Why it happened

Lady Eve Balfour

28 October 2009

Born 1898, Lady Evelyn Barbara Balfour was a farmer and one of few women in 1915 to study agriculture.  Although many people were involved in the Soil Association’s creation and early development, Lady Eve Balfour’s contribution – as its founder and de-facto leader for many years – was highly significant. The driving force behind the birth of the Soil Association, her book The Living Soil (published in 1943) synthesised sustainable thinking of its time. This article, which opened the first edition of Mother Earth in 1946, strongly and clearly expresses Eve Balfour's commitment to an ecological perspective of the world.


“I can grow my own vegetables properly, but can you tell me where I can buy compost grown wholewheat bread or flour?”
“I live in town and have no garden or allotment. Can you tell me where I can buy compost grown vegetables?”
“I have a small garden and cannot keep livestock. Farmyard manure is unobtainable here. What do you recommend as a substitute for my compost heaps?”
“I am shortly returning to Australia/South Africa/New Zealand. I want to take back with me the latest results that have been obtained by organic growers in this country, and also the latest results of any research work concerning soil biology and the nutritional value of food grown organically. Can you tell me where this can be obtained?”
“Please tell me where I can buy compost grown vegetable seeds.”
“Please give me the names of compost farmers in my county.”
“What is the latest information on the development of mechanised methods of compost making?”

These are just a few of the questions that are received by all well-known supporters of the theory that soil fertility is the basis of health. They come by post and by telephone in an unending stream. Parents write asking for advice on diet for themselves and their children, and wanting the addresses of schools growing their own vegetables organically. People write wanting jobs on organically run farms. Farmers write wanting to have recommended to them workers with experience in organic methods, and so it goes on.

From what springs this deep and widespread interest in the biological approach to the soil and its bearing on nutrition and health? It does not originate in the many recent books on the subject; they are the product of it, not the cause. It is significant that after the recent debates in the House of Lords, both on “Soil health and Human health” and on the subject of wholewheat bread, the Hansard Reports were sold out as fast as they could be printed. This is irrefutable evidence of public interest in these matters. Nor is this interest confined to this country. It is world wide. In some countries, such as the U.S.A., South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, it is no doubt greatly accentuated by the truly terrible encroachment of man-made deserts which, over wide tracts of country, now offer a serious threat to the very existence of the human race. In Britain the red light is much less obvious, and yet public concern is scarcely less pronounced. Why?

Is it perhaps a symptom of a new trend of thought – a stage in human development – producing a spontaneous realisation that biology, hitherto the most neglected of sciences, is the most important of them all, for while we have learned how to use the sciences of physics and chemistry to produce material things and to bring about mass destruction, we have patently failed to solve the problem of how to live in harmony within ourselves, with each other, or with our surroundings? To reflect upon this truth at once leads to a desire to find out where we have gone wrong, and the moment that desire is translated into action we are unable to avoid a shrewd suspicion that as a first step in our search we would do well to consult Mother Nature.

Disorder and chaos are not natural phenomena. Left to herself, Nature always produces order. It is man who causes chaos by his persistent attempt to resist or ignore natural laws, an attempt doomed to failure from the start. Nature’s biological laws are dynamic. They are manifested through active processes of intense vitality. These processes are delicately poised in balance, and interlock with the greatest complexity. Until quite recently science has failed to devise any technique for studying these processes. It has tried to learn about life through death, about vitality through sterility, about health through disease. It has adopted the method of a child who takes the machine to pieces to see how the wheels go round, after which treatment, of course, they don’t.

While constituents can be discovered by analysis and anatomy taught by dissection, function can be studied only by watching it at work in its natural surrounding. New techniques are only now being evolved to make this possible, but people all over the world are waking up to the urgent need for their speedy development. They are beginning to understand, for example, that health is something much more than just not being ill, and that the right approach to health consists not merely in the prevention of disease but in the promotion of vitality in both organism and environment, for the one cannot be studied apart from the other.

These people have begun to see life on this planet as a whole, and Nature’s plan as a complicated system of interdependence rather than one based on competition. As an outcome of this interpretation of natural law, they share the belief that the only salvation of mankind lies in substituting co-operation for exploitation of all human activities from soil treatment from soil treatment to industrial and international relations.

Now while it is true that this realisation has dawned simultaneously on thinking people everywhere, these people by no means form the mass of a given population. Nevertheless, they do exist in ones and twos in practically every group or community however small, so that while they often feel themselves to be isolated, and consequently frustrated, in the aggregate their numbers are anything but insignificant. They are the leaven, which, given the opportunity, has the power to lift the mass to a better standard of health and a better way of life than man has ever enjoyed. How to provide this opportunity is the problem.
The first prerequisite is the provision of machinery to enable them to contact each other and become conversant with each other’s work, for they are the nuclei of true constructive effort – these people with vital ideas.

Once their individual efforts are enabled to coalesce into a united group effort two further necessities remain. First, though the development of the new scientific techniques, a steady increase in our knowledge and understanding of Nature’s biological laws and the significance of the complex interplay between living organisms must be brought about. The investigation and interpretation of this interplay has its own science called ecology, and it is through the exercise of this science that the necessary research work must be carried out.

Secondly, the group, armed with real knowledge and the ability to interpret it, must use it to educate public opinion, not only regarding the need for a healthy soil – the source of our food – but also concerning the way in which that food should or should not be treated once it is grown; so that if people continue to abuse Nature’s laws to their own detriment, or allow governments to do it for them, such behaviour shall at least be the outcome of informed choice and not a blindfold and Gadarene descent into the abyss.

It is in the hope of achieving these three purposes that the Soil Association has come into being. It has not been an easy instrument to fashion. For the men and women invited to become its founders were deliberately chosen to represent not only that whole range of activities that so complex a purpose must cover – such as farming, gardening, medicine, social science, sanitary engineering, the biological sciences, milling, baking, retailing and merely consuming – but also all the different shades of opinion within these groups. For there are many different shades of opinion sprouting out of the common ground, and we need them all in a vital society such as this must be if it is to serve any useful purpose.

The common ground of agreement which unites them all is, of course:

  1. The conception of the soil as a living entity.
  2. Recognition that human activities must conform to Nature’s fixed biological laws if they are not to end in self-destruction.
  3. Desire to promote research to interpret more fully what these laws are and how they work.
  4. A determination to resist attempts to disregard these laws, when they are known, from whatever quarter, and with whatever motives such attempts are made.
  5. The belief that this can best be achieved by using all possible means to disseminate information concerning proved knowledge and in this way to expose exploitation, particularly the exploitation of ignorance.
  6. Whether the Soil Association is in fact an instrument capable of fulfilling the purpose for which it was created time alone will show.

Personally, I am confident that it is the best instrument that could have been devised at the present moment, that it is an answer to many people’s long-felt want, expressed and unexpressed, and that it is capable of growing and developing as our knowledge grows and develops. It has been conceived and brought into being through the devoted labours of a body of enthusiasts, but not of cranks. Its founders are men and women actuated by a sense of service and a thirst after truth.

The Association is now being handed over to its members. Its future is in their hands. May they roll in in their thousands, and be inspired so to control and use it that it may honestly serve the true purpose of creation.


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