October 23, 2017

An Agricultural Testament: the key to surviving the 21st century

On 2 October 2001 Edward Goldsmith was honoured with the Millennium Gandhi Award by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi. Co-recipients of the Award included Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, Satish Kumar, Mohammad Idris, Sunderlal Bahaguna and Krishnam-mal & Jaganathan.

The ceremony followed a 3-day conference on “Globalisation, Environment and People’s Survival” taking place from 29 September to 1 October 2001 at the India International Centre, New Delhi, during which Goldsmith delivered the second Albert Howard Memorial Lecture. The text is reproduced below.

The first time I had the privilege of speaking in this conference hall was way back in 1974 when I was working with the Gandhi Peace Foundation. The chairman of that meeting was Jagdish Kapur, whom I note is sitting in the front row here today, 27 years later.

Of course I am very honoured to give the Second Albert Howard Lecture here today – at a time when his ideas could not be more relevant to the solution of the problems that lie ahead. As we read in his great classic An Agricultural Testament, a sound, sustainable, agricultural system assumes both the health of the crops we grow and the health of the people who eat them. He saw the fertility of the soil as man’s chief possession and went so far as to state that the very future of civilisation depended on our ability to preserve it. For Howard, nature provides us with the model for a sound agricultural system.

A forest is the product of what he refers to as “nature’s farming”. It is self-fertilising, self-irrigating and there is no waste, no pollution and very little disease. Its fertility is assured by the wheel of life: the cycle of growth and decay which in the forest is kept in perfect balance. What we today call ‘slash and burn’ agriculture as practiced by tribal peoples, mimics the forest’s farming methods.

“The forest growth is burnt down, the store of humus is converted into crops, the exhausted land is given back to nature for reaforestation and the building up of a new reserve of humus.”

As Sir Albert says, it is the ideal rotational system, one in which forests have been introduced into the rotation. The agriculture practised by Indian villagers succeeded in maintaining highly fertile soils round the 500,000 villages in that country, which among other things, “kept crops free of insect and fungus diseases.”

Howard was not the first agronomists to praise Indian traditional agriculture. Augustus Voelcker, a British agricultural expert, was dispatched to India to study it, with a view to modernising it. To the surprise of his employers, he described how perfectly Indian agriculture was adapted to local conditions. He did not see how it could, in fact, be improved and went on to say that “It is a much easier task to propose improvements to English agriculture than to make really valuable suggestions for that of India.” A. O. Hume, another British agronomist of that period, came to a very similar conclusion.

For Howard, modern industrial agriculture is a veritable catastrophe. By its very nature it must break the wheel of life. It accelerates growth but attaches no importance to decay, which cannot but cause the degradation of the soil, which in turn leads to lower yields, sick plants and sick people. To raise the yields, we use “artificial manures” as Howard called them, which “poison the earth”. Their use, for him, “is one of the greatest calamities which has befallen agriculture and mankind.” I am sure that Mahatma Gandhi would very much have agreed with him.

We also fight off the resultant diseases with poisonous sprays which cause still further diseases, as all small farmers know only too well. I remember publishing in The Ecologist, some 20 years ago, an advertisement by Shell Chemicals for its various pesticides. The advertisement stated that pesticides are essential, as pests eat more than 30 percent of the American harvest. We noted underneath, that one of the arguments used against Rachel Carson’s thesis in 1963 was that pesticides were essential because pests ate every year more than 10 percent of the American harvest.

We asked ourselves at the time, what percentage of the American harvest would pests eat 20 years later. Of course these figures were far from accurate. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the proportion of the American harvest eaten by pests continues to increase from decade to decade. The main reason why this is so, is made clear by another great agronomist, the Frenchman Francis Chaboussou, who was a research scientist at the Institut National de Recherche Agricole (INRA) for most of his career. In his two important books, Les Plantes Malades des Pesticide and La Santé des Cultures he explained in great detail why the use of chemical pesticides must by their very nature, increase plant diseases.

In brief, insects and other small creatures that prey on plant life are not endowed with the enzyme required to decompose foreign proteins into amino acids. However, they can of course, synthesise their own proteins. This means that rather than feed on plant tissue they can only feed on the amino acids contained in the sap. However, healthy plants have little sap in them as they use what sap they produce to fuel their growth, and once they have stopped growing they cease to produce sap over and above what is required for maintenance and repair.

This is not so of sick plants, and that is why it is the sick plants only that insects normally attack. Plants of course, can be sick, as Sir Albert Howard made out, when they are grown on inappropriate soils. “Insects and fungi are not the real causes of diseases”, he noted, “but only when they attack unsuitable varieties of crops imperfectly grown.”

Plants could also fall sick if subjected to brutal changes in temperature and, as Chaboussou insists, when sprayed with pesticides. These poisons, even if they do not kill the plants, will still weaken them, and in this way make them particularly palatable to insects and other potential pathogens. Not surprisingly, after Chaboussou’s death, his work was totally forgotten by the State institute he worked for. His message was not the one they wanted to hear. If they had promoted it, they would have been under hideous attack from the powerful agro-chemical industry. Chaboussou’s work was known to but a few people and was discovered by another great agronomist, Jose Lutzenberger. Due to him, Chaboussou’s work has been translated into German, Portuguese and will soon be available in English.

For Chaboussou, as for Lutzenberger, as indeed for Sir Albert Howard, the way to fight plant disease is to build up their health and resistance. Lutzenberger himself has been very successful persuading many farmers in the state he lives in, to replace poison sprays with whey, cow’s urine, mature bio-gas slurry and ground rock (rich in trace elements). For Lutzenberger, these, and other similar substances, provide the real answer to the re-constitution of soil fertility.

Of course, it is very difficult to persuade our big industrial enterprises – geared to maximise production in the short term, regardless of long term consequences – to follow suit. So they are too close to the agrochemical industry and often very much part of it. Nor are governments likely to be willing to take on the powerful agro-chemical industry, or any other powerful industry for that matter. All of them contribute to economic growth, sometimes referred to as economic development, which in our society become little more than an appendage to the economy, and as we all know, only survives if it keeps on growing – and growing at a very fast rate.

Less than 3 percent per annum is hardly sufficient to keep it functioning. This is not always easy to achieve. Hence the government will support almost any initiative, however socially, ecologically and morally unacceptable it might be, if it actually contributes to achieving this essential end.

In addition, the religion with which industrial man has been imbued – a religion that has de-sanctified the family, society and the natural world, and indeed everything that traditional man regarded as holy – is made sacred by virtue of mere ‘progress’, of which economic growth or ‘development’ is a most obvious manifestation. The main tenet of this – the most naive and pernicious of all religions – is that man, with his limitless ingenuity, and armed with all his science, technology, industry and free trade, can create a material paradise on earth from which all our problems will have been eliminated.

Hence economic growth or development must necessarily have priority over everything else. No real social, ecological or moral sacrifice is too great if it can lead to further development. Even though ‘development’ is quite obviously the cause of our problems. The only solutions to these problems that we are capable of applying are those that least interfere with this ‘sacred’ process, and that, if possible, actually serve to accelerate its deadly course.

In other words, the problems caused by development are interpreted in such a way as to justify still more development. The same is true of every problem we look at. Thus when fish stocks decline – which they are doing throughout the world – the reaction until very recently has not been to reduce our impact on fish stocks – which is clearly the way to deal with the causes of the problem – but to invest in bigger and more powerful trawlers equipped with more sophisticated equipment to enable us to locate what fish stocks have not yet been annihilated.

The solution we adopt for the increasing indebtedness of third world countries is not to reduce their borrowings and make them more self-sufficient, but to lend them even more money so they continue borrowing; which, as we all know, is largely stolen by politicians and wasted on luxury products of the elite, and on vast infrastructure projects with low if not negative returns.

The only solution we can provide to the increased epidemic of crime, delinquency and drug addiction – which is the inevitable concomitant of economic development – is to hire more police, equip them with ever more sophisticated gadgetry, and build more prisons.

Each problem is in fact turned into a business opportunity. The building of prisons, was, a few years ago, the fastest growing industry in California. There are now prison millionaires, if not billionaires – not surprisingly as more than 2 million people are in prison in the US today, and it costs more to keep someone in prison than to send him or her to Harvard or Yale. This way the economic development which is the basic cause of these social aberrations, is not only allowed to continue but is further accelerated by the development of a new industry: prison building and prison management – which reminds one of Mahatma Gandhi’s remark on modern medicine which ran something like this: “we over-eat and are ill and take pills which will make us feel a bit better, so that we can go on over-eating and get sicker still.”

It is in this context that we must see the ideas of Sir Albert Howard. In effect, what he is saying is that the only solutions “we apply to lower agricultural yields and increasing crop disease is to dowse our fields with artificial manures and our crops with poison sprays.”

The lower yields and increasing crop diseases are the inevitable consequence of the adoption of large scale industrial agricultural methods, which in turn are an inevitable feature of economic development which is the true cause of the problems. By dowsing our fields with artificial manures and spraying our crops with chemical poisons we eliminate the symptoms of the problem while at the same time further increasing the sales and the profits of the agro-chemical industry and hence further contributing to gross national product.

The ‘solutions’ we apply to infectious diseases that afflict us, are very much the same. These are attributed to the action of microbes and other micro-organisms, against whom we then wage war – once more with chemical poisons of various sorts: disinfectants, antibiotics, etc.

Of course it is a losing battle, as microbes are incredibly resilient and can survive under almost any conditions. In addition, our body contains perhaps as many as 10 times more microbial cells than animal cells, which means that a human being is as much a microbial ecosystem as he is a biological organism. What is more, the indigenous microbial population with which we have evolved, plays a very important part in our physical development and in the normal functioning of our bodies. Germ free animals that are bred for laboratory experimentation suffer from all sorts of physical and immune system deficiencies.

In any case, as René Dubos, the great micro-biologist, and like Sir Albert Howard, one of the fathers of what can be referred to as the ‘ecology of health’, has made clear, microbes by themselves, do not cause disease. What causes disease is the breakdown in the balance between man and the microbial population which inhabits him. In normal conditions, even potential pathogens can persist in our bodies without causing any evident disease. Indeed it is only in rare instances that they do. As Dubos puts it,

“more often than not, humans can harbour all sorts of extremely dangerous bugs, like salmonella and diphtheria, with total impunity, while it is only in exceptional circumstances that they develop the diseases associated with them.”

The conditions in which such microbes can be transformed into pathogens are those that

“differ from those under which the evolutionary equilibrium between a host and microbes became established. This occurs, for instance, when the host species suffers a nutritional deficiency or is exposed to toxic agents or certain types of stress, which thereby create a physiological disturbance.”

Clearly then, the solution does not reside in waging warfare against the microbes any more than the solution to the health of our plants consists in waging chemical warfare against the insect pests. It consists instead of restoring the balance between man and his indigenous micro-biota.

As Rene Dubos notes, animals are quite capable of doing this. In fact, if you feed rats on a diet deficient in thiomine, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 (which appear to be synthesised by microbes that are part of an animal’s indigenous microbiota) they will indulge in coprophagy. What is more, if we prevent them from doing so, their normal growth rate will be reduced by no less than 20 percent.

This notion of balance is critical at every level in the hierarchy of the ecosphere – i.e. between biological organisms, families, communities, and the ecosystems of the ecosphere itself. This is its critical structure. Yet modern science today rejects these notions, for they are irreconcilable with the secular religion of ‘progress’ and economic development, with which we must necessarily be imbued.

Indeed, if the world we inherited is imperfect, as the religion of progress implies; and if our welfare, indeed our salvation, depends on transforming it as radically as possible to a completely different world – as designed by our scientists, technologists and industrialists – how can we accept that its original structure is critical and that our welfare, indeed our survival, depends on preserving it? Of course, we cannot; and that is why we see the constituents of the natural world as arranged in a random order, and as totally malleable, like lumps of clay.

For Descartes, living things in general – and for John Locke, the human mind itself – are but pieces of wax, “flexible, malleable, ours to shape as we please” as the Australian philosopher of science, Passmore, puts it. Most modern historians and sociologists also see society in this way. H. A. L. Fisher, the famous historian, for instance tells us that man does not have a nature, only a history – intimating that human behaviour is infinitely malleable and that history is just a record of random and disconnected events.

Woodrow Wilson also talks of the extreme plasticity of social behaviour, implying that we can adapt to living in just about any social or environmental conditions, including of course, those that economic development or ‘progress’ imposes upon us.

They are all totally wrong. Immune systems, and processes at all levels in the hierarchy of the living world, have a critical structure – that which is consistent with the fulfillment of their adaptive functions – and by adaptive functions I mean not only those functions required to assure their welfare and survival as individuals but also for the survival of the critical structure of the hierarchy of larger systems of which they are part; and without which they cannot, at least in the long term, survive.

And also, every detail of a natural system’s critical structure is not fixed once-and-for-all by the evolutionary process. An immobile system would be unstable. Indeed, to adapt to an environment that undergoes geophysical and climatic changes, they must themselves undergo change. They will not be undergone for their own sake however, but as part of a transformational strategy in order to prevent bigger and more destructive changes.

In this way (except in extreme conditions) it is only the particularities of the critical structure of a natural system that are modified – basic features being religiously preserved. It is for this reason that Paul Weiss, the great Biologist and philosopher of Biology, regarded it as a key feature of natural systems that they display “macro-determinism” and “micro-indeterminism”.

It cannot be a coincidence that throughout the world, whether it be in Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, North or South America, even Europe, people originally lived in extended families, linked together by various intermediate associations that constituted small communities. Nor could it be a coincidence that these communities were largely self-reliant, and that they always indulged in a minimum of trade, and were almost entirely self-governing.

Nor can it be a coincidence that they were held together by their religio-cultural patterns that provided them with a blueprint for the solution to all the problems they were likely to encounter at the level of the individual, the family and the community itself.

Nor is it a coincidence that as soon as this critical structure breaks down, and it inevitably does so under the impact of modern economic development, it creates a sick society, beset by all sorts of problems, like population growth, resource depletion, environmental disruption – not to mention interpersonal aggression, crime, delinquency and general social and ecological chaos.

What is important, is that economic development is also incapable of solving any of these problems because their true cause is social disintegration, which is the inevitable consequence of economic development, to which this country is totally committed. All it can do is seek to alleviate the symptoms of a disease that it cannot cure, especially if this is achieved by a developmental expedient, which involves further increasing economic development.

If society has a critical structure, like all natural systems the ecosphere also has its critical structure. That of its constituent atmospheric environment for instance, as a chemical composition, must be respected if the ecosphere is to maintain its stability along with that of its constituent natural systems. Thus, as Jim Lovelock points out, the CO2 content of the atmosphere is critical; if it were too low, the earth would be too cold, and if too high, its temperature would exceed that which most forms of life could tolerate. Its oxygen content is also critical; if it were a little lower then certain forms of life would not be able to breath, while if it were too high, the earth’s atmosphere would become so inflammable that a single spark could set off uncontrollable fires.

Yet of course, we have not done so. As soon as we learned to mobilise the energy contained in fossil fuels within the context of a market economy, we were condemned to global warming, which is by far and away the most daunting problem that mankind has ever been faced with. This in itself is an indictment of our industrial society, which came into being precisely when we learned to use this energy for our machines – and so that machines could take over the tasks that had previously been fulfilled by humans themselves and their draft animals. And if we do nothing about it, and so far nothing has been done, then without any doubt whatsoever, vast areas of our planet will become uninhabitable before the end of this century.

What has to be done, very clearly, is to restore the critical structure of our atmospheric environment, which in effect, means once again putting economic development into reverse.

It could be argued of course, that it is possible to power our industrial society without fossil fuels, i.e. by substituting for them renewable energies such as those derived from the sun, the winds and from the waves. It is may be possible to obtain some 30-40 percent of the energy used today from these sources, but probably not very much more, and in any case, it will take some decades, possibly as much as 50 years before this limited goal can be achieved.

But even this is not sufficient. 50 percent of the emissions of carbon dioxide – the principle greenhouse gas – are at present absorbed by the living world: our forests, our soils and the oceans. But at the rate at which economic development is destroying the living world, the capacity to absorb this gas can only diminish.

In other words, not only must fossil fuels be phased out and phased out very quickly, but the whole living world, from now on, must be religiously preserved – which means no more industrial agriculture, which by its very nature must turn fertile soil into dust, correspondingly reducing its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and forcing out what carbon it still contains into the atmosphere.

Nor can we tolerate the modern forestry industry which is destroying the world’s forests at an unprecedented rate. So much so that the present director of the United Nations Environmental programme stated that it would require a miracle for any tropical forests on our planet to survive the next decade. Due to the enormous size and power of the logging industry, this is not the least bit surprising. It seems in fact, that the only way we are going to protect the natural world and maintain its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide emissions, is to phase out the industrial system itself and the economic growth or ‘development’ that sustains it.

However, as usual, we have looked for technological fixes – developmental solutions that further build up economic growth or development. It has been suggested, seriously, by the National Academy of Sciences in the US for instance, that one of the answers is to resort to geo-engineering solutions. The National Academy of Sciences even suggested placing 50,000 one hundred square kilometre mirrors in the earth’s orbit to affect incoming sunlight. Another proposal is “to use guns or balloons to maintain a dust cloud in the stratosphere to increase the sunlight reflection.”

The accent however, has now shifted to creating a market for licences to emit greenhouse gases. These can be acquired by exporting clean development mechanisms (CDMs) to third world countries, which will enable them to reduce their emissions. Such licences can also be obtained by planting forests.

By buying unused quotas of permitted greenhouse gas emissions (on the basis of the Kyoto Protocol: countries such as Russia and the Ukraine, whose emissions have been drastically reduced due to the collapse of their respective economies) a complete new industry has been created – the buying and selling of quotas – to ensure that the richer countries such as the US will be able to avoid cutting down their emissions in any substantial manner.

Once again our governments are incapable of taking the necessary measures required to prevent the greatest catastrophes that mankind is otherwise condemned to because this would mean interfering with economic growth, and hence with the interests of the multi-nationals that control it. Instead we have turned this terrifying problem into a new business opportunity, which every country is desperately trying to exploit.

Surely then, industrial society’s inability to ensure the health of our plants and of those who eat them is merely one facet of the quandary in which we find ourselves. Our society is equally incapable of assuring the health of our families, societies and the natural world and of the ecosphere itself. All are being sacrificed on the altar of economic growth or ‘development’ and hence in order to satisfy the immediate interests of the multi-national corporations which, with the development of the global economy, control almost every aspect of our lives.

Our only hope is to return to the sort of society so eloquently advocated by Mahatma Gandhi – a society consisting of a loose association of republics, largely self-sufficient and committed to small-scale traditional agriculture and artisanal production of the required artefacts. It sounds Utopian to suggest it today, but then the global economy we have created is incredibly unstable and its survival for more than a few years, perhaps at most a decade, is, in my opinion, almost impossible.

The anti-globalisation movement is spreading throughout the world and is one of the fastest growing movements in human history. So let us not give up hope!


  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • Identi.ca
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top