Sir Albert Howard on artificial manures

Charles Dowding

30 May 2012

In this article Charles Dowding examines Albert Howard's 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, which was the first articulation in print of the urgent need for a healthy soil.

When it is borne in mind that our greatest possession is a healthy, virile population,the cheapness of artificial manures disappears altogether. p38

Howard’s 1940 book An Agricultural Testament was written for a general public who were showing interest in the major changes happening around them in farming; it pre-dated the Soil Association or any body representing an alternative viewpoint, but it is still a brilliant reminder of our essential starting point, a healthy soil.

Howard (1873-1947) had worked through a period when machines replaced animals, monoculture replaced crop rotation, artificial fertiliser replaced animal manures and chemical remedies multiplied to cope with the results of these changes. He was painfully aware of many powerful reasons for changes, usually linked to economic motives, yet often causing harm to the soil, for example:

The factories engaged during the Great War in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen for the manufacture of explosives had to find other markets, the use of nitrogenous fertilisers in agriculture increased, until today the majority of farmers and market gardeners base their manurial programmes on the cheapest form… What may be conveniently described as the NPK mentality dominates… Vested interests, entrenched in a time of national emergency, have gained a stranglehold. p.18

Most of his professional life was in India where the combining of his scientific training with observation of native practices and health provided fertile ground for modern explanations of traditional agriculture. Helped by his own farming background, Howard sought whole solutions to all the partial problems he witnessed, and found many of them in the use of well made compost. His great triumph was discovery and probably the first modern explanation of relationships between soil fungi and healthy, abundant growth. Only recently have agricultural scientists taken up this story, as soil chemistry has for so long held the upper hand, including a chemical response to plant disease.

In the mycorrhizal association Nature has given us a mechanism far more important and far more universal than the nodules of the clover family. It reconciles at one bound science and the age-long experience of tillers of the soil as to the supreme importance of humus. There has always been a mental reservation on the part of the best farmers as to the value of artificial manures compared with good oldfashioned muck. The effect of the two on the soil and on the crop is never quite the same. Further, there is a growing conviction that the increase in plant and animal diseases is somehow connected with the use of artificials. In the old days of mixed farming the spraying machine was unknown, the toll taken by troubles like footand- mouth disease was insignificant compared with what it is now. The clue to all these differences – the mycorrhizal association – has been there all the time. It was not realised because the experimental stations have blindly followed the fashion set by Liebig and Rothamsted in thinking only of soil nutrients and have forgotten to look at the way the plant and the soil come into gear. An attempt has been made to apply science to a biological problem by means of one fragment of knowledge only. p168

Howard acknowledged help in understanding the work of mycorrhizae from the research on Wareham Heath in Dorset by Dr Rayner, who also inspired Eve Balfour in her writing of The Living Soil (1943). Soil fungi are multiplied in soil where well made compost has been applied, even in small amounts, where Howard was amazed to discover how it was possible to restore the health and productivity of worn out soils in the tropics. These insights about the importance of compost in promoting soil fungi and healthy growth were fundamental to early Soil Association philosophy and practice, and it may be that if Howard had lived for longer, they could have retained a central position instead of being sidelined by a more chemical, nutrient-based approach.

Another difficulty Howard encountered in Britain was financial. His recipes for Indore compost were based on cheaper and more available labour in India, making it possible to prepare and spread compost properly. Aspiring organic farmers in Britain often ended up with basic heaps of animal manure and machines of variable quality to spread it. Even this cost more than use of artificials and led Howard to lament the dominance of economics, both in research and practice:

Farming has come to be looked on as if it were a factory (and) far too much emphasis has been laid on profit. But the purpose of agriculture is quite different from that of a factory. It has to provide food in order that the race may flourish and persist. The best results are obtained if the food is fresh and the land is fertile... Why neglect the very foundation stone of our efficiency as a nation? p198

We are now seeing the unhealthy results of neglecting this foundation stone, because food has been turned into a commodity of quantity, with some of its lessening quality lost in processing as well. The main emphasis for farmers has been to produce food at the lowest cost, and organic farmers are on this same treadmill. Unfortunately, the claim that cheap food can be produced organically has diminished research to pioneer work on links between soil and plant health, and how this affects both animals and man. The Soil Association discovered at Haughley how expensive and difficult this can be: Howard was not a fan of the Haughley Experiment, yet his comments suggest that he ought to have been.

There can be no doubt that the work in progress on disease at the Experiment Stations is a gigantic and expensive failure, that its continuance on present lines can lead us nowhere and that steps must be taken without delay to place it on sounder lines. The cause of this failure is not far to seek. The investigations have been undertaken by specialists. The problems of disease have not been studied as a whole, but have been divorced from practice, split up, departmentalised and confined to the experts most conversant with the particular fragment of science which deals with some organism associated with the disease.

This specialist approach is bound to fail, when we consider: (1) the real problem – how to grow healthy crops and how to raise healthy animals, and (2) the nature of disease – the breakdown of a complex biological system, which includes the soil in its relation to the plant and the animal. The problem must include agriculture as an art. The investigator must therefore be a farmer as well as a scientist, and must keep simultaneously in mind all the factors involved. Above all he must be on his guard to avoid wasting his life in the study of a mare’s nest: in dealing with a subject which owes its existence to bad farming and which will disappear the moment sound methods of husbandry are employed. p169

Howard lamented that Liebig, who discovered the NPK basis of plant composition, “was only qualified for his task on the scientific side; he was no farmer; as an investigator of the ancient art of agriculture he was only half a man. He was unable to visualise his problem from two very different points of view at one and the same moment - the scientific and the practical.” p182

Howard’s work still reads well after nearly a century and its historical perspective reveals how easy it is to be swept along with contemporary “world viewpoints”. For example in the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, when many organic advisors advocated vaccination, it would have been opportune to quote Howard’s experience with oxen which frequently “rubbed noses with foot-and-mouth cases. Nothing happened. The healthy well-fed animals reacted to this disease exactly as suitable varieties of crops, when properly grown, did to insect and fungus pests – no infection took place.” (p162)

Another misunderstanding explained by Howard is of green manuring, as he narrates how its development came to be over-influenced by attempts to incorporate free nitrogen, at the expense of understandings about formation of humus after ploughing in.

At the end of the nineteenth century it seemed so easy, by merely turning in a leguminous crop, to settle at one stroke and in a very economical fashion the great problem of maintaining soil fertility. The leguminous nodule might be used as a nitrogen factory, while the remainder of the plant could provide humus. All this might be accomplished at small expense and without any serious interference with ordinary cropping. These expectations, a natural legacy of the NPK mentality, have led to green manuring experiments all over the world. In a few cases, particularly in open, well aerated soils where the material after ploughing in was well distributed and ample time was given for decay, the results have been satisfactory. In the majority of cases, however, they have been disappointing. p87.

Howard explains how soil must start with a certain level of fertility, including sufficient humus and mycorrhizae, both to enable good growth of a green manure and then its rapid breakdown before the following crop requires a full array of nutrients. Even where fertility is good, too much or too little rain can also prevent good growth and breakdown, as can the long British winter and soils that are too heavy to allow enough air for humus to form, so he emphasises that green manures are no easy option.

Howard’s life is a parable of the outspoken, brilliant outsider, even to the nascent Soil Association. For example he left a prominent role at Pusa Experiment Station in 1918 because he felt obstructed by a slow moving status quo, where “The instrument became more important than its purpose”. After struggles for funding, he founded the Indore Institute in 1924, principally to solve the problem of insufficient manure in a country where much manure was being burnt. He developed some large composting operations, and within seven years of starting the first heaps of “Indore compost”, production on the Institute’s land had doubled.

A great scientist, Howard acknowledged the limitations of quantitative measurement and bowed before the wisdom of Nature. On his retirement and return to England in 1934, he relished the challenge of some diseased apple trees in a new garden and set out to restore their health by building up the soil’s humus content. He was content to use the trees’ responses as chief indicator of the validity or otherwise of his approach: “No soil analysis can tell me as much as the trees will.” p167. Or in his most famous quote “the results of humus without any help from artificial manures are written on the land itself” (p3 in Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease).

Charles Dowding is an organic grower, member of the Mother Earth editorial board, and author of several popular books on no-dig growing techniques.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.






We must act now to ban neonicotinoid pesticides for good. Join us.