willing to call "true" whatever works. Charles Darwin taught us that a kind of pragmatism—he called it natural selection—is at the very heart of nature, guiding evolution: What works is what survives. This is why Howard spent so much time studying peasant agricultural systems in India and elsewhere: The best ones survived as long as they did because they brought food forth from the same ground year after year without depleting the soil.
In Howard's agronomy, science is mostly a tool for describing what works and explaining why it does. As it happens, in the years since Howard wrote, science has provided support for a great many of his unscientific claims: Plants grown in synthetically fertilized soils are less nourishing than ones grown in composted soils; such plants are more vulnerable to diseases and insect pests; polycultures are more productive and less prone to disease than monocultures; and that in fact the health of the soil, plant, animal, human, and even nation are, as Howard claimed, connected along lines we can now begin to draw with empirical confidence. We may not be prepared to act on this knowledge, but we know that civilizations that abuse their soil eventually collapse.
If farms modeled on natural systems work as well as Howard suggests, then why don't we see more of them? The sad fact is that the organic ideal as set forth by Howard and others has been honored mainly in the breach. Especially as organic agriculture has grown more successful, finding its way into the supermarket and the embrace of agribusiness, organic farming has increasingly come to resemble the industrial system it originally set out to replace. The logic of that system has so far proven more ineluctable than the logic of natural systems.
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